In praise of Fundamental Questions

[Long post on Education as is my wont. Been wanting to do this for a while but finally got the inspiration to do it. Enjoy…hopefully.]

I read a couple of startling articles over the past week. I was startled less by their content (which was good) but more by thoughts and feelings that they provoked in me. I shall try to elaborate on some of those thoughts and feelings as I meander through this short piece but suffice to say that the thoughts and feelings elicited were strong enough to give me the proverbial kick in the gut to want to get back to writing about one of the things that truly matter to me, education.

One article on Wired <> echoed what I’ve been feeling for a long time. Learning by discovery and not by rote is definitely one way to prepare our students for the world that is to come. The article describes our current situation quite accurately as being fluid and dynamic, obviating the need for the learning of ‘hard skills’ but requiring the workforce in the future to be ready to adapt to the needs of the situations that they find themselves in. One way to do this, the writer suggests, is to bring learning by doing to the fore.

This call is not new. The waves of constructivist, problem-based, student-centred, reflective, experiential pedagogies have come and gone and they continue to remind us that we as educators need to help our students respond to the world around them. While I’m sure we can adapt the way in which we structure our classes and plan our lessons, I also feel that there needs to be a deeper shift in the way we see education as a whole. We’ve moved away from filling buckets to lighting fires (as Yeats so eloquently encouraged us to do) but how are we preparing our students to realise that there is a fire and that part of their education is to learn how to light these fires themselves, and do help others to do so.

Knowledge and skills, even the most transferable ones, can only get someone that far. Standard knowledge and skills tend to be fairly static and allow one to respond to a set of circumstances that our learning prepared us for. Transferable skills open new horizons for us but can still be quite contextual and difficult to apply to as wide a variety of situations as we would like. For example, my background in philosophy gives me quite a broad range of analytic tools with which to approach new circumstances but all the analysis in the world would not help in some of the more delicate emotional or faith-related situations that I’ve found myself faced with of late in school.

The other article on First Things <> touched on the growing culture of fear in the American educational system that seems to originate from society at large and trickles down to the schools. ‘Students want continual reassurance that they’re equipping themselves’ writes the author, and they seek achievement as a means of protecting themselves from the perceived vagaries of live in general. They fear that they aren’t learning enough or aren’t learning well enough and often mistakenly benchmark their own achievement on that of others. The feeling that being better than one’s peers is the only way to feel prepared leads to a deepening in this culture of fear.

Even though both articles touch on the apparent problems in American Education, it’s not too far-fetched to apply these to us in Asia (and Malaysia-Singapore in particular). The problems that face those in the west are in no way isolated and we too see the same problems arising, albeit in different forms. One incarnation of this that is particular to our situation is the increasing kiasu (fear of losing out) attitudes that we see in students. In their want to get ahead and ensure that they do not lose any advantage they have other others, students can sometimes be overly competitive and concerned with results to the exclusion of other pursuits. Alternatively, they may get so caught up with trying to improve and be better than the average student (to look good for scholarship boards and the like) that they forget that they are still children or teenagers who need to relax and enjoy their lives.

My immediate reaction to this is to state that education cannot be seen like this, as a zero-sum game where a winner means that someone else is a loser. Conceiving of education as such would not only put undue pressure on students to learn in a particular way (to succeed according to a narrow criteria), it would also transform the process of learning into a pursuit of check-marks in boxes or academic feathers in caps. The joy of discovery and the thrill of new knowledge would give way to finding ways to squeeze one more mark out of an examination to top the class. Furthermore, the same narrow criteria could pigeonhole a student in ways that can be quite unjust. Doing well in English, Maths and Science do not (always) a good learner make. The writings on multiple intelligences and other personality types remind us of this.

The two problems beg for solutions but one should also be wary of being overly reactionary or reactive. We do want our students to be more active in their learning, to take charge of how they learn and to want to make a choice as to the content that they receive. More than that, we want them to be able to learn well and to recognise what makes them do so. Similarly, we want to create a culture that is free from fear of the future – not to insulate them from the big bad world but to encourage them to recognise that the world that we’re preparing them for is fluid and the best course of action comes from an internal shift and not a conforming to an external standard. The funnel that they thought they had to squeeze through should be turned around with the broad end allowing them to see possibilities beyond narrow criteria.

Ever since I began my practice as an educator and thought seriously about issues related to it, I’ve been a firm believer in the need for us to teach students how to learn well. It seemed to be a great insurance policy – if we teach them how to learn well, then they would be able to tackle any problem that they face, even if they don’t have the content knowledge or proficiency at the start. I still think that’s important but there seems to be something else that’s even more important, something that I shamefacedly admit that I never really thought too much about despite my philosophical leanings. Learning how to learn remains a particular set of skills that a student can pick up. Shouldn’t education bring about a deeper internal shift in students by getting them to consider and reflect upon why they learn?

The difference is subtle but startling in its consequence. We can teach students skills to learn well and they would undoubtedly benefit from that in the future. But having students consider and truly reflect on why they learn would enable them to orientate themselves to the more fundamental reasons why they go to school. It would help them realise that school is not a place to climb over the heads of others just to assuage a certain fear of the unknown and to rediscover (or to discover) the joy of learning. It would help students to orientate themselves in concrete ways to the world that is both exciting and scary and hopefully, to respond to this with a renewed yearning for something.

How would we do this? I don’t have ready answers but I do have questions that might help to lead us into a reflective stance that would in turn allow us to reflect on the whys. I’d like to call these questions fundamental because they are as basic as one can get and are aimed at what I believe to be the most important pillars of ourselves as persons. Reflecting on these questions is not the magic bullet to remove fear and bring the joy of discovery back but they begin a discourse that would lead us near there.

Who am I?
The first question has to do with the self. Being able to know who I am and all the constituent bits that make up this ephemeral thing that is called the self can help a person to ground his or her approach to the world in something that’s a little more stable. Knowing the self provides a slightly more stable starting point upon which further exploration of the world can occur. And a constant monitoring of how the self changes and adapts would aid one in the fludity of the world.

Why is the world?
Ungrammatical as this question may be, it gets a person to consider reasons and relationships that occur in the world. It reminds us of the need to question things around us and to move with the apparent fludity of people, ideas and things but to also realise that there can be stability in the existence of the world itself. Reality can seem to be socially constructed but behind the constructedness and critique, there lies the possibility of the world. And it is through understanding the world that one is able to function well within it.

What is truth?
Echoing the question that Pontius Pilate was asked is the most fundamental question that we all need to ask. I would move away from a radical sense of constructivism that posits a wandering truth that changes with the perceptions of the individual. Relativism leads to an unwanted multiplicity of truths that simply confuses and resists analysis or criticism. I’d rather consider that possibility of a truth that remains as a core upon which our differing perceptions of reality can hang and it is the exercise of trying to get to this truth that would open the eyes and minds of all who seek knowledge of the world.

How should I act?
The final question could be one of the most important ones as it relates with how we are to relate with the world and others around. It has to do with ethics and how we conceive of right and wrong but also has to do with the ability of a person to make free choices that would still take the rest of humanity (or at least those in his or her immediate vicinity) into consideration. It has to do with how we can be loving and compassionate neighbours to each other in spite of our differences. All this takes learning and all this takes a good amount of reflection that begins with the self.

I’ve been somewhat self-indulgent here but in my return to writing, I felt more was better than less. I was reminded of a class I did some years back that got students to consider the many threads that bind our thoughts together, to think about these fundamental questions that were asked thousands of years ago that remain relevant today. It is the concentration on these fundamental questions, having students to answer the question of why we should learn, that would enable us to reduce the culture of fear and hopefully bring some joy back into education.

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about the brushhead

had a head like a brush (it's more like an egg now). seeks to sweep through thought and faith with that brush. tries to wax philosophical but often forgets to wax off. trying to be good brush to all, while discerning what kind of brush he's meant to be.

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