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.
Avid Agnostic, @lifeisonceonly: Pakistan and Afghanistan are the living examples of this horrid myth.
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.]
Franco Orozco M., @franko1984Col: Sadly, Colombia is one of those countries waving this flag on the highest hill of a mountain. We are not teaching students how to develop critical thinking, we are, like the article reads, working as if they were parrots.
Tim, @tfoleylife: As it currently exists, school is a socially accepted form of child abuse.
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. Rote memorization is destroying what education should be.
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
OldMutualSkunks, @meangreenmut: Same situation in South Africa…
Sudipta Dey, @Sudipta55587050: well said sir… This is the ground reality….. being a teacher I always try to do something for students but the exam and tests literally make me and students a machine… sooner or later hope that thing may change.Thank you.
kamuragrace, @GracyNjesh: And in Kenya we have the 100% transition that has filled schools with students who don’t want to be in schools..the parents don’t even follow up because it’s the chief who insisted on them coming to school because the govt gave a directive..it’s chaotic
CrissChariGuamán, @CrissChari: Same here in Ecuador
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.
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. What little data I can find suggests that in developing regions, about 20% of enrolled students do not actually attend. Nor do about 20% of teachers.
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