Why are our kids not learning meaningfully? (Part2 of series on education)

In Part1 of this series on education we concluded that there is something wrong with our education system because of which our kids are not able to learn meaningfully. Let’s continue the journey.

If we conclude that a particular system is wrong, then it naturally means that the system under consideration is delivering something which is not in line with our expectations. So, if we think that our current education system is faulty, then obviously it means that the education that is getting imparted to kids through this system is not in line with what it should be. Now, one way of understanding the ills of any system is to imagine a good system and ask ourselves, what kind of output a so called good system is supposed to deliver so that the classification of that system as a good system is a valid classification. This naturally brings us to the question, what is a good education system supposed to deliver and the simple answer is, a good education system is supposed to deliver good education. So, let’s ask ourselves – what is good education?

Thus, began my journey of understanding what is good education. Now this was not a formal journey in the sense that I didn’t immerse myself full time into doing this project to reach the answer. It was like a problem that remained at the back of my mind and my subconscious mind kept working on it as I ran around delivering on the responsibilities of my formal occupation. Life continued like this for quite some time. With passage of time my daughter was growing up and with that my interactions with my daughter w.r.t. to her education increased. With that my frustration also increased and thus slowly but surely, this question w.r.t good education, transitioned itself from the back of my mind to a question that came to front of my mind so as to say. I was getting really frustrated with the way things were shaping up w.r.t my daughter. This triggered in me a deep desire to actively work on finding the flaws in our current education system so that I can do something about it. So, I started interacting with lots of people including kids, started reading related literature, etc. to understand what good education should be. In this process I came across a quote by Albert Einstein that made its mark. He said:

 

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”

– Albert Einstein

 

Now to me this thought by Einstein appeared meaningful. As I reflected on my interviewing experience (that I shared in Part1 of this series) it made a lot of sense. What was I doing in interviews? I was asking the candidates, questions related to what they have learnt in their schools and colleges and when they were not able to answer them, I classified them as uneducated. Looking from the perspective of what Einstein said – these candidates simply forgot what they learnt at their schools and colleges. But this realization brought me to another question – Does this mean that a good education system is supposed to ensure that the student who goes through it remembers all that is covered? Is the ability to recall the learning or concept a sign of a good education system?

All of us know from our own experience that just because someone recalls what they have learnt at schools and colleges is not a good requirement to succeed in life. Each one of us have come across lots of people who can vomit lots of data points and definitions from their memory but can’t use that information to solve problems in real life situations. So just remembering what you have been told is definitely not sufficient – one should be able to use what one has learnt to handle life and what it throws at you.

 

“Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice.”

– Anton Chekhov

 

To give you an example – if I ask a person what is electricity and she answers that electricity is a form of energy – this answer is correct as per our current scientific understanding – but if I ask her now to explain to me the nature and behavior of this form of energy called electricity and if she can’t do that, then knowing that electricity is a form of energy is meaningless because partial knowledge can’t be exploited for solving real-life problems. This is evident in the fact that mankind has seen lightening in the sky from the time we came on this planet but for thousands of years we could never use electricity for anything beneficial, for we never knew what lightening and/or electricity is all about. It’s only when we understood the nature and behavior of electricity. thanks to works of people like William Gilbert, Stephen Gray, Benjamin Franklin, Luigi Galvani, Allesandro Volta, Michael Faraday, and many others, that we could exploit the enormous potential of electricity. So good education is not only about remembering something – it’s also knowing that thing in reasonable detail so that you can use that knowledge for some useful purpose. The moment I reached this conclusion, I realized the importance of the word “learned” in the quote from Einstein. Learning is all about conceptual clarity and not data remembrance. This is the challenge with our education system – it thinks learning is equivalent to knowing the definition of a concept, related formulas and some examples to explain that particular concept. It doesn’t understand that learning is manifested in being able to put our hands and legs around a concept in reasonable totality because only when we can do so we make learning useful and valuable.

Now that we have understood the importance of word “learn” or conceptual clarity, the next question is how to test it properly in someone. As we have already discussed, that the best test of a quality of an acquired knowledge is that the holder of that knowledge is able to use that knowledge for a meaningful purpose; and the only way acquired knowledge can be used for meaningful or useful purpose is if the holder of that knowledge understands it completely or in other words, he or she has learnt it from a conceptual clarity perspective. Now typically, in an interview setting, given various constraints, it is not always possible to make a person do an actual real-life assignment to test if he or she has acquired the knowledge in a manner such that it can be used. So how to do we hire a person such that we can reasonably be sure of the quality of his or her education?

Roman philosopher Seneca said, “While we teach we learn”. In other words, the best way to learn something is to explain it to someone. Conversely this also means that one of the best test of a learned person is the effectiveness of him or her as a teacher in explaining a concept. If you can explain a concept properly then there is definitely a case that you will be able to use it, if required, for at least that knowledge in a meaningful way is available with you for the purpose of some end use. This was precisely the problem with the candidates who I was interviewing – since they have not learnt from a conceptual clarity perspective, they were not able to explain, no matter what the interviewing environment was.

If any further proof is needed then let me also share that researchers have found out that student teachers score higher on tests than students who learn only for themselves. Scientists call this the “protege effect”. In articles published in 2007 in journal Science and Intelligence some studies were shared. These studies concluded that first-born children are more intelligent than their later-born brothers and sisters and suggested that their higher IQs result from the time they spend showing their younger siblings the ropes. In other words, if you can explain a concept to someone else then you have learnt well and if you have learnt well than marks will also follow – however, given the way most of the exams are designed marks may not mean that you have learnt well for our education system has equated learning to memory and not conceptual clarity.

 

“The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.”

– Plutarch

 

All of this now makes a lot of sense to me given my own experience in various organizations. There is no point in knowing something if you can’t explain it to someone, after all eventually in organizations we have to work in teams most of the times, if not all the times. If each member of a team can explain their work to other members properly, imagine the ease with which the work will get done. In fact, given my own work experience, I am tempted to believe that besides other challenges, team work is so difficult to teach because the ineffective learning imparted to us during our growing up years, becomes a fundamental bottleneck to creating good teams in organizations.

So, all this long journey finally brought me to a formal definition of good education that I could identify with – Education is what remains with you after you have left your school and that what has been left with you is meaningfully learnt only if it can be used to solve real-life problems. An alternate test of the fact whether or not a concept has been meaningfully learnt or not lies in your ability to teach it to someone or explain it to someone such that it completes the education of that someone. In other words, an ability to remember and an ability to use or explain properly are the two fundamental properties of a meaningful or good education. This definition fits into my interviewing experience also very well, for the candidates either didn’t remember what they learnt and/or they could not explain what they remembered and in both the cases, they were uneducated for the presence of absence of their knowledge makes no difference.

Now that we have crossed the first hurdle of defining what education is the next obvious question is to figure out two things:

  • How to ensure that kids remember what they are taught? and
  • How to ensure that kids have derived the deeper conceptual clarity associated with what all they are taught?

So now the new problem definition that confronts us is as follows:

 

Problem:

How to teach kids in a manner that they not only remember what they are taught but are also able to explain what they remember to someone else?

 

Before I conclude, let me share two more things from my experience:

  • Probably one of the biggest mistake most of the interviewers make in selecting candidates is that the questions that they select during interviews are in some way or other designed to check data remembrance and not conceptual clarity. A simple rule is that conceptual clarity requires an extended conversation and from my experience it can be tested by at least 5 follow on open ended questions to the base question asked and/or at least spending 30 minutes conversing on a particular topic without a defined agenda.
  • Another important thing that I have learnt is that no matter what topic you pick for discussion with an interviewee, even if that topic has no apparent connection to the job under consideration, it is far far better to hire a guy with a conceptual clarity on what he or she has learnt or done than hiring a guy who has good quality data remembrance on the topics related to the job. That’s why I guess one of the best hires I made in my professional life was of a guy who was hired to do private equity style investments but the tick in my mind happened the moment the guy recited his own written poem properly and also could have a meaningful conversation on it.

To be continued…

 

References

 

About DreamNobel

DreamNobel is an education initiative to teach Science subjects to kids in a way that original & independent thinking and empathy becomes an integral part of their personality. We have developed a unique and revolutionary course (Eklavya) whereby a kid can be taught broadly all the Science subjects (Physics, Chemistry, Biology & Geology) in an integrated manner, through a unique story and rationalization led pedagogy.

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