The Nature of Education

Malavika Nataraj muses on the nature of education, a subject that has as many interpretations as there are proponents.

The understanding of ‘education’ is changing with the times and it is well worth the while to explore its nuances and options.

A few days ago, while I was contemplating what to blog about, I opened a book I was recently gifted, and began reading. Totto-Chan, The Little Girl at the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, when it was first published in 1981, took Japan by storm.

About five pages into this un-put-down-able book, I saw why. It is a delightful childhood memoir of talk show host-turned-actress Kuroyanagi, who was in elementary school at the start of World War Two. The book, dedicated to the late Sosaku Kobayashi – a remarkable, avant-garde educator and the headmaster at Kuroyanagi’s elementary school – is a collection of Kuroyanagi’s happiest memories at Tomoe Gakuen, a unique school, whose classrooms were a collection of rail carriages.

The school itself was destroyed during the war, but the memories of it have stayed with the world, thanks to the book.

Sosaku Kobayashi’s attitude toward teaching was heavily influenced by Western education and was very much ahead of its time. Few people in Japan understood his free-thinking model. Today, however, there is quite a bit more ‘free-thinking’ going on – some of it good, and some not so good – but the key fact is that learning comes from so much more than just words in a prescribed curriculum. It is about a child’s discovery, of learning things through experience and forming opinions that stem from self-confidence rather than from an adult. While reading this book, I asked myself if I, as a parent, have ever really allowed my children to completely discover things for themselves, without my colouring the situation for them, either black or white. I cannot honestly say yes.

Still, to some extent, we parents are justified in being this way; we live in a world that is choking us with fear, a quicksand of threats lurking in every corner. The media blasts on the bombings and shootouts are an everyday occurrence now, so how can children be children?

But educators must do their job. There are still many good things to be learnt, and many good ways in which to learn them. For example, recently, a professor in Columbia University taught Quantum Mechanics through a video that included images of him stripping, ninjas and even videos of 9/11.

Another case in point is an elementary school teacher in a small town in the US, who uses rap songs to teach his students social studies, grammar and mathematics. Of course, it has to be said that America has always been much more experimental than the rest of the world in terms of education. Comparatively, Asians still tend to err on the side of caution in their approach to education, preferring a more straitjacketed structured way of learning. Also, not being very experimental, people have the tendency to stay with teaching methods that are ‘safe’, tried and tested.

But things are slowly changing. A short while ago, I encountered an interesting website here in Singapore, which works as an aid for elementary school children learning Mathematics. Home Campus, run by Mumtaz Pachisa and her husband, is an online Mathematics school aimed at making an intimidating subject fun, through colourful interactive worksheets and videos that children can access from anywhere.

And today, I took my children to the Singapore Science Centre for an amazing exhibit on Mega Bugs, which was a thrilling walk through a dimly lit ‘forest’ peppered with giant insects. Throughout the space, there were interesting facts about insects and other ‘bugs’ and little craft/art stations where children could create their own bugs or colour in pictures.

And my kids learnt a lot; possibly much more than if they had merely sat in a classroom or read from a book.

Although unconventional teaching aids cannot as yet compete with tutorial centres like Kumon, it is clear that the nature of education and the attitude towards learning are changing.

And it’s about time !

SingaporeforKids embraces the views of Sir Kenneth Robinson (English author, speaker, and international advisor on education in the arts to government, non-profits, education, and arts bodies – Wikipedia), especially his video animation / talk on changing education paradigms.