Fresh thinking about education

by Sasha Alyson

On other pages of this site, we’ve looked at how the aid industry has made schools worse throughout the global South.

As I write this, many schools are closed because of the coronavirus. This is an opportunity to ask: If you could re-imagine how your society educates its children and prepares them for the future, what would you do?

I asked the question in a Twitter poll. Here are the results:

We got many thoughtful comments, here’s a sample:

@AngieBlue68: Children can learn to solve problems by learning to read and write.
They can develop people skills as they grow.
As for obeying; the word sounds too authoritarian.

@RaptorBuzz: Compassion is the first lesson to learn in a better-off society, whereas solidarity (sense of belonging and group identity) is important for less-developed regions. I consider both of them people skills.

@Johnson_DavidW: Sorry, cannot engage. Why? It’s a raft of false choices:
1) These 4 are not the universe of options
2) They need not, and ought not, be linearly sequenced
3) The child’s age is omitted entirely
4) Different kids will need different emphasis

@BaljeetLion: Learn problem solving skills is second on my list. Get the basics and then apply that through problem solving

@palbergaria: It’s very easy to chose “develop new skills,” but how can one progress during its lifetime without strong capacity to read and write?

@JohnOSullivan36: reading and writing is key. No child should be going to school without rudimentary skills

@lovingdsize_pcy: Treating people w kindness is important for me, anything related to human-being growth because a child’s mentality is molded through their younger years wc influences their future self and lives

@KRudence: People skills are developed at home – solve problems

Limitations of the poll

We sent this as a Twitter “promotion,” so fewer than 5% of the responses came from people who follow us, which would have been an atypical group. Even so, this isn’t a scientifically random sampling, it’s people who use Twitter, who chose to respond to a poll about education.

And as several people noted, the list had to be greatly over-simplified to stay within the 280-character limit of a tweet. So it’s nothing more than a starting point, for further thinking. If this got some people to talk with others about what education really means, then it served a useful purpose.

A longer list

That list was artificially short. For the past four years, I’ve been deeply involved in setting up a school in Laos (it’s grown to three schools now) that tries to provide the best education we can, in the circumstances we’re in. I’ve had lots of time to read, think, and talk with others about how to do this. Here, I’ll list some of my conclusions. Not all are possible at any given time and place, and some may not be right in some situations. This is still only a starting-point for discussion.

  • It must be controlled locally. (That is, within the country, and often on an even smaller scale.) For a quarter century, Western-run NGOs and U.N. agencies have played an outsized role in setting education policy in the global South. They pushed a one-size-fits-all approach, in which getting all children into school was the only goal; they did not even ask whether children learned anything at all. That has been every bit as disastrous as it sounds. Greater local accountability will reduce such idiocy.
  • Basic math and literacy are important. But these don’t need to consume much of our attention. Children easily, and eagerly, pick up these skills in the right setting. A rote-based school is the wrong setting.
  • Children should interact with all ages. One teacher cannot possibly meet the varied needs of 30 (or 60, or 150) students. But children can help each other learn, and are eager to do so – in the right setting. As societies get richer, they become more likely to push aside elders who have much to offer, and to gain, from helping children learn skills. Traditional societies don’t do this, but Western-style schools have pushed them in that direction.
  • Education doesn’t need to happen in a school. There should be options. Some children thrive in the schools we have now, although they might do even better in other settings. For others, the current system is a disaster. We do not have one-size-fits-all children.
  • The best education will regularly involve doing useful work. Through this, children learn practical skills, they learn inter-personal skills, they develop a sense of responsibility.
  • Children should have time and support to develop a passion – whether that is reading, or math, or breakdancing, or singing, or cooking, or gardening, or making go-carts. There will be many positive benefits in terms of the life skills they acquire.
  • Projects that involve setting a goal – and the child should be involved in that decision – then trying to achieve it, solving problems and perhaps changing strategies on the way – will prepare children for adulthood, better than spending hours at a desk, trying to remember just what the teacher says.
  • We’ll need to evaluate education approaches as we go, and we can tell a lot by simply asking, “Are children excited by what they’re doing?” This isn’t foolproof. We could offer all-day video games, and some children we’d never see again. But if we are forcing children to do something that bores them, for hours at a time, we are throwing away the time of life that they could be happy and learning.
  • Children themselves should have a voice in all this. I’d say this is their right. Others may not agree, but there are further reasons. They’ll do better, they’ll be more motivated. And learning to make decisions is among the most important skills they’ll need in life. They need to get practice.

What’s next?

If you’re not happy with school quality where you live, why not talk to others — children (and parents), neighbors, colleagues, teachers, officials — to share ideas about the education that each of you thinks is important? Make your own list, using any of these ideas that you like. Talk alone won’t change anything, but it’s a necessary first step. You’re not the only one who believes things could be better!

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