Monday, 16 April 2018

Is Education making Human Beings Data Vaults?

One major disconnect that a well-meaning student would have with the educational system is that it favours mostly, recollection and memorization of information and not the ability to process it! While exams mostly cater to the ability to recall and reproduce data, they are mostly ineffective in assessing the student’s ability to apply concepts, and principles and hypothese to solve problems. We have failed in teaching our students to be problem solvers; the marks or credits they are awarded in their year-end certificates are indicators of their ability to recollect what has been taught in class. Our exams and our pedagogy only assessed how much data has been stored in the brain, that too in its short-term memory. One wonders how long we can continue to view the human brain as a data storage device! We can't go on adding RAMS and Hard Disk Drives to the human brain, at least without some kind of Augmentation. That would of course then turn us into Cyborgs. But then, one wonders if the purpose of education might not, after all, be to benchmark learning as the ability to store massive amounts of data that can be poured out in an interview or a test. Adam Gazzaley, a co-founder of Neuroscape, a centre at the University of California, San Francisco doesn’t mince words when he claims that we are headed towards a ‘global cognition crisis’ resulting from a system of education that is majorly built around a system that is focussed on ‘transferring information’ rather than processing the same.
It is an unfortunate fact that while we attempt to enhance our physical abilities, we have unfortunately failed in enhancing our cognitive abilities. It does not, however, require an extreme mind shift to promote learning that involves metacognition in class. If teachers attempt to elicit answers, by asking their students to work on specific problems and supply answers, and addedly suggest alternate strategies it will bring in a great change in the way we teach our children. Unfortunately, our models of teaching in the classroom leave much to be desired! Even some of the progressive schools that claim to be Experiential in nature cater to the needs of children fail miserably because they adhere to a fixed strategy for teaching. They use the same strategy across classes without even realising the fact that one strategy can never be a panacea for all kinds of learners!
What makes matter worse for schools that claim to be experiential is that they have classrooms that are overcrowded and thus limit the efficacy of student lead learning or even experiential learning. To be able to reap the benefits of metacognition, you need to have an ideal teacher-student ratio! Metacognition in the learning process can only take place when you, as a teacher are able to interact with each student face to face. What matters is not how many soldiers were killed in the Franco-Prussian war, but rather why the war took place! If you want your learners to be problem solvers, teach them to critique and analyse content. Teach them skills to frame questions, and teach them to arrive at explanations as to why they have reached a conclusion. To arrive at optimum metacognition levels, the class should be able to be aware of why they thought about an answer to a problem, why they thought a figure of speech was an oxymoron, or for that effect why another was a metaphor. It is important for example in the teaching of literature to allow students to read a piece and then arrive at their own interpretations about the message and theme involved. After they have arrived at their own interpretation, they need to explain why they thought so and what they thought the supporting evidence was. Skills in critiquing and analysing existing content are more important than perhaps reproducing an entire paragraph as an answer. Questions based on comprehension reading passages should be those that prompt analysis, metacognition, and to some extent extrapolation. In other words, we need to encourage the use of higher-order thought processes while answering such questions where part of it prompts the student to explain why he or she thought of such an answer, the reasons, and the supporting evidence.
The matter of making pedagogy and curriculums more research and thought oriented has existed for ages. Aristotle used questions to arrive at a conclusion, the Upanishads too have used questions to arrive at answers. The use of leading questions, consciously by some educationists have contributed to breaking out of the habit of offering everything on a platter, thus prompting a culture of memorising stuff. Einstein fought with his History teacher about the need to memorise how many soldiers were killed in the battle and not giving thought to the reason why a battle was being fought. Questions that begin with why something the Titanic sank despite being of the latest design, how the sinking of the Titanic could have been avoided, explain your reasons for thinking so, and analyse the circumstances that lead to the bombing of Hiroshima prompt a more thoughtful answer than asking the question as to how many died in both the incidents. Education is not just about memorising data and facts, rather it is about analysing and interpreting data and facts, and being able to make projections, and possible scenarios. The amount of data that is being churned out through the internet is so overwhelming that our human brains will soon run out of space should we be expected to store all that information. The memory in computers can be enhanced but this is not possible in the same terms as far as the brain is concerned. It is ironical that while people are busy enhancing their motor skills, muscles, and performance skills in sports, very little is being done to enhance the abilities of the most important organ of the body without which there can be no consciousness! While this not about developing ‘Brainiacs’ what matters is being able to process and filter all that information in a manner that is effective and efficient and does not drain us of all our energy for other things, such as living a healthy life.
The use of machines and internet-enabled devices has made us more confused and stressed, and has in fact promoted a copy-paste culture that does not really involve our cognitive skills. The use of the internet and its resources has taken us back to learning processes based on mere rote memorisation, plagiarism and a learning that lasts hours and the purpose of which is just to pass an exam. We have lost sight of the purpose of learning something, we don’t bother about the big idea of reading a poem. It is most important to seek relevance in what one is doing in a lesson. Why should a Science stream student read literature? What is the relevance of reading An Elementary School in a Slum by Stephen Spender? To find relevance, students would have to analyse the poem from different points of view and from the point of view of a Chemist, Biologist and a Physics Scholar. Not surprisingly, History has shown us how inventions have been preceded by visions and dreams about the Nautilus, space travel, time travel, and even invisibility. Jules Verne and H.G.Wells wrote about things that were yet to be invented. Kekule had a vision about the benzene molecule; he saw a snake swallowing its own tale and that is how the structure of the Benzine molecule was depicted. The use of the internet and our dependence on the same has in many ways robbed us of the ability to dream, be creative, and be open to intuitive learning. Intuitive and inspired learning can only result from being able to mull and work over problems over a period. However, when everything is available on the internet, why would one want to think over problems. What makes learning even more effective is when students own their learning and arrive at the expected solution on their own, even though the teacher knew about it but kept quiet, letting the students arrive at the conclusion on their own. Student-owned learning stems from students using their own problem-solving skills in arriving at solutions. The immense resources of the internet should be used with care in such a way that it doesn’t become an end rather than a means to greater learning!
The use of the internet should be preceded by a curriculum on Digital Citizenship. The ease of use of the internet has not just made us copy-paste characters, but also people who are ready to plagiarize ideas, thoughts and even information without really attributing them to their authors. Most of the projects that we do in school are in fact copy-pasted material acquired from various websites. A syllabus on Digital Citizenship should include developing research skills, Ethics of use of information, an awareness about plagiarism, and skills in collaborative learning. The fact of the matter is that mere introduction of technology in education does not really lead to inspired or even cognitive learning unless students and teachers have been trained to use technology. Technology is a double-edged sword that if not used carefully, can turn against its user turning him into an automaton, a zombie that can’t think for himself. Classrooms in most progressive schools are equipped with WIFI, projectors, screens and speakers so all you need to do is to connect your laptop and show the students films, presentations, photographs and date from the internet. The fact, however, is that very few of us use the internet for the intended purpose! Technology for many of us can be distracting, and a lot of us struggle with technology. Often the use of technology becomes the end all of education and not the means of education. Many of us are so daunted using Technology-Apps and platforms that we become exhausted before we even start the lesson. When we are daunted by technology, it would be better for us to discard it!
The need of the hour is to make our students decision makers, analysts, and problem solvers and not technology user whiz kids. Education is not about data reproduction, rather it is about data interpretation. Education is about exploration, identifying new possibilities, ideas, and alternative routes to learning. We have switched from learning objective to learning targets. The statement, ‘The student will be able to explain the principle of the displacement of fluids’ has changed to ‘I can explain the principle involved in the displacement of fluids’ a shift from teacher-based learning objectives to a more student-based learning outcome. These learning outcomes are written at the beginning or the middle or even at the end of the lesson.

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