Schooling and education are two different things

by Sasha Alyson

The United Nations has convinced much of the world that getting more children enrolled in school is the same as expanding education. The consequences have been devastating.

Consider the following:

Worldwide, most children are “taught” via rote memorization.

Especially in the global South, most schools group children by age, put them in a classroom facing a teacher and a blackboard, and teach them to pass the test.

The result is especially chilling in developing regions, where far too many teachers feel they have succeeded if they can ask a question, and students immediately, in unison, without thinking, shout out the “right” answer. It’s the only system these teachers have ever known.(1) But a nation of parrots is not a well-educated nation.

Education is much broader than the 3 R’s.

These schools try – not always successfully – to teach reading and math, plus basic science, history, geography, etc. But this is only a smattering of what children need, to develop into happy, well-adjusted adults who contribute to their community and society. Any full list would surely include the following:

Habits and life skills: Critical thinking. Self-control. Perseverance. Dependability. Creativity. Planning ahead. Judgment. And using your mobile phone wisely.

Interpersonal skills. Sharing. Communication. Social awareness. Negotiation. Honesty. Cooperating — also competing in appropriate contexts. And a moral compass.

Life-enriching skills. Music, art, sports, handicrafts, dance, cooking, poetry, story-telling. Also building a tree-house, helping someone learn to read, enjoying a long mountain hike. These may become income-producing skills, but that shouldn’t be the goal of introducing them to children. They enrich people’s lives.

You don’t learn these from a teacher and a blackboard. You develop them through real-life experiences, by doing things with others or sometimes alone, by being guided and mentored but not “taught” the right answer. As school systems scramble to get more children into classrooms for more hours, and to boost test scores (largely without success) these are forgotten. Meanwhile, family and community now see “education” as what happens at the school, and think less about their own role in helping children develop.

U.N. policies are a major cause of the focus on memorization.

Every human society has educated its young – it would have perished otherwise. Indigenous societies didn’t do it with schools. They used various combinations of family chores, work, unsupervised play, apprenticeship, talk, imitation – and, yes, sometimes memorization. But the memorization was for an actual purpose, not to pass a test.

In the words of a Kenyan scholar: “[T]he most crucial aspect of pre-colonial African education was its relevance to Africans, in sharp contrast with what was later introduced.”(2)

Colonialism changed that. Western missionaries built schools for a range of motives, from altruism to paternalism to indoctrination. Colonial powers needed schools to produce obedient clerks. None of them wanted to encourage real thinking. Even after the colonies became politically independent, Western influence remained strong and Western-style schooling continued.(3)

In 2000, the U.N. launched its Millennium Development Goals. Goal #2, Education, focused only on enrollment, it ignored the question of whether children learned anything.(4) This was a flawed goal right from the start. Schools couldn’t handle the rapid influx of new students, and quality declined.

In the years that followed, after many observers pointed that out, the U.N. could have changed this goal. It did change other goals but not this one, and in 2015 U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced unprecedented success for the MDGs. The education goal was a great success, said the U.N., because more children than ever were in school. In 2015 the new Sustainable Development Goals add the word “quality” when referring to education, but in practice, both the U.N. and Western NGOs continue to focus on enrollment. They have no idea how to improve education quality, but lip service is enough for them to keep their jobs.

To be sure, the U.N. does not push for rote memorization. Quite the opposite. As you read these words, somewhere UNICEF is running a workshop about “child-centered” education. But by setting enrollment as the goal, wringing its hands occasionally about children not learning (and thus, UNICEF needs more funding to fix that), the U.N. created the incentives that have resulted in teach-for-the-test memorization, with no regard for whether children are learning.

A schooling monoculture.

The U.N. preaches diversity, but practices the opposite – on many levels.

Individually, children need diverse experiences. Instead, they get too many hours in the classroom, trying to memorize what the teacher says – or looking out the window, or looking at their neighbor’s ear, whichever is most interesting at that moment. And when they don’t do well on the test, “educators” call for more of the same, rather than realizing that students could make rapid progress in a setting which recognizes what is by now widely known: Children learn best by seeing, doing, copying, experimenting, asking questions, exploring their limits, following their imaginations, interacting with other ages… all the things that have no place in today’s classroom.

Within a school, different children need to learn different things, in different ways. Some will benefit from having more time to develop their musical skills, or writing a complex computer program, or just several hours a day to read. Society needs the diverse adults that this will produce.

Within a country, needs also vary. Children in the countryside may benefit from an extra dollop of agriculture science, and their school may need to accommodate those who miss several months at a time because of farm work.

Globally, the world desperately needs to experiment with different approaches to education. We do not know how a developing country can best educate its children. That is glaringly obvious, even if those in charge would rather recite enrollment figures than admit the problem. The U.N. pushes a one-size-fits-all approach, as if it has the answers. But it’s not even asking the necessary questions.

There are individual teachers and administrators who recognize all this, and heroically attempt to create an environment where children will thrive. But they are swimming against a strong current. Rarely do they succeed. They are more likely to get fired.

Rote memorization prepares children for low-pay, dead-end jobs — assembly line work, or cleaning hotel rooms. It creates neither the employees needed for more complex jobs, nor the entrepreneurs to create them. It’s time to stop mindlessly pushing more children into schools, and instead ask hard questions about what does, and does not, work.

Comments from Twitter

We announced this story on Twitter, where readers made these comments. Please add your own comments at the bottom of this page.

uche cei, @uchecei: This is a beautiful article. The system is flawed (and someone else sees this.) I hope we can have a discussion on rote learning/memorization as it applies to aptitude tests by recruiters. I still can’t fathom how these tests are a proof of intelligence and ability to do the job.

Freeboy, @Freeboy85238608: Great read. Liked the lip service part and most younger from the 90s & 2000s imo its now cram, pass & forget no familiarisation. I remember at one time asking a cousin if they watch NatGeo or any news Channel , the ansa i got was “for what”

Melody, @Lyrikz2: You have been a very very commendable and selfless voice for the masses.

The gecko, @SupertechW: Wonderful piece. Just a question, can the UN influence member countries to change their education system? In my home country (Kenya), a new education system was introduced and it faced major backlash from Book publishers and Teachers’ unions…I guess they had a lot to lose.
[Sasha: Yes, the UN and Western NGOs have a great deal of influence, and aren’t shy about using it. In a future story I’ll look at how diverse countries have all come to adapt the same school structures (K-12, children sorted by age, emphasis on tests, lots of rote, etc.) And it’s a disaster throughout the developing world. But, as you note, there are now financial interests, as well as UN agencies, that don’t want it to change.]

Tim, @tfoleylife: As it currently exists, school is a socially accepted form of child abuse.

Esther, @Esther67406176: I agree with you. Just like Ivan Illich said to compare school with education is similar with comparing going to church with salvation.

Eli Braille, @megawhelmed: One of our biggest problems at the moment is the number of people who can’t /won’t think but believe they are highly educated.

Millennial_Capitalist., @Black_JPMorgan: I can tell you categorically this is a perfect description of Nigeria’s current education system. We have a culture that stifles creativity and abhors critical thinking or problem solving. Tote memorization is destroying what education should be. We don’t build in Africa and …

Reshma J, @Beconsciousresh: Colonial practices of schooling have ruined ‘education’ by its very objective and true essence of developing child’s mind, body, heart and soul! Excellent piece on how schooling gradually parted ways from education amongst class rooms and chalk ‘n talk

Dr. Lukman Olusesim @dokitasesi: I agree. Just like advocating for mass promotion despite woeful academic performance to give the impression of efficient school system.

Abdisalam Yassin, @AbdisalamYassi1: Excellent article and an excellent argument.Though the 3Rs are useful, they must lead to most useful education ie critical thinking, exploration and discovery, practical skills, and learning by doing.These methods are challenging and more engaging. That’s why rote replaces it.

Maurice Omollo, @MauriceOmollo2: What a great reality about our education systems that all our policy makers should address.

I’m glad, @mae_onowan: One day we’ll talk about the awfulness of most boarding schools in Nigeria. I don’t understand how one needs to suffer to have an education. Yes, it’s suffering!

Notes and Sources

1. How widespread is this “teach for the test” approach to schooling? That seems like an important question, but I can’t find much research. I conducted a Twitter poll to 15 diverse countries, asking which of 4 things their schools taught most strongly. In 14 countries, ranging from Nigeria to Thailand to the USA, more people marked “Pass the test” than the other three choices combined. In Japan, “Pass the test” got the most votes, but less than half the total. Full story and country-by-country results at: What do schools actually teach?

2. “Colonialism and Education,” by Oba Nwanosike and Liverpool Eboh Onyije, in Proceedings of the 2011 International Conference on Teaching, Learning and Change.

3. Some countries did make great strides in education soon after independence. In just four years, until his assassination in 1987, Thomas Sankara initiated a grassroots literacy campaign in Burkina Faso, to great effect. I have not found any comprehensive look at how education systems evolved in Africa and Asia in the quarter century or so after independence, before the education sector became dominated by the aid industry. If any reader can recommend something, I’ll be grateful.

4. In saying that enrollment was the U.N. goal, I’ve simplified. The U.N. goal was “Ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.” This seems to be calling for access, not enrollment, but the U.N. has consistently reported it by using enrollment figures. To get enrollment numbers up, many countries began enforcing compulsory-schooling laws. Note also that actual attendance is different from enrollment. While there’s no good, comprehensive data, reports I’ve found suggest that in developing regions, about 20% of enrolled students do not actually attend. Nor do about 20% of teachers.

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42 thoughts on “Schooling and education are two different things

    • Make a list of the alternatives, do an in depth research on them, point out the merits and demerits, make a cross comparison between the alternatives and the regular western education, make recommendations on how to improve the structure of these alternatives then make a conclusion.

  1. When the truth makes your heart sink… I second the fabricated data statement as a research data collector in South Africa.

  2. This article resonates with the kind of schooling we have in Nigeria. As a child in primary school in Britain, I wrote a poem that was read out to the whole school. I returned to Nigeria at the age of seven in 1966. I spent the rest of my school days cramming multiplication tables 1-12. I never wrote another poem.
    Today, it’s the private schools that teach the life skills, interpersonal skills,etc but those life enhancing and enriching skills, including critical think need to become part of the curriculum in public schools. In other words our government should integrate into it’s education policy.
    I hope the Nigerian Education Research Council get a hold of articles, like this one and adapt locally.

    • Absolutely amazing, positive, out of the box thoughts! Fortunately, for me and my brothers, we grew up on a farm. Our parents were progressive thinkers and encouraged us to use our minds and learn the do’s and don’ts of life! Boarding school taught us the rote side, and what we don’t really need to become successful adults! PARENTS take note. YOU CONTROL YOUR CHILDREN’S EDUCATION! ……!!

  3. A Great read and thought provoking, i have asked my self on several occasions, if the rote memorization education system is helping any Nation or we are just concerned on how to know how to read and write?

    • Good. But here’s the key point: It won’t change by itself. A lot of people make good salaries, profits, and get other benefits from the system as it is now. If you want change, you’ll need to talk with others about the problems you, and they, see. Point them out to others. And discuss, in your particular situation and country, what you can do.

      • Interesting and valid points. But a question: if the rote learning is worldwide how come the adverse effects are only felt in the global south AKA ex-colonial countries and Africa?

      • Thanks for commenting, probably other people wonder, too. The effects are felt in most countries, but they are strongest in the regions you mention. In the West, schools have evolved over a couple of centuries. Enrollments and capacity increased only to the extent that people felt schools were providing some benefits. In former colonies, on the other hand, the timeframe is greatly compressed. The West has used its money and influence to push compulsory, universal schooling as THE key to development. But these countries don’t have the resources to copy the best aspects of Western schooling, and the U.N. has emphasized enrollment as the sole essence of education, so they end up filling the schools and using the easiest, cheapest method: Rote memorization.

  4. The best education starts with good family,
    And good family starts with good home.
    Children listen better to their guardians.

  5. Wow. Am struggling with schooling my children. Apart from the expense, the benefit of traditional schooling is not evident. I went through formal schooling and find that those without the much-hyped cerificates live life and attack it and in the end have a much healthier financial grounding.

    The change to anything else is a long and difficult one especially when basic requirements like a home are not there. Never mind all other things.

  6. The article is a stimulating read, even for someone unconnected with the education domain. The phenomenon highlighted for Africa is the exact same in India. A system intended to indoctrinate an alien population and generate clerks at best, when degraded, does even worse. This has even proven downright counterproductive, from a society-wide perspective. It is almost farcical to be sending children to school but there is no alt-system on the horizon. As youngsters grow up, it gradually dawns upon (some of) them that they could be doing quite something else with much more dexterity, but few hold the self-belief to steer their lives over to what they would rather do and enjoy doing.

    A wonder-system would be one that grooms pre-adolescent kids into knowing and accepting themselves; recognises the tender shoots of their likes & instincts; and then transfers them to mentors of their choice available around them for a certain, but flexible, period of real education. In such a system, it would befall every adult to take responsibility of one, or more, mentees as a necessary social obligation supervised by a set of elders. In such a system, experts and professionals from all walks of life would become available as teachers. Nothing could be more enriching than learning trades and tricks from those actually perfoming them for livelihoods. Education in a society of traditional artisans (balutedaar) of yestercenturies meant and delivered something like this. If colonialism, coupled with industrialisation, has done something seriously wrong, it is the loss of faith among all men & women in their ability earn truly skills-based livelihoods. Societies have turned themselves over to a system of outside jobs that an entrepreneur must create for them.

    This will create a society of people with the right moral values and operative skills, a bit like growing your own food instead of depending in entirety on an outsourced farm & food market system, and is worth giving it a good go by refining the base concept into a workable model, at least within small communities to start with.

    • My only question is, what can be done to solve this problem? Fact is, almost all developing countries have this problem. You realize that the system intends to keep children far away from practices that would be helping them grow with the help of their parents. A case in point is UGANDA, kids who are day scholars will be at school by 5am and and come back at 10pm in the night. All in the name of remedial lessons and syllabus coverage. You ask yourself, when will this childs parent ever sit to learn what the kid like or dislikes.

  7. I thought I was the only one having problem with the education system in Nigeria. The system has produced thousands of graduates with no little or no clue on what to do with their lives and we’re still counting. To make it worse one can even buy the certificate these thousands laboured for with stepping foot on the walls of the school.

  8. In response to @uchecei, rote memorialization is indeed not accurate test of intelligence because there are A+ students who did better in theoretical… Expression than in multiple options that rote memory interplay with.
    This is an amazing write up for me because I’m a teacher at the tertiary level in the global south (postcolonial) and often, I get students coming into higher level education without any idea of basic information. So, I spend half of the semester on a memory lane. Through that process, I identify potential and extra-time attention students and encourage interactions and competitiveness. In a sense, I give each student a voice rather than note-taking and dictation. By the time they move to the next class, colleagues ask how I worked on them because they’ve all be classified as dullards. I also encourage them to apply for scholarships even if they did not get it, it prepares them for opportunities, critical approach to addressing needs and positive perspectives to life.
    In my view, UN/Unicef have not justified their essence, but rather; they have created complicated human beings and indirectly a complex world with compound-complex conflict.
    What we have in Africa especially is doctrinal system of education that in no way contributes to liberating the citizens and the continent; rather ties the people and the societies, particularly the educated elites to the apron-strings of the West (through UN policy control).

    • Thanks for commenting, the world needs more teachers like you. (Unfortunately, it usually discourages them.) I do a lot of education work myself, mostly with teachers. Encouraging teachers and students to learn from each other is one realistic step we can take.

  9. The article has taken the essence of the educational system in many a places and put them in words to be read by all concerned. I have been a part of the education system in Pakistan for quite a while and its exactly as described here. However as time progresses, the students themselves are realizing certain things which obviously do not recv any welcome from the majority of the teachers themselves.

  10. I think the writer gives no credit to the teacher who does exactly what she is advocating. I was a teacher for 39 years doing exactly what a critical teacher should do. At the age of 62 I was fired by an uncritical South African Education Department for criticising their policies. There are many such teachers working at the coal- face whose work largely goes unnoticed by critics who actually do not work in schools at the coal- face. Brian Isaacs ( former principal of South Peninsula High School 1984- 2016 Diep River Cape Town South Africa

    • Thanks for commenting. I greatly admire teachers and administrators like you, and you deserve credit. I’ve added a new paragraph (2nd from the end, beginning “There are teachers…”)

  11. This is a beautiful piece of writing. It is a clear depiction of Zambia’s education system and has really given me something to think about as a teacher. My favorite part is “a nation of parrots is not an educated nation!”

    • Thanks for commenting. People in many developing regions have also said it describes their education system. In most wealthier countries, it describes the schools that are provided for much of the citizenry, but there’s a much better system for rich families, who expect their children to acquire the skills to run businesses and the government.

  12. Kama mwalimu mchanga, nakubaliana na makala haya kuhusiana na kwenda au kupata elimu. Hapa nchini Kenya,mtindo siyo tafauti. Ni ule wa kupita mtihani. Ijapokuwa mtaala mpya wa umilisi umebuniwa na hivi Sasa unatumika shuleni, bado walimu wengi hawajapata ule mtazamo na shabaha vizuri. Hivyo basi kufanya shughuli za kupata elimu kuwa sawa na kwenda shuleni. Serikali upande mwingine unasisitiza kupia machifu kuhakikisha watoto wote wliofika until wa kwenda shule wawe shuleni. Hali kadhalika, watoto wasichana waliopachikwa mimba wafike shuleni. Swala hili bila ya maswali yanayostahiki itakuwa vigumu kupata wananchi wenye tajriba kubwa. Shukran.

    • [Google translates this, from Swahili, as follows: As a young teacher, I agree with this article regarding going or getting an education. Here in Kenya, fashion is no different. It is the one to pass the test. Although a new fluency curriculum has been developed and is now being used in schools, many teachers have not yet achieved that perspective. So make education activities the same as going to school. The government, on the other hand, is insisting that the chiefs ensure that all children who arrive until they go to school are in school. Likewise, pregnant girls should come to school. This issue without the right questions will make it difficult to find highly experienced citizens. Thanks.

  13. Wonderful. Articles like this need to be published for the world to see. To acknowledge her flaws and correct them. Great job.

  14. In Uganda, the main University education is memorize and pass tests. I have always thought before going to the uni that these are research based.

    • I’m a former publisher in the USA, now doing education and literacy work in SE Asia — where I have been alarmed to see that aid organizations, which claim to be helping education and much else, are actually doing great harm. But it sounds like you’re asking, “What are my credentials?” I think it’s the wrong question. True education has been destroyed by people with impressive credentials, looking out for their own interests. Why not ask, “Are my arguments valid? Do I support what I say? Am I describing a real problem?”

      • Sasha has written a brilliant article. I am an advocate for non formal education is a more practical approach to bridging educational gaps in Nigeria.

    • You have permission to do so. Thanks for your interest. The more we can do to get people thinking and talking about this, the sooner we’ll see long-needed changes.

  15. Wonderful writeup, thought provoking and precise.The school system is certainly not producing problem solvers in my African continent.

  16. This is an eye opener. I like that you even scrutinized policy issues of the UN, which have large gaps. This has caused the globe to have defects in terms of quality educational outputs. I have seen here in developing countries where the focus is only on passing the examination & not the life skills. That’s why you find a mismatch in terms of unemployment and level of education. In fact education has grossly affected our development path. Yes, education is not about enrolment as purported by the UN. We need to discard the old colonial ideology.

  17. This is indeed a very cancerous cell that can’t be overlooked for much longer. We need total educational reforms and how do we go about this?

    • “Education reform” has been discussed in the U.S. for over a century. The rhetoric — “child-centered classrooms” for example — is now widely repeated but actual practice hasn’t changed nearly as much. In developing regions, actual practice is much like it was in the West 100-150 years ago. So we’ll need to think beyond “how do we improve this system?” It doesn’t want to be improved. We need to get more involved, ourselves, in providing the education that children need.

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