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Are Our Schools Obsolete – Square Pegs In Round Holes?

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By Kulbhushan Kain

Yet another Teachers’ Day dawns upon us. I have spent my entire life in schools – first as a student and, later, as a teacher and administrator and have seen the world change unrecognizably – but only cosmetic changes in the way we build, teach and manage schools. If a doctor and a teacher came back to life in the 21stcentury, the doctor wouldn’t be able to treat his patient. The teacher on the other hand will walk into the classroom, the kids will greet him with a “good morning”, he will take attendance and pick up a piece of chalk and start writing. Maybe in some schools, the blackboard has been replaced by green fiber glass boards and teachers write with electronic pens. But that is just about it!

No doubt, teachers and administrators all over the world are doing amazing things, but some of the things we are still doing, despite all the new solutions, research and ideas are quite simply not in sync with the times.

There are a lot of outdated things in our educational system. Most schools still have classes going to a computer room with outdated equipment (once or twice a week ), have isolated classrooms where parents, guests and teachers are not welcome because the doors have a “don’t come in here” sign written on them (like in an ICU in a hospital!), they don’t have robust WiFi and ban the use of phones and tablets. Schools are obsolete because they have teachers who work silently, don’t tweet or blog, and don’t discuss ideas with people around the world. Schools that don’t have Facebook or Twitter accounts (if they do it’s not for everyone’s use) are obsolete and so are schools that have cafeterias that look and operate almost like fast food restaurants where staff and students get cheap, fast and unhealthy meals. Schools that have traditional libraries which contain only books, chess, and carrom tables are also a relic of the past.

I could go on and on, but the scope of this article does not allow me to do so. However, I will dwell on some things that need immediate remedy. The world won’t wait.

Research shows that delaying the start of school by as little as 50 minutes and making it longer by 30 minutes has a positive effect, both, on learning and activities after school. Often parents or administrators come in the way of that change. Schools that don’t do this are obsolete. Timings must be made flexible.

Another idea that needs immediate change is of putting kids in the same class because they are born in the same year. School systems were originally set up to meet the needs of industrialism. Back then we needed people to work in factories, conformity was good and nobody was meant to excel, or be different in that environment. That doesn’t fit our needs today, let alone the future – but many schools are still set up like the factories they were meant to serve 100 years ago.

We should increase choice, give children support to flourish in what interests them, and not only give them extra attention to the things they’re bad at (oh those remedials!). In most schools, if you are good at art but bad in Math, you get Math lessons to get on par with the other students, instead of excelling at art… All even, all the same?

Looking at standardised tests to evaluate whether or not children are educated is misleading. Research has shown a statistically significant correlation between high grades on standardised tests and a shallow approach to learning.

The needs of the world and society today are completely different from what they used to be. We are not only training people to work locally but globally. With standardised tests, we are teaching the same thing. Because of that, we all produce the same kind of workers, outdated workers, to work in factories. In the global world, today, it is easy to outsource jobs to someone willing to do the same job just as fast for less money. Therefore, we need creative people who can do something else and think differently.

Schools have to prepare students for jobs that have not yet been created, technologies that have not yet been invented and problems that we don’t know will arise.

Standardised education might have been the answer once but saying that it’s obsolete now is putting it mildly. Adults’ accomplishments are linked far more strongly to their creativity than IQ and we should be celebrating diverse knowledge and interests instead of trying to standardise knowledge and skills.

It isn’t an easy task, there will be resistance but as Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked the people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses!”

That is exactly what we are doing today. We are asking our students to remember more, write better, and repeat faster than before… just like we wanted the faster horse, when we should have been asking for the car.

I was once invited to give my views on the state of education in India. After my talk (along the lines of what I have written above), a ‘distinguished’ educationist looked at me, smiled, and said

“You spoke with passion. But I think you are a dreamer.”

Quick came my reply and I quoted John Lennon who sang those immortal lines,

“You may say I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday you’ll join us

And the world will live as one.”

On Teachers’ Day, I wish everyone happiness, in what according to me is the most amazing profession, with the hope that some of them are dreamers!