Education is not about cookie cutting or making monkeys or parrots

ALL educated people are not crooks but most crooks are educated people. People who engage in scams and corruption of the highest order are all educated. Most schemers and devious individuals are educated.

One would argue why can’t uneducated or illiterate individuals also be crooks and devious people? Well, yes, they can also be crooks but the sphere of their negative influence would not be as large as the sphere of negative-minded educated people. One can’t argue about the significant extent of damage that an educated crook person can cause to the world, especially if the person is also influential and powerful in professional, social or political domains.

“What matters, therefore, is the type of education that one has received and not whether a person is educated or not. An educated person lacking social responsibility and selfless empathetic care may be deemed more uneducated than an illiterate person.”

In disappointment and disgust against the current world affairs, I posted my following thoughts on Twitter on 13 February 2020, without realising in that moment that my thoughts could potentially be misrepresented and grossly misinterpreted:

“Fearful Ignorance and general naivety of the people are cleverly exploited by the wealthy and powerful amongst them. These are the prime reasons why and how deceptive individuals come to rule over them. Ignorance and illiteracy are curses and causes of doom and tears.” – Bill Koul 

From the term ‘illiteracy’, I had actually meant ‘education’. Mere literacy is not good enough; education goes much beyond literacy.

As such, education is commonly claimed as a panacea for curing all societal ills and poverty. True, but   what does ‘education’ really mean? When does it start and when does it end? How does education happen? Answers to these questions are practically person specific – who is asking and who is answering. As such, we may potentially have 7.8 billion answers to these questions, same as the current world population. The term ‘education’ is one of the most loosely used terms in the everyday narrative; other terms being ‘love’, ‘respect’ and ‘human’. Don’t blame the politicians and so-called uneducated people, not many so-called educated people, including many educationists, may really know what it is really all about? For most, ‘education’ is just another job – as business – a source of earning.

Educationists may attempt to use scholarly jargon in their answers to the above questions – to keep things limited to their exclusive group – but if they can’t explain things to a lay person, how do they expect to bring about a practical change for the better in the world through this panacea called ‘education’? So, before we attempt to answer these questions here, let us first look at what education is not about. The whole process may appear to be rather reductive, but solely for the purpose of simplicity.

What is ‘not’ education?

The purpose of education is not to make parrots or monkeys. Education is not any of the following:

  • Cookie cutting;
  • Creating photocopies of one another;
  • Making intellectual snobs and show-offs;
  • About transferring a load (or a burden) of knowledge – gained, created or borrowed – by a teacher to a student;
  • Rote learning and cramming knowledge; or
  • Assessments and scoring marks.

What is education?

Education is all of the following:

  • Discovering oneself and one’s relationship with the world around us and beyond – cosmos;
  • Becoming free and fearless – from one’s inhibitions and fears, social stigmas and taboos, unfounded beliefs and slavery;
  • Becoming responsible global citizens;
  • Becoming humble, empathetic and caring;
  • Learning to think independently, uninhibited, critically and be able to ask questions;
  • Inculcating common sense, which is fast becoming uncommon thanks to mechanisation of life;
  • Researching and continuous learning from the open book of life;
  • Learning how and where to find the answers;
  • Enlightening the human mind and enhancing the human well-being;
  • Knowing one’s limitation and accepting what one does not know; and
  • A never ending process till one’s last breath. Education never stops with formal education.

“A school may not have a building or boastful fancy features; a school is not a school if it does not have a teacher. A school is not a good school if it does not have a good teacher. A good school can never become a world-class institution if it does not have a world-class teacher.”

The author remembers teaching a number of engineering subjects to three batches of displaced (migrant) students of Civil Engineering – from Regional Engineering College, Srinagar, Kashmir (now NIT Srinagar) – about 30 years ago – on the lawns of Jammu Polytechnic and sometimes, when lucky, using a concrete water tank or on old rusted school bus as blackboard. All students passed with flying colours the semester examination conducted by Kashmir University. Adversity leads to innovation.

Pedagogical challenges

Academic education without research and experimentation to understand the practical relevance of what is being thought is useless and short-lived. A teacher is seen as someone who transfers knowledge to students, which is true to an extent but is that all?

“How much content knowledge does the teacher truly have about the subject matter? Is the teacher continuously involved in the personal professional development – in both teaching methods and the subject matter – and abreast with the related global research? Most importantly, is the teacher aware about his or her own limitations?”

Teachers must remember that knowledge is ever-growing, and not stagnant. With each moment, the envelope of knowledge keeps pushing forward the boundaries of human imagination. This realisation must make teachers humble in their self-assessment and the assessment of students.

If a teacher can’t explain the subject matter to students in their native language – using anecdotes, metaphors and examples from the everyday life – the teacher has seemingly not understood the subject matter himself / herself. How can one expect real education happening with such a teacher?

Honesty by teachers is a must. If a teacher can’t explain problem – because the teacher himself / herself has not fully understood the subject matter in the first place and/or is not able to converse fluently in the medium of instruction (e.g. English in a vastly Hindi-speaking India), the teacher must be honest in admitting, ‘I don’t know, let us work together on this’ and then earnestly assist the student to find the answer. That is how the great philosopher, Socrates, learnt and taught.

“Mentors and mentees can be likened to teachers and students, respectively. In many cases, the roles of mentors and mentees get exchanged after they have moved some distance in the journey of education – learning and teaching – guiding and facilitating. In many such cases, the mentee grows much more than the mentor’s experience and capability and the mentor just can’t keep up, causing the reversal of the process of mentoring. Such is the nature of education, it never stops and the direction is never constant.”

Teachers try to penalise ‘bad’ students. But are there really bad students? Students are students; there can be difficult – stubborn and mischievous – students but not bad students. Young people are expected to be mischievous; it is their age to be defiant and left of the middle. Unfortunately, the system gives the teacher implicit right to physically and/or mentally punish ‘bad’ student for whatever reasons. Why should learning come with punishment? Where about teacher’s empathy, proactive care and respect for inherent human dignity?

If a teacher becomes angry when a student asks questions and shows his / her anger – by rising voice, threatening to fail in exams or using a rod – how can that teacher inculcate critical thinking?

If a student, immediately after taking the final examination, honestly tries to answer a question related to his / her subject matter, which requires common sense and critical thinking – using logic, rationale and even a reductive process – and not come up with common excuses, such as this was not covered in the classroom or this was not in our syllabus, the student can be deemed to have met the objectives of education and treading the path of true learning.

Classroom environment

We talk about improving ‘classroom environment’ for improving the student performance? Do we know how much do home and social environments – socio-political, socio-economic, socio-religions environments – affect a student’s learning? How many teachers are aware about the baggage – mental and psychological – a student may be bringing to the classroom?

“A GOOD SHEPHERD is one who proactively cares for his flock or herd and is always humane. He bonds with them spiritually. He walks with them physically, in rain and shine, and never abandons them. If you don’t know your flock or herd well enough, don’t even think of leading it.”

When evaluating a student’s performance, how many teachers factor in what goes on in the student’s life – physical, mental and / or sexual abuse at home by a family member, or by a street bully on the street between home and school, or by a bus bully in the school bus, or by a school bully within the school premises, or by a classroom bully?

How many teachers try to understand why a student does not like them or their subject? How many teachers interact with their students with genuine respect and treat their so-called ‘academically poor’ or ‘difficult’ students with empathy and genuine care? History is full of anecdotes about how empathetic, caring teachers have turned around the lives of ‘academically poor’ students from especially the economically disadvantaged strata pf the society, or ‘difficult’ students from the affluent and influential class.

Teachers who believe have the right to be uncouth and treat students with scorn and disrespect, or punish them, or see them as inferior, or believe they oblige their students, don’t deserve to be in the teaching profession.

“Discussions and disagreements are necessary for the growth of knowledge in a vibrant classroom. Teachers – with temper – and lacking patience, prudence and empathetic care must not be in the teaching profession.”

In addition to class rooms, learning and teaching can also happen in out-of-classroom environments – in natural settings, such as playgrounds or in Nature, on grass under trees. Literature, mathematics (arithmetic, geometry and trigonometry) and sciences (natural and physics) can also be effectively studied and discussed in suitable open environments.

Unless learning environment is made unregimented, informal and enjoyable, learning will not become easier or faster. Students must love their learning environment before their development can take place.

Teaching as profession

Do students attend school only for learning the subject matter? Should they not attend school also for becoming empathetic and responsible global citizens – as we all live in a global village – and learn the skills to think independently and critically, to use common sense and how to access the available literature to seek answers for their queries.

Unfortunately, the existing system places the lives of young student in the hands of so-called teachers and teaching institutions some of whom may not be suited to come even close to dealing with students.

How many top students go for teaching profession after Year 12 or even after their Bachelor’s degree?

As can be expected, many teachers are not in the teaching profession by their choice. They may have considered it as a fall-back profession, to put food on the plate. They may have originally wanted to become scientists, engineers or doctors but, for lack of resources at the time of the start of their tertiary education, or failure to secure admission due to high merit, reservations and/or competition, they may have been compelled to consider other less-desired options.

On the other end of the spectrum, some people who naturally love to exercise control and power over other people, albeit in the name of rendering service, eventually move in that direction – management and administration – even after getting their first degrees in engineering, commerce, economic, law or even medicine. Apparently, they may never have had enough love for the area of their first degree. In the process, they just waste a previous seat in their Bachelor’s degree, which could have gone to a more deserving student who would have loved that profession but could not get the seat in the first place for aforementioned reasons. Such students, who eventually end up in teaching profession, are expected to live with a lifelong regret of not becoming what they wanted to become originally, sometimes with a vengeance.

Empathy and proactive care are necessary for a teacher to connect with students. Teachers who lack these characteristics must not be teachers in the first place. These characteristics are natural and can’t be taught or imbibed through common teacher training.

“Develop a teacher to develop a country and the wider world. States must invest heavily in teacher education.”

Going forward

Life is not only about survival. Life is for living – with a lifelong learning mindset – happily, truthfully and responsibly. Human development can’t be measured by the wealth and assets of a very few but by the living standards of the most. Why we do what we do and how we do? These are the questions that we must constantly keep asking ourselves. Becoming human machines is not human development.

We talk about world-class education without even being remotely aware what we are talking about.

“Vocational training must be made necessary at all levels of schools and college education.”

Not all students can become rocket scientists. Tertiary education is not for all. This hard fact must be recognised at all levels of the society and administration. Through a delicate and subtle screening process, the system must ensure that it does not install square pegs in round holes or the other way round. Just because a student wants to become a doctor does not mean that student deserves to be doctor. The student’s temperament and aptitude must align with the student’s enthusiasm. The student should be able to explain – not through coaching at coaching centres or coaching by parents – but himself / herself why he/ she wants to become a doctor. For such aptitude assessments, the screening process must be clever enough to screen out the impostors.

The school system should seamlessly provide separate pathways to students based on their individual aptitude – vocational or tertiary education – to pursue their natural interests, with each pathway providing equal respect, dignity and means of decent livelihood. In no case, should students – under their parental or societal influence – be allowed to choose pathways for which they are not naturally cut out. Just because a certain profession can potentially bring one immense wealth and influence does not mean one should chose that profession, especially if one’s temperament is not suited to that profession. This needs a significant shift in the societal paradigm. Some societies value some professions relatively much higher than the rest, solely based on the wealth and influence people earn in those professions. Not every student can become a civil servant, doctor or an engineer. For that matter not every student needs to go to university to pursue tertiary education.

A shift in the societal paradigm is possible only when a society recognises and embraces the dignity of labour and develops genuine respect for work – any work – irrespective of the type of work or the profession – whether manual or intellectual. Only by enabling such a positive shift in the mindset of the society at large can the educational system produce right fits for right jobs, as it should be, without compulsions.

Currently, educational institutions and teachers are just functioning as cookie cutters – who produce zombies, monkeys, parrots or robots. No wonder mental health of the youth is a growing issue. Ask anyone student why do you go to school (school, college or university) and the answer will tell you the reality.

“Education should be holistic – about the whole person – ethical, moral, physical and scholarly – be able to develop an open mind, which is capable of thinking independently and seeking answers – and not follow blind – and challenge the existing knowledge.”

Teaching is not a job like any other job and, therefore, must not be considered as one. It is supposed to be a fine delicate service, which must be rendered only by naturally gifted humans – with natural aptitude for learning and teaching – towards their fellow humans, and the planet as a whole. It can’t be dealt by any Tom Dick or Harry. The teachers must have a natural aptitude to become teachers – rather facilitators. The hard fact is we can’t make such teachers – they come naturally. So the challenge is to find them at a young age and then facilitate their development by senior teachers who themselves are naturally gifted. Practically, therefore, a complete shift in the paradigm is required.

“Education should be constructivist – help to extract the student’s own, original, independent understanding of the subject matter and develop it further.” 

To start with, the state must fully own and run the education system, allocate the largest chunk of funding towards education and for continuous teacher development, review the entire pedagogical structure and learning environment, invest in community and adult education, review and reform the assessment structure and give greater autonomy to the teacher in terms of how to teach the subject matter and how to assess the student aptitude.

How to find naturally gifted future teachers, who may have aptitude for teaching? The answer is: In the same way as we find young men to become soldiers, bureaucrats, engineers and doctors. Their selection process must include a multi-level assessment – physical and mental fitness; psychological, ethical and moral health; human values – empathy, self-control and patience and interpersonal communication skills – imagination, intelligence and wisdom.

Why do we need such stringent assessment to identify them? Because they are the ones who are meant to develop our future citizens. They must be rewarded with the highest possible salary of all professionals – with attractive perks and incentives – because they are the cream of the cream of the society.

Only when a high benchmark is set for teacher selection, a high benchmark is automatically set for the country. Unless education is focused on human development, a country will not develop.

Important notes: This article reflects the author’s independent thoughts on the subject matter, which are primarily based on his personal observations and experiences, both as a student and a teacher. The objective of this article is to challenge the traditional thought and the current practices. The author, a professional engineer, does not claim to be an expert in the field of education.

This article may appear to be offensive to some politicians and some members of the privileged class from the upper 10 to 20 percent of the socio-economic strata. As they have been part of the problem, the author expects them to offer a stiff resistance to the message that this article aims to deliver.

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