| May 19, 2019

Redefining education

Redefining education
Students in rural Nepal do not understand social studies because those who wrote their books may not have seen the "society" on the ground

For millions of people around the world—or perhaps several billions—education means understanding and/or memorizing ideas in different subjects and demonstrating that knowledge or memory on paper. From school systems all over South Asia to stringent testing regimes in China and South Korea to increasingly standardized testing methods that characterize more areas and levels of education in the Western world, formal education is still not aligned well with needs and uses of knowledge outside school. Perhaps the most striking case in this regard, you guessed it, is our own country Nepal. However, instead of rehashing this old, rather tired theme about traditional education, let me describe what kind of education learners need in order to thrive in the knowledge economy.
What they get

Because of who design the curriculum, create educational materials, and whose value systems count, learners cannot relate to the content of education in too many places around the world, especially in our society. Most students in rural Nepal do not understand the content of social studies because those who wrote their books may have never seen the "society" on the ground.

It doesn't have to be that way; teachers on the ground should be able to create or adapt curriculum. Many of our students don't understand what their teachers are teaching them because of language barriers. Indeed, while teachers in most private schools were not fluent speakers of English, and students struggled to understand English, and often Nepali, public school teachers are increasingly forced to switch to English only!

Learners deserve content and medium that are judged on the basis of their accessibility and relevance. They have the right to understand what they are taught, as well as to learn things that they can emotionally relate to. Surmounting this barrier of comprehensibility is in the interest of society at large, as well as fair to the learner.

What they use

Even when learners can understand what they are being taught—not to mention when they don't—education is too often useless. For example, "writing" courses are typically English courses, but students need to communicate in other languages as well. From economic theories (that describe "consumer behavior" as if all "consumers" are driven by the same values and motivations) to psychological theories (about "personality types" that are oblivious of cultural and contextual factors in the assessment criteria) the world of education is awash with supposedly valuable but largely useless learning.

This is not to say that eighth graders must be able to "apply" all the concepts of algebra when they go home. But learners at least deserve to know what kinds of problems their knowledge can solve in real life and what general value it has; what contexts the problems they study are from, and how they can transfer knowledge to situations in life and society. Without the why and how, the what can become oppressive.

To make education more useful, we must adapt content to local contexts and needs, questioning the relevance of existing curricula and introducing local knowledge and mediums at all levels.

What they create

Learners also need to be able to create new knowledge. Education must prepare them to find solutions, use new perspectives, foreground neglected value systems, and generate new ideas of their own. Beyond understanding and using what others have created, they must be able to develop new concepts and perspectives in new situations.

Thus, educators need to be cautious about striking a balance between a focus on existing knowledge and attempts to add to it. Besides helping learners pay good attention and give full credit to existing knowledge, they need to empower learners to advance knowledge—teaching them how to fish instead of catching fish for them.

What they share

In fact, it is not enough to create knowledge these days. Knowledge is produced, and does things, through sharing. Even though formal education has somehow come to try to prevent sharing—such as what is done in the name of assessment—sharing is the more natural condition of learning. Instead of making students write their exam answers with blinders on, afraid of charges of theft and dishonesty, teachers need to take assessment back to the natural context of learning. When students learn by sharing, they also help others to learn and reinforce their own learning.

Emerging technologies of sharing present tremendous opportunities for sharing to learn, and in unprecedented ways, as well as opportunities to take action and affect change in the world. Since they pose challenges of what to share, when, how, and with whom, we must teach the "literacy of sharing." This can help learners share ideas meaningfully, avoiding undue risks and harm to them and to others. New contexts and mediums of sharing add new dimensions to acquiring, using, and creating knowledge.

Social media allow conversations in place of one-way publication through which written ideas were shared in the past; cloud documents allow collaborative drafting and refinement of ideas; multimodal writing/artifacts allow semantically rich expression and transmission of ideas and emotions. When shared widely and used interactively, knowledge grows and works much more dynamically. So, education should catch up to this new reality.

What is organic

Knowledge needs to grow and change, so education must enable learners to change with new knowledge and new realities in life and society. Education must also provide them a background in diverse kinds of ideas, approaches and perspectives. As the world diversifies—through intermingling of cultures and movement of people, exposure to new domains of knowledge, and so on—education must prepare more dynamic learners and knowledge-makers. It must enable learners to adapt to new situations, respond to changes and challenges quickly and effectively. It must make them multi-dimensional through learning and using different languages, valuing and navigating different cultures and professions, being able to draw from different disciplines of knowledge.

In place of a still body of information whose understanding (and reproduction) leads to certification, today's learners need to be assessed on their ability to keep learning. Curriculum should change more quickly, and so should teaching. Teachers must model learning that is agile and adaptable to new situations, not only by understanding and applying new ideas but also by creating and sharing new ideas.

What opens minds

There is so much prejudice and misunderstanding in the world, and it seems to be increasing in many places. Thus, there is a greater need for education that enables learners to appreciate different cultures and customs, perspectives and value systems. From history and philosophies to natural science theory and mathematical applications, traditional knowledge is shaped by nationalism, its political interests, its dominant ideologies and cultural values.

While that paradigm also does great good, in times of difficulty and anxiety, a populace with no concern for common humanity across national and cultural borders can take the world backwards. Education in an interconnected and interdependent world must enable people to appreciate difference, understand others, and to have an open mind to complexities.

Achieving the above goals may seem impossible. But discussing what kind of education we need and want is a starting point.

The author is an assistant professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University (State University of New York)
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