Thursday, March 13, 2008

More Thoughts on Education

Expounding more on my previous blog entry, here's my way of approaching the subject using lateral thinking. In the past, arms and armor have typically been custom-made. Purchasing a full plate off the counter of a shop was highly unlikely because the suit had to fit you. While swords and blades were more common, no one can deny that a sword specifically crafted to be wielded by a person or your strength and size was superior compared to a sword randomly picked up from the dead bodies in battle. It is only in a post-industrial revolution era that people have grown accustomed to mass-produced goods such as canned food, automobiles, and computer chips. So what has this to do with education?

Well, the problem with the existing school system is that education isn’t tailored to suit the needs of any specific individual. Instead, it is a process not unlike army conscription and recruits are indoctrinated into what the institution deems them fit to learn. Specific needs are thrown out of the window in favor of techniques that address the majority of the population. Which is all well and good for the majority but what about the minority? Or better yet, what if the minority IS the majority and we have been expending resources all this time to teach the few (or as the case may be, the wealthy, the influential, the privileged)?

There are typically two ways to teach a student. One is for the student to adapt to the teacher and the other is for the teacher to adopt to the student. In the typical classroom set-up, it is unlikely that the teacher will opt for the latter. Instead, we have a process of passing and failing, which is just another way of saying that the student was unable (or in the case of the delinquent student, did not want) to adapt to the teacher’s particular teaching style (which in turn is typically dictated by the school and applies the same pass-or-fail method in its hiring policies).

That’s not to say this is always the case. Every school will have the “eccentric” teacher with unconventional teaching styles (I once had a teacher who taught in song and, given the choice, would have danced as well). But for the most part, they are the exception rather than the norm. That is why certain individual teachers will develop reputations in schools and universities—most people like to think that these teachers are famous (or infamous as the case may be) because they are bright and talented but I like to think that what sets them apart is not necessarily their intelligence but their particular teaching style and paradigm. It is also for the same reason that "conventional" students are baffled and flabbergasted when faced with such teachers (I had a teacher who claims to have given a True/False exam where all the statements were true... the students ended up sabotaging themselves as they second-guessed themselves and labeled random statements as false).

There are also other institutions out there that attempt to teach the same things a typical school tries to indoctrinate into its students albeit via different means. A new form of education that has arisen in the late 20th century is home school education—which really isn’t any different from private tutoring except that the tutors are typically the parents or better yet, the student themselves. Private tutors are another example although the results may vary: some tutors do adapt to their students while others are as rigid as any teacher trained by schools. But for the most part, private tutors are more suited to adapt to the needs of their student since they are only catering to one patron instead of schools wherein rations of 40:1 (if not higher) is possible (if not the norm).

And to be fair, it is also not the teacher’s fault. Your typical school teacher might be flexible but the rules that are imposed on them aren't. Typically, standard policy is to treat everyone equally. Now this might sound fair but in reality, this is an inefficient method of teaching. Let’s face it: we all learn in different ways and we all have different strengths and weaknesses. A student might be having difficulty with reading because he or she comprehends the spoken word more. That doesn’t mean he or she is less smarter than a person who is a voracious reader, merely that his or her comprehension skills function in different ways. I’m not saying schools don’t answer this dilemma. To a certain extent, they do. Dyslexia for example requires a special kind of education. There are also various remedial classes (remedial math, remedial English, remedial Filipino) for those failing in a certain subject. But for the most part, I do not think the individual needs are addressed and students are forced to cope with the existing method of instruction.

That I think is part of the problem with education in general although when it comes to the Philippines, that problem is heightened by our current social factors. For example, some students are better suited to learning in English while others are better suited to learning in Filipino. Whatever technique the teacher favors, the other type of student is losing out. The same goes for our textbooks which are less malleable (unless they are bilingual). Education has lots its individuality and become this engine of mass production instead of recognizing what Plato and other Greek philosophers realized when they set up the first academies: education was inquisitive, dynamic and fluid which is why no written text could replace a human being as a teacher.

When our education system is criticized, blame is attached to various sources but I do not think they truly address the problem. Teachers are blamed. The schools are blamed. Government policy is blamed. But ultimately I think, even if you change any or all of those factors, we will still have an education dilemma. Because the flaw in the system isn't in the method we choose but in our inflexibility, of dictating one particular style instead of applying a plurality of techniques.

I’m fortunate to have either a) managed to cope with the current education system or b) one of the few whom the current education system actually favors. But just because I benefited from it does not necessarily mean that the current system benefits the entire populace. Going back to Myths About Languages in the Philippines, I expect English teachers to speak and communicate in English with some proficiency and the same goes for Filipino. But as for the other subjects (exempting foreign languages), I can live with anything in between. In desperate times, Tag-lish has been used by either the student or the teacher to best express their ideas and for me that's fine, as long as the point is gotten across. But many schools lack that flexibility, and perhaps our biggest dilemma is that people are looking for the grand universal theory that will solve all of the country's ills even when the truth of the matter is, life is seldom that simple. Don't look for a single answer. Look for a lot of them, and just because you find one does not mean you should stop. That path leads to stagnancy and contentment (contentment is well and good but it also hampers progress and innovation).

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