"An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching." - Mahatma Gandhi

The School of Tomorrow: Who needs it?

by Zaheer Alam Kidvai

Learning, as I understand it, is a spontaneous and on-going phenomenon that lasts through life. By that definition, Education is its very opposite: It is neither spontaneous, nor does it assume itself to be a continuous or on-going process. In fact, it places milestones that define when a person is 'educated enough' to perform certain tasks or to be certified as possessing a certain degree of knowledge. Education is also, increasingly, an amalgam of (among other things) indoctrination and vocational training. Talking to academics over years, one cannot help but notice phrases from Business and Industry creeping in with speed: Students are referred to as Products S to be delivered to Industry, their End User ... ! The Education Market is said to be very competitive!

Teachers have begun to use terms that, until a few years ago, would have been considered downright insulting by a true Taalibé Ilm (or Seeker of Knowledge). The Hadith about 'Travel even to far-off China to seek Knowledge' seems to have been replaced, in the minds of educational institutions in Pakistan, to mean 'Travel to the USA to seek jobs.'

Following the above line of reasoning, it is only natural that I would consider it impossible for "The School" - an institution, designed for the very purpose of serving and furthering Education - to alter its character to that of a Learning Evironment, without rebelling against its own raison detre.

Admittedly, from time to time, the school system has made concessions to ideas that feed the irrepressible human desire and impulse to learn. But such concessions have been quickly followed by labeling those ideas as a sort of sub-class (Montessori Schools, for example). Later, when societal pressures, commercial aspects (not to forget advantages) necessitate it, these ideas are subsumed by the system. And then destroyed by being reshaped into just another bland, mainstream process! The most recent example of this is the delightful world of computers in learning, as envisaged by Seymour Papert and others. It became acceptable only when it was turned into a boring Subject, in classes where students are made to chant Excel Commands in unison and tested on their remembering the exact year Charles Babbage was born.

But that's a whole different debate & and a very touchy one.

The matter being addressed at the coming BSS-sponsored conference is The School of Tomorrow. Most discussion and conversation (but certainly not all, considering a few of the speakers invited) is expected to centre around how to improve the school system. I must state at the very outset that I don't think such a thing is really possible, even if it were desirable.

A friend, who also supports and helps run a chain of schools under an NGO in Pakistan, expressed a view that I encounter very often in response to my criticism of school systems. "The school," he said, "is the only place we've got for learning, so why knock it? Do something constructive: Help us tweak and fine-tune them and put them right." My real response to him came only weeks later, when he wanted to 'computerize' his garment factory: I sent him my broken down and battered (once-trusty) Commodore-64 computer, from the 1970s, to "tweak and fine-tune" for his purpose!

Sorry, friends; but that's how broken I think this system is!

Is there an alternative, as another friend asked just today? An alternative? The use of the 'singular' struck me as particularly strange, when the one-size-fits-all approach by schools is one of its major drawbacks. There are many solutions. Some are being tried out; others researched upon. After all, replacing an on-going system, which has entrenched itself into society slowly, cannot (should not!) be replaced overnight. But the thinking to do so needs to be put in place. NOW!

Of course, we will need to continue to work within the system until the alternatives are more real and clear, even if the work amounts to little more than placebos for the terminally ill. After all, in the absence of cures, pain relievers are always welcome.


School of Tomorrow Conference:

Written by: Zaheer Alam Kidvai
1 December 2005

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