One might easily think that burning global issues like climate change and gender inequality did not receive much attention in the last decade. One can even assert that the world did very little in finding an end to the bloody wars in the middle-east; or in accelerating the transition to sustainable energy; or even in reducing extreme hunger in the third world countries; or the bundle of other critical issues that have been looked at with one eye by policy makers. However, sandwiched between all of these is the most critical issue of the decade that did not receive much attention; the reform of our educational system. This critical system, which ought to be fulcrum for advancement of humanity, has been sucking away curiosity leaving almost everyone that passes through it, too conforming, extremely cautious and unnecessarily realistic—three traits which the real pragmatic world frowns at.
Before the advent of 19th century, students are not confined to the four walls of the class room forcefully downloading facts and algorithms in their brains. Indeed, early education traces its origin to hunter-gatherers taking their children out on the hunt. From documented history, formal education began in Greece circa 4th century BC. In fact, the word school comes from the Greek word schole, meaning leisure.
Emphasis was laid on reading/writing as well as science, mathematics, history, ethics and rhetoric—all under the tutelage of a mentor. He oversees the affairs of the students, constantly interacts with them and trained them. One such example was the Plato Academy; a public grove near the ancient city of Athens. The institution was founded by the great Greek philosopher, Plato, who employed teaching methods like lectures, seminars and dialogue.
This system had produced game changers in history. Indeed, it produced another genius philosopher called Aristotle of Stagira. Even more interesting was the fact that, through this method, Aristotle taught young Alexander the Great, who went on to become, at a point, the most influential figure of the ancient world.
Through centuries, numerous formal schools were built all over the world and the process of learning remained virtually the same, with early education systems of the Greeks and Romans being the prototype, albeit with some little modifications.
At the turn of the 19th century, a more toxic alteration geared its head into the system, William Farish, a tutor at Cambridge University in England in 1792, came up with a teaching method that would allow him to process more students in a very short period of time. He figured out that he no longer needed to assess his student’s understanding of a subject; his grading system would take care of it.
This system metastasized very rapidly into every nook and cranny of the educational system—grades and only grades form the basis of education. Several forces noticed the chronic danger and tried to buffer it. Philosopher John Dewey’s ideas against the system were notable. For Dewey, education is not and should not be about memorising facts to pass an exam, but about empirical skills, test and analysis. He put forth the notion that, “child is instinctive, and the native and unspoiled attitude of childhood, marked by unspoiled curiosity, and love of experimental inquiry, is near, very near, to the attitude of the scientific mind.”
This was the idea of ‘progressive education’ or constructivism. But centuries later, Farish’s old model has survived, and with glittering acceptance!
Today, our educational system is based on a standard narrow curriculum, being taught to students, after which they are graded accordingly. Sir Ken Robinson, a professor emeritus at the University of Warwick perfectly describes our educational system. He explained that there are three things upon which the human mind thrives, and they include curiosity, creativity and diversity.
Our educational system is exactly the antithesis replacing these three with conformity, compliance and standardization. Unfortunately, these pose a great danger to the progress of mankind. The great Albert Einstein, a scientist exraordinaire, left school at 17, and went on to produce his life changing theory of General Relativity. He was particularly vocal against our educational system. He once remarked, after observing the detrimental effect the system has on curiosity, that, “it is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”
Indeed, almost all the movers and shakers of history have had to pull out of these self-limiting system for them to be effective. Hardly can one recall an influential figure in history—from Isaac Newton, to John Rokefeller to Abraham Lincoln—with an excellent schooling background. In fact, today, none of the first 100 billionaires on Forbe’s list had stellar academic credentials. Neither can we recall Cristiano Ronaldo nor Lionel Messi being exceptionally great in school. Or, even Morgan Freeman, Di Caprio, and Shah Rukh Khan. Elon Musk, the famous billionaire CEO of Tesla recalled, “school was torture.”
This statistic isn’t a coincidence; the reason boils down to the fundamental fact that schools do not prepare people to be curious, bold and adventurous.
Schools should be the places of pleasure that they were. We must transform our educational system such that standardized tests and grades—even though important, should not be the dominant culture of the system. Let’s teach for mastery and not for grades. We can adopt the Finnish model of education, which include a broader curriculum integrating science and humanities, diversity in student’s assessment as well as Differentiation Teaching which entails teaching each student according to his brain assimilating capacity.
Benjamin Franklin once said, “there are three types of people, those that are immovable, those that are movable, and those that move.” If those that move aggregate, they form a movement, which eventually turns into a revolution.
Let us therefore, in this decade—we that can move—ignite a revolution, and other than the atmospheric climate change, advocate for the more important education climate change, lest the future shuts its door on all of us.
Ibrahim Sambo is a scientist and poet. He writes on history, philosophy, science and technology. His articles have appeared in various blogs and newspapers including Qwenu, YENlive, Fountain Magazine among others. You can connect with him on Facebook as Ibrahim Sambo.