Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Do We Really Learn?

One of the professors in my university's economics department runs an informal book club; you don't get academic credit for showing up, but you do get the satisfaction of intellectual exploration from reading the book we're assigned and discussing it. I bring this up, because it affords me a segue into an interesting tidbit I overheard from a senior at the meeting this week — of all the education systems around the world, most have one purpose: they either exist to suppress heresy by propounding the truth, or they exist to encourage freedom of thought and freedom to explore intellectually.

Now, I think we all can guess which category our very own school system falls under. Students are told not to question. The very atmosphere of our schools stifles the notion that one must be free to explore.

But sometimes I wonder if criticisms of our school system aren't really a problem with the idea that we should teach the one truth. The constant debate about Chinese schools is I think a good example. There's no question that the Chinese schools outperform national schools academically. But the problem I have with our school system in general is that all our schools follow the philosophy of teaching one thing as true, with no room to question it or go beyond it.

If we made all our schools more like Chinese schools, we'd do a fantastic job of indoctrinating our children against heresy and the wrong ideas. But the problem with this is that what is wrong is always changing. The whole point of the scientific method is that we never really know the truth; we always just get a little closer to it. Any theory can always be disposed of if it does not reflect the facts we observe; no scientific theory is truly indispensable.

I believe this is why we don't see much real innovation and actual learning coming out of Malaysia. Ultimately the point of education is to learn; and ultimately once you have exhausted what your teachers know, you must learn for yourself from observing the world around you. In our schools, we do a great job learning from our teachers; we just don't learn how to really learn by ourselves.

So when our scientists are called upon to come up with something new, something that's never been observed before, they can't do it. We know very well how to learn from other people; we don't know how to learn for ourselves from the world around us. That is the problem with the dominant educational philosophy in our schools.

How do we fix this? There's no clear answer for that. But we need to stop going through the motions of education. Let's be honest, really — when we do experiments in school, we're really learning from the teachers, not the experiment. We're not actually observing what's going on in the world; we're observing what our teachers say and parroting their answers.

Knowing how to parrot is a useful skill; our Chinese schools often turn out great parrots, and they go on to do pretty good things. But ultimately nothing can really substitute for knowing how to learn things for yourself, from observing what actually happens and learning from it. We need to reorient the way we teach and the way we run our schools if we want that to happen.
posted by John Lee at 2/26/2009 04:01:00 PM

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