Friday June 14, 2024

Why we need to rethink education

By our correspondents
November 27, 2015
It is said that a school has two purposes: one, to teach people how to live and, two, to teach people how to make a living. Roger Schank -- radical educator, Artificial Intelligence theorist and cognitive psychologist based in the US -- says schools today are not serving these two basic purposes. He says schools are more like day-care centres.
There is a debate going on these days about the standard and quality of education in Pakistan but this is not a debate just limited to our country alone. Schank believes that education systems around the world are the same. “We are taught made-up history by our respective governments. All history is a bunch of lies; we are living in a fictional world. We are tested on algebra even though you don’t have to use it anywhere in life. There is no evidence that anyone needs algebra. Why should we make children learn something they would not use in their adult lives,” asks Schank.
Schank is CEO of Socratic Arts, a company that aims to design and implement learning-by-doing, story-centred curricula in schools, universities, and corporations. He does not think that the subjects mandated by the president of Harvard in 1892 are worth learning. Academics, in his opinion, are the problem. Schank says that we should expand on what children are interested in. We need to individualise education. “In the old days, there were probably a hundred kids in a class and only one teacher. Not anymore! You have the internet now.”
According to Schank, if a child in Karachi wants to learn how to build an airplane, someone working at Boeing in Seattle can be his mentor and teach him how to do it. “What you want is to have children ask questions and someone to answer if they are having trouble with something.”
Schank says that parents push their children for good grades because they want them to get into good universities. “Harvard is dictating the rules of education when a very small fraction of children from across the world end up there. It should not be the most important goal in your life to get into Harvard. Of course if you hire graduates from Harvard, they will be intelligent but they were intelligent to begin with. Harvard is just selecting them.”
In Mexico, there is a school for street kids who go to school three hours a day. When Schank visited the school, he saw a teacher lecturing the children on Benito Juárez, one of the revolutionary fathers of Mexico. Schank thinks instead of lecturing them on history, they should be taught how to survive and job skills should be taught to them. “In fact, we should not be teaching kids anything. Nobody remembers what they were told. Parents don’t ‘teach’; they discuss things with their children.” He says we should get over the idea that schools are supposed to teach. The basic idea should be to make children think clearly and any good teacher can do that. “Do we teach kids planning? No, we don’t. But if you put them in a position where they need to plan something, they will end up doing it. What we need to teach them is reason from evidence.”
Schank says there should be alternative schools funded by governments, philanthropists and others -- with a different curriculum including subjects like kitchen design, professional athlete, etc. “Children who are interested in becoming professional athletes should all get to try. They may not end up being professional athletes but they may learn how to manage a sports team, how to become a sports agent”. He says if a government can spend millions of dollars on building bridges and other infrastructure, why can’t it spend money on alternative schools that can effectively change the schools of the world. He says that big universities will prevent change but governments should endorse such ideas and recognise degrees by such schools and colleges.
Schank does not believe in lectures and/or tests. He believes in building things. Says Schank: “People who run schools are reinforcing the idea of the school they went to”.
One of the reasons so many children are unhappy at schools is bullying and that only happens when you have large classrooms. By setting up alternative schools, the idea of big classrooms would become obsolete. Teachers would be there just to make sure that everyone gets along while the students would be mentored by people from across the world through the internet and other technological facilities. Schank says that virtual universities are the future of education but so far everybody is doing it badly because all they are doing is giving lectures. He says you cannot make people do things just by giving them lectures. Training them to do something they are interested in is important.
“Learning is about experimentation. A six-year-old should do things he/she finds interesting, explore new things, figure out things. Schools need to help children learn how to experiment properly.”

Roger Schank will be in Karachi this weekend to deliver a keynote speech at the School of Tomorrow International Education & Cultural Festival being held at the Beach Luxury Hotel on 28-29 November.