Nicholas Lim, Co-founder & Lead Editor, Cogito Collective
Disclaimer: the author is a student of science, therefore most of the examples provided are skewed towards science education. This should not affect the conclusion of the article.
Education reform has been discussed since time immemorial, but the gradual, snail pace of reforms has led to today’s education still being a product of three classical frameworks:
- The curriculum is strongly rooted in the Seven Liberal Arts of Classical Greece,
- The pedagogy having the goal of preparing the student to be a “productive” member of the workforce,
- And the classroom being a supply chain where students are arranged into neat rows meant to force students to sit and listen, rather than interact with their peers.
These have changed little since the Industrial Revolution demanded the mass production of technically-minded students who could work, and specialists who could fit into the production line required for the division of labor.
But the world is changing, and education should change with it. The world is stagnating, and there are little new solutions to new problems. Some may argue that it’s a natural slump in the cycle of knowledge, but the world needs more breakthroughs, and that comes through creativity and logic. Even China, the go-to example for the successes of standardised testing, is promoting reform of the gaokao. Standardised testing and the demand for specialists has made way for more holistic education and interdisciplinary research, and the leaders of tomorrow have to be increasingly adept in a globalised world.
This change has to be reflected in the way we educate the next generation. We have to teach them to think, to create, to innovate. We need them to think critically about current structures and work towards changing them. Teachers should no longer be authoritative figures that feed knowledge into students, but to be facilitators of the creation of knowledge, taking into account the different sociocultural backgrounds and abilities of the students. This change in pedagogy, together with the change in educational focus from subject-specific knowledge to general skills, can help the next generation to become critical thinkers and active agents in the 21st Century.
Current Problems within Pedagogy
Thus, education should mimic how we as humans discover new knowledge. This is done by first posing a research question, then coming up with solutions through research and/or collaboration, and finally synthesizing the relevant information and presenting a solution for criticism and debate. The process of obtaining new knowledge follows the contours of human curiosity. When faced with a problem, we devise a model to understand it, then we share it with our peers to refine it. In this way, we get all the information about a problem first and form a macro picture of the solution, before working out the micro details.
However, the current education system teaches micro before macro — arithmetic is taught before geometry and literary devices are memorised before understanding literary themes. The process of learning and the joy of discovery are stripped of their exploratory and philosophical natures, and replaced with mechanical calculations and standardised testing. It is possible, for children as young as five, to start off learning about calculus and geometry, just as it is possible for them to recognise shapes and patterns. Mathematics is just about finding patterns in numbers and symbols, after all.
“When we assign a lot of similar exercises, we picture kids in situations that require industrial precision.” Giving children logic puzzles or open projects, on the other hand, indicates aspirations of them growing up to become explorers or designers. “It does not work that directly, … but these beliefs dictate what mathematics education the grown-ups select or make for the kids.”
Subjects are taught as isolated pools of knowledge for the sake of passing exams. Once a student notices a disconnect between what they learn and what they might face in the future, they will start asking questions like “what’s the point of learning trigonometry?” Outside of the classroom, trigonometry is used by GPS devices to triangulate exact positions. Studying classic literature helps in understanding the cultural and historical context of Brexit. Knowledge is never isolated, especially the fundamental knowledge taught in schools. This disconnect only happens when students are taught skills for exams’ sake, not skills for knowledge’s sake.
Furthermore, the modern obsession with standardised testing and numerical grades is a symptom of the McDonaldization intended by the education system — to reduce subjects and the pursuit of knowledge into credit systems that judge people with vastly different backgrounds on the same measuring stick. The only benefits to this are that employers can easily sum up a person based on a number they have “earned”, while completely dehumanising the candidate from other factors that would have affected it. The downsides to this are a fear of knowledge, a resistance to change, and unexamined lives. “[Modern society] makes dissimilar things comparable by reducing them to abstract quantities,” (Horkheimer and Adorno) and education is one symptom of this.
Introduction to Critical Pedagogy
A pioneer of Critical Pedagogy was the Brazilian educator Paolo Freire, who used the metaphor of a bank to describe the current education system. In the “banking model”, teachers deposit knowledge into the students, as if depositing money into a bank. The student then absorbs and digests the knowledge, and is made to regurgitate it out again during exercise questions and tests. In this way, students are passive learners and are not active agents in the pursuit of knowledge. This is clearly not how knowledge is gained in real life, where there is much more trial and error, more interaction with other people, and more often than not involves collaborative efforts. In addition, this enforces the power relations between the students as receivers and the teachers as the providers, and this translates to blind faith in authorities in the future. With the elimination of power structures, students should be able to question the problems in their education system and society at large, but also understand why some structures are in place to ensure the smooth running of society.
Instead, he proposes the “problem-posing model”, where teachers pose problems for students to solve, and let the students interact with each other and the teacher to solve these problems together. In this way, the teachers and students become “co-creators of knowledge”. Students will then become active agents in the creation of knowledge, and the student-teacher relationship becomes that of two sides of a dialogue, rather than that of an authority dictating truths about the world. In a student-centric learning environment, teachers should be able to understand the backgrounds of the individual students and nudge them towards self-reflection.
In this way, Freire argues, students should be able to situate their knowledge in their place in history and a multicultural society as a part of a greater narrative, and to understand the causes and effects of social structures. They will become active agents in history and not just passive leaves in the river of knowledge, floating aimlessly and unquestioningly. Students lose their individuality in the domination and control of the syllabus, while being fed with the illusion of “enlightenment”. The ultimate goal is for students is to “come to see the world not as a static reality, but as reality in process, in transformation”.
One crucial goal of Critical Pedagogy is the development of “critical consciousness”, where students should be able to view their societal problems, not simply as accidents of history, but as structural problems. Furthermore, they should translate their knowledge to praxis, and work towards making a better society. Action should follow reflection; as they reflect on the world they are in, they should seek to take action for structural problems. By being active learners, they learn to be active agents in this world and the immediate circumstances they are situated in, and thus will be more inclined to solve problems.
The Development of Critical Skills
Across all aspects of human knowledge, there are common skills and ways of understanding them. Mathematics and art both use pattern-recognition, literature and history essays require the ability to construct a logical argument. At higher levels of learning, many subjects which we were taught were separate are actually intertwined. This is reflected in an increasing synthesis of knowledge areas, from statistical analysis in linguistics to econophysics. Students need to stop seeing different subject areas as spatially separate, but as case studies of more fundamental skills. Critical Pedagogy can help with this.
Problem-based learning allows students to codify definitions and learn skills only when they need them to solve problems. Instead of being bogged down with memorising the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus, students can first be posed the problem of Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise. Instead of first memorising how to answer source-based questions in History, students can first be taught that there are different ways of viewing the world, and the problem lies in determining which viewpoint is correct. In this way, students can view the world around them as tests of the skills they have learnt, and are more willing to be active participants in the world.
Of the critical skills, one stands out as the most important — curiosity. The human drive to curiosity is with us from our birth, and is the main driving factor for breakthroughs and discoveries. This should most definitely not be stifled with doing repeated exercises and being forced to sit down in a classroom designed during the Enlightenment era. Humans learn through play, and toddlers understand the world through trial and error. As students interact, explore, and play with their peers, they carry on that line of curiosity that has been the theme of human innovation.
To help students achieve critical consciousness, educators should empower students to reflect on their own worlds, and to assess based on facts. They should then be able to start from the facts of the world and assess where and how they came about, and how to change them. An important principle in this is to “seek truth from facts” (实事求是). This involves looking at the world as a set of facts and data, and the structures of their societies not as ineradicable monoliths but as malleable. Change then simply comes from the problem-solving skills they accumulated in the course of their education.
The Social Aspects of Learning
In “real life”, we learn through interaction with other people and the things around us. We are a product of our social environments, and we do not live in a bubble. Each learner brings with them a background of different cultures and lived experiences, and this means that every student learns differently. And through learning, they should be able to take the knowledge and skills acquired back to their communities to benefit them positively. This means that education should prepare students to be social beings.
Project work in today’s educational context doesn’t quite cover this. Project work forces students to band together with the goal of getting higher grades, where they commodify their peers to help them achieve their goals. Group work in critical pedagogy, however, should be about the synthesis of ideas and mutual growth. Instead of working for the end goal of grades, they should be taught to see project work as a means to learn from each other’s experiences and to dialogue with each other with the goal of finding new solutions to problems.
So how do we teach our students to do mathematics? By choosing engaging and natural problems suitable to their tastes, personalities, and level of experience. By giving them time to make discoveries and formulate conjectures. By helping them to refine their arguments and creating an atmosphere of healthy and vibrant mathematical criticism. By being flexible and open to sudden changes in direction to which their curiosity may lead. In short, by having an honest intellectual relationship with our students and our subject. – A Mathematician’s Lament
Beyond the classroom, students should be taught how to understand the functioning of the community they come from. They should understand that what they learnt within the walls of the classroom can be applied to life outside it. Even in play, they are extending their knowledge. The classroom should, as much as possible, be a microcosm of society, so that when they leave the school they can interact with other beings easily. This means that students should not be graded by the work produced in competition with other students, but on the help they give to others in mastering subjects. In this way, students learn to be helpful and caring, and they will work to build that kind of society outside of the schooling context.
There have been education trends in this direction. Australia developed “Science as a Human Endeavor” to develop students into socially critical and responsible agents, involving various cultures’ view of science and knowledge. To properly understand society, students have to be exposed to it in the classroom as a simulation to prepare them for the outside world. The current education system simply throws students a bunch of disconnected information then tosses them out into the world without any preparation for the intricacies of society. You wouldn’t trust a pilot who has only been in a classroom to fly your transatlantic flight, never having had a go at a flight simulator, would you?
The history of the world is a history of narratives, and should be taught as the continual pursuit of making things better. Learning from their pasts and backgrounds, students should then take that knowledge and create a better future. In this way, they can inherit the past to usher in the future (承先启后). One cannot expect citizens to engage in good faith in the public sphere when they do not have discussions about the wider impact of their subjects in class. By situating their individual experiences in the wider narrative of the history of humankind’s pursuit of knowledge, they can see themselves as active agents in changing history.
What Does This Mean, Practically?
There are educational philosophies with fancy names like “Constructivism” and “Experiential Education”, but they boil down to a key concept: letting the students be leaders of their education, while the teachers become facilitators. By allowing the students to choose their own paths of learning through play and exploration, they can develop the skills of curiosity, logical thinking, and others mentioned above. Play-based learning can be used to start kids developing these skills from a younger age, even in science and mathematics. To teachers trained in classical pedagogy this might seem like the beginnings of anarchy, but there is empirical research to show that young children think very similarly to the scientific method.
Knowing this, various teaching strategies have been proposed (the linked article is for university-level pedagogy, but why can’t these skills be applied to children too?). These involve active learning, formative assessments, dialogical learning, analogical thinking, and linking the subject with society. An example of the latter would be, as mentioned above, the use of studying classic literature to understand current events. For most people, literature cannot be studied for literature’s sake, and should be used to understand things that are happening in the world.
Yes, it takes way more work to engage each and every student individually and to think of problems to pose and ways to connect skills learnt in class to everyday life. But education is no easy work, and teachers themselves should be practitioners of critical thinking themselves before they can embed it into their teaching. They have to truly believe in the power of education to liberate and empower students to make their voices heard in the world and to seek change. Only critical thinkers can empower critical learners. Teachers should provide an open and critical environment for dialogical learning, and to understand their subject matter well enough to facilitate healthy discussions.
I would like to propose 4 criteria for a successful student of Critical Pedagogy:
- A learner that can seek truth from facts;
- A citizen who is open-minded but not easily swayed from their beliefs;
- A person who has self-awareness and constant metacognition, and;
- A thinker with clear, logical beliefs.
These four criteria start from the fundamental assumption that all humans are curious from birth, and that education should not stifle that curiosity but to enrich it. They should be able to actively participate in political life, and to enact change when they see fit. ‘Empowered student writers are effective and confident writers who have found their voice as social agents in both practical and political senses and they “write to transform”’. They are not simply taught to fear or blindly follow authority, but to dialogue with them and push for change. This is introduced at an early age by teachers not insisting on force-feeding students “knowledge”, but dialoguing and interacting with them.
Education should be teaching students skills, not just knowledge. Skills that can be applied in whatever field they wish to pursue in the future, skills that can be applied to cross-subject synthesis. The world is moving towards all-rounded knowledge, and the key to that is learning basic skills like reasoning and social awareness. The individual subjects should simply be case studies on the application of these skills. In this way, when the next generation rise to positions of power, they have had enough experience thinking critically about the societies they live in and how to change them. Discussions in the public sphere will be less polarised, and changed towards the more pressing issues that affect humanity and the world as a whole.
Addendum: The role of the teacher
I would like to add a section addressing some questions raised by some reviewers. I didn’t want to add this at first, feeling unqualified to give top-down suggestions from the perspective of teachers, but some questions require elucidations.
Firstly, doesn’t this model propose anarchy, where teachers take a laid-back approach and allow students to run wild? “How do you keep a bunch of teenagers hooked up on hormones to keep learning if there is a reduced amount of discipline and hierarchy?”, as one reviewer put it. I claim a decentralisation of the syllabus, not the “structures” of the classroom. Without teachers and classroom settings, all students are doing are playing. It is until someone informed about the subjects gathers them all at the end of the day to discuss what they have learnt and how to improve that we can call that “learning”.
An example of the decentralisation of the syllabus would be the Greek gymnasiums. In ancient Greece, young men were educated in a way which combined physical and mental powresses. Together with physically training their bodies, they learn through that about physics, medicine, and philosophy. They were free to choose which program they were inclined to that day, similar to the way university students choose their modules. An example in today’s context would be the IB syllabus, where students choose which subjects they wish to do within each subject group. Their grades are also determined by many small projects within the syllabus to test the students’ understanding of the skills picked up, rather than simply the knowledge gained.
Secondly, how do we ensure that students pick up relevant skills? This skills-based curriculum should involve clearly defined goals and milestones for students to reach at various points of their education. Instead of putting specific knowledge as the aim of the curriculum, these aims should be defined by competencies which will be necessary for students outside the classroom. This requires a fundamental change at policy level, and the way teachers are educated.
Lastly, how do we know if teachers would be up to the job? This is a three-sided problem. Teachers have to be tasked with building rapport with students, and to ensure that they understand and empathise with the needs of the students under their charge, before they can tailor the lessons to suit their needs. However, this tailoring can only come about if the state trusts teachers enough to meet the educational goals they set. And to do so, teachers have to be sufficiently qualified, with a possibly longer curriculum in pedagogy. This means less auditing, less KPIs, and more autonomy and trust in the teachers.
The author would like to thank Áron, Tuukka, and Changda for their valuable feedback and inspiration for this article.
About the author:
Nicholas Lim is the co-founder and lead editor of Cogito. His bachelor’s thesis was on the hierarchy problem and supersymmetry, and he hopes to pursue a Ph.D in the near future.
References can be requested at firstname.lastname@example.org
Featured image: The School of Athens (Italian: Scuola di Atene) is a fresco by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael. It was painted between 1509 and 1511 as a part of Raphael’s commission to decorate the rooms now known as the Stanze di Raffaello, in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican. Source: Medium.com
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