Thursday, February 26, 2009

Do We Really Learn?

One of the professors in my university's economics department runs an informal book club; you don't get academic credit for showing up, but you do get the satisfaction of intellectual exploration from reading the book we're assigned and discussing it. I bring this up, because it affords me a segue into an interesting tidbit I overheard from a senior at the meeting this week — of all the education systems around the world, most have one purpose: they either exist to suppress heresy by propounding the truth, or they exist to encourage freedom of thought and freedom to explore intellectually.

Now, I think we all can guess which category our very own school system falls under. Students are told not to question. The very atmosphere of our schools stifles the notion that one must be free to explore.

But sometimes I wonder if criticisms of our school system aren't really a problem with the idea that we should teach the one truth. The constant debate about Chinese schools is I think a good example. There's no question that the Chinese schools outperform national schools academically. But the problem I have with our school system in general is that all our schools follow the philosophy of teaching one thing as true, with no room to question it or go beyond it.

If we made all our schools more like Chinese schools, we'd do a fantastic job of indoctrinating our children against heresy and the wrong ideas. But the problem with this is that what is wrong is always changing. The whole point of the scientific method is that we never really know the truth; we always just get a little closer to it. Any theory can always be disposed of if it does not reflect the facts we observe; no scientific theory is truly indispensable.

I believe this is why we don't see much real innovation and actual learning coming out of Malaysia. Ultimately the point of education is to learn; and ultimately once you have exhausted what your teachers know, you must learn for yourself from observing the world around you. In our schools, we do a great job learning from our teachers; we just don't learn how to really learn by ourselves.

So when our scientists are called upon to come up with something new, something that's never been observed before, they can't do it. We know very well how to learn from other people; we don't know how to learn for ourselves from the world around us. That is the problem with the dominant educational philosophy in our schools.

How do we fix this? There's no clear answer for that. But we need to stop going through the motions of education. Let's be honest, really — when we do experiments in school, we're really learning from the teachers, not the experiment. We're not actually observing what's going on in the world; we're observing what our teachers say and parroting their answers.

Knowing how to parrot is a useful skill; our Chinese schools often turn out great parrots, and they go on to do pretty good things. But ultimately nothing can really substitute for knowing how to learn things for yourself, from observing what actually happens and learning from it. We need to reorient the way we teach and the way we run our schools if we want that to happen.


Unknown said...

An excellent piece.
Our systems whether national or vernacular are meant to produce the classic examples of what Huxley aptly described as "elaborately schooled, not educated"!

Anonymous said...

education means developing your mind, not stuffing your memory...

Anonymous said...

It is just political indoctrination when no questions are asked a state is easier to rule and that is what most non-democratic leaders want.

Anonymous said...

"We know very well how to learn from other people; we don't know how to learn for ourselves from the world around us."

Can't say much, I totally agree with the point.

Jeremy said...

Hi John,

Great article. But here are my two cents;

Contrary to what your senior has mentioned about education systems (“they either exist to suppress heresy by propounding the truth, or they exist to encourage freedom of thought and freedom to explore intellectually.”), I honestly do not believe that this is a case of either/or.

The American education system is a great example. They propound freedom, capitalism and democracy. They indoctrinate their citizens with these ideals. That is their ‘truth’ (which is really ironic, I think). However, intellectual freedom is also pretty much rampant in the U.S.A (“Agree to disagree”, much?). Of course you could argue that intellectual freedom is inherent to the mechanisms of freedom, capitalism and democracy. But what I’m trying to say here is that in a system which propounds a certain ‘truth’, you can also nudge a person into saying ‘Hey … is this really right?’. Only then can a person see that ‘truth’ can be subjective as well.

Thus we ask; does our system need fixing? Decidedly so. But not in the way that everyone seems to think. Parroting is still essential and should not be abolished from the system. A good chunk of learning science is through memorization, anyway. But Intellectualism/Scientific inquiry/etc. need not be introduced into our system through suppression of ‘parroting’. Can it not be introduced side by side with memorization? Can we not ask our youth to stop and say ‘Hey, wait a second. Is this even true?’ whilst they are remembering sejarah facts?

We have to remember that individual differences come into play as well. Not EVERYONE wants to explore intellectually. Not EVERYONE wants to disagree with the dominant train of thought. Believe it or not, there are a people who’d rather accept what they’re told. Of course, I don’t have statistics, but I think my point is demonstrable if you go through a mental list of people you know. On the other hand, we have people who are intrinsic questioners. There are people who will question everything.

This is a multi-tiered problem we’re facing. But I suggest the root of the problem starts with the teachers. If we can get our teachers to simply start challenging their students’ notions of ‘truth’ and ‘heresy’, maybe we can get somewhere. Maybe?

LordTaipan said...

Our education system has chugged along over the past 40 years on "auto-pilot" mode. Problem is, its a 40 year old plane that has no auto-pilot capability! If we go on this way, there is only one direction it will go to. Some people have bailed out into private schools, learning centers and homeschooling.

On the surface there are just too many problems. I think, the real problem is leadership or lack of it! With occasional policy speeches and grand launching of policies, politicians and businesses taking the opportunity of providing products & services to the schools, nothing is really happening.

We need decisive and knowledgeable leadership who can engage all stake holders, not provide mere lip-service!

We need leadership that know and can formulate policies in line with global economic, technological and social development. Having said this, a deep rethinking of schools needs to be done. Like learning, we need to go beyond the limitations of our minds. Education need to go beyond schools.

For the sake of our children, change need to happen!

Shawn Tan said...

1) "There's no question that the Chinese schools outperform national schools academically." - I certainly have some questions on this. Do you have the numbers to back up this statement? If you remove the bottom 30% of national school students, how does this affect the numbers? (30% of Chinese school students drop out).

2) I do not agree that any standardised school system encourages freedom of thought and freedom to explore intellectually. It would not be logistically feasible to run such schools. Maybe that's why in some countries, they have 'special' schools for the gifted/challenged and standard schools for everyone else.

Anonymous said...

It's been a long time since I was at school, but I seem to remember teachers telling us to argue and debate?

Binary models of the world are intuitively appealing to people looking for easy arguments, but I'm sure it's a sweeping generalization. Someone above mentioned the US. I can add India, Japan, Australia, Germany, etc., systems which appear to promote a certain orthodoxy but manage to produce great mavericks and alternative thought.

Anonymous said...

Excellent piece, and great two-cents by Jeremy =)

I would like to add a cultural factor on this matter. Most Western cultures strongly promote individualism, in that each individual is unique in his/her personality, thinking or style. By respecting individualism, we encourage independant thinking and expression of thought. This, is lacking in Asian culture, whereby societal approval and conformity to beliefs, religion or rules have conditioned us to accept what it is and resist change.

As a young Malaysian graduate, I have been subjected to this system of conformity, be it culturally or in schools. It was never stifling for me, because I never thought I could do it differently. So it was not just a matter of “students told not to question” but also “not pushed to question”. The latter is crucial because sometimes, we need a trigger to see the need to change and be creative.

My university education in a foreign country was therefore my catalyst to think critically. My exposure to a different culture, values and thinking challenged the parroting-style-of-learning and conformity that I accumulated over the years. In line with Jeremy, I agree that parroting has provided me with the foundation I needed, but I also wished that I had a side-by side “intellectual challenge” per se (perhaps as early as secondary education).

Perhaps what can be done, is to teach our students how to learn, and equip them with the basic skills for self-sufficiency in acquiring knowledge. Of course, teachers need to be trained to gradually direct students towards self-reliance. The desire to learn is always personal, and varies according to interest. The best is to identify the interest early, and then cultivate the desire to learn in that area. Perhaps an internship to place secondary school students in various professions of their interest during school holidays would do the trick.

Soo Huey said...

Nice piece, John. I think from reading several posts in this blog, it is clear a lot of us know what is wrong with our education system. The question is HOW to bring about change.

Relying on our government will be too little too late. Private schools really should not be necessary. I've previously advocated in a blog (can't remember which! maybe here) for intellectuals to come out and be more proactive. I suggested that perhaps university lecturers be encouraged to spend one day a week with an assigned class in secondary school. (Assuming that lecturers are more confident of themselves than teachers.. maybe?) Their role will be to encourage critical discussion and lateral thinking. In the same vein, non-academics can also come out to be more proactive; eg. parents can start book clubs, NGOs can organise public forums on diverse topics to widen knowledge and encourage discussion - I would like to see a centrally-located venue in Penang designated to be a hive of activity, culture and learning, a publicised and frequented venue for forums and discussions. I'm (sort of) on a gap year and have written to my alma mater to volunteer myself to give extra English language lessons to students with very poor command of the language. I'm sure everyone can think of something they can do. With the bleak future we are facing, the time for purely academic discussion has passed.

Like Shawn, I also question if Chinese schools really undoubtedly outperform. The culture in Chinese and national schools are so different and our assessment systems (PMR, SPM, STPM) are so inefficient that it is quite impossible to make a fair comparison of the two school systems. Also, regrettably there is an undeniable socio-economic divide that means that on average students in Chinese schools may come from backgrounds with better exposure and with more encouragement for study. I don't have the numbers to support this, but (if true) would like to offer this as part of the reason why Chinese schools may appear to be better... Not because they have a better system.

Anonymous (2/28/2009 04:50:00PM), I don't ever remember being told to argue and debate. I remember being secretly informed by a teacher that I was being considered for prefectship, but one of the other teachers spoke up against it because she felt intimidated by me - I asked too many questions in class. I was surprised because it was actually one of my favourite classes and I very much enjoyed the discussions. I stopped asking questions after that and stopped paying attention; I can read the textbook on my own and don't need the teacher to read it aloud to me. Certainly no debates in any of my classes!

Totally agree with Amber re individualism!

Anonymous said...

Shawn and Sue Huey,

As a Chinese School graduate I can offer you a few reasons why Chinese school graduates are superior on average, academically. While the evidences are entirely anecdotal, Chinese schools are entirely comparable to the top 30% of standard high school graduates, dropping off the bottom 1/3rd won't help. The reasons:

1. Chinese schools are, sadly, mostly Chinese. Who are historically more inclined to work really hard (or be pushed to work really hard). Now if you drop off the bottom 2/3rds of the public schools... get the picture?

2. Students PAY to enter Chinese high schools for a reason, often not a language-based one. You'd be surprised to hear how many parents send their kids to Chinese schools precisely to escape the horrendously sluggish culture in government schools (similar to the US where urban parents are trying to avoid public schools). What does that say about the familial background advantage these kids have?

3. The more privatized structure in Chinese high schools allow for less red tape, and more flexibility in recruiting talented teachers that do not necessarily have the "right credentials". Teach for America, a wildly successful program here in the US, pretty much works on the same principle: if people have the passion to teach and are knowledgeable, let them. I can't say the same about the underpaying, bottlenecking establishment programs.