August 2011

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One size does not fit all: System needs to meet different needs

BY Noel Kalicharan

“Nobody can argue with the nobility of the vision of ‘school for all.’ What is terribly wrong with that notion is that we have interpreted it to mean ‘same school for all’.”

About 20 years ago, I wrote, “With each passing year, I see more evidence of the devastation the emphasis of our current education system has wrought on the best young minds in the country. Einstein once said that there is born into the minds of all men and women an intense curiosity and desire for knowledge, but for most people, this is soon educated out of them.”

We are all born with remarkable natural capacities but, unfortunately for many, these deteriorate over time. As Einstein suggested, the irony is that this happens because of education and our education systems. The result is that too many people never connect with their true talents and therefore don’t know what they are really capable of achieving.

In his book The Element, Ken Robinson tells the story of Gillian, an eight-year-old whose future was already at risk. Her schoolwork was a disaster and she was disruptive in class. The school was very concerned and suggested her parents take her to see a psychologist. The psychologist and her mother spoke for about 20 minutes and then he said to Gillian, “I need to speak to your mother privately now. We’re going to go out of the room for a few minutes. Don’t worry; we won’t be very long.” As they left the room, he turned on the radio. From outside, they could see into the room without being seen.

Nearly immediately, Gillian was on her feet, moving around the room to the music. The two adults stood watching quietly for a few minutes, transfixed by the girl’s grace. There was an expression of utter pleasure on her face. At last, the psychologist turned to Gillian’s mother and said, “You know, Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn’t sick. She’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school.”

Her mother did and Gillian Lynne went on to become one of the most accomplished dancers and choreographers of her time. She became a soloist dancer at the Royal Ballet School in London, performing all over the world. She eventually worked with Andrew Lloyd Webber to produce Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, two of the most successful musicals of all time.

This happened because someone looked deep into her eyes – someone who had seen children like her before and knew how to read the signs. Someone else might have diagnosed her as having ADHD, put her on medication such as Ritalin or Concerta, and told her to calm down. But Gillian wasn’t a problem child. She didn’t need to go away to a special school. She just needed to find expression for her true talents.

The book tells similar stories about Paul McCartney of The Beatles fame, Matt Groening (creator of The Simpsons), Dr. Paul Samuelson (the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Economics), Elvis Presley and many other famous and not-so-famous people. And Robinson cautions that these are not isolated examples.

We all know stories of people who became very successful without ever having had much formal schooling or who dropped out of school at an early age. When such stories are told, we tend to hear “they became successful despite not having a formal education.” I believe the opposite is true: they became successful because they dropped out of school, before the school system had a chance to strangle their creativity.

Many people blame the “school system” for a number of our ills, sometimes with good reason. When we talk about the school system, the implication is that there is one system for all. Nobody can argue with the nobility of the vision of “school for all.” What is terribly wrong with that notion is that we have interpreted it to mean “same school for all.”

“School for all” is a worthy social and political goal but don’t you think we were better off when fewer students actually went to high school? Don’t misunderstand me. I believe that everyone should be given the opportunity to pursue their ambition. However, the mistake we’ve made is to believe that school (the way it is structured) is for everyone. The result is that large numbers of students are deemed qualified to attend high school, but once there, are literally forced to try to learn things for which they have neither the aptitude nor the inclination.

Imagine a whole class (or an entire school!) of Gillian Lynnes! Clearly, we would think we have a discipline problem when the issue is simply that these students are in the wrong place. Before “school for all” those who didn’t make it to high school would find employment learning to be mechanics, carpenters, masons, tailors, seamstresses, etc. The society was better off for it – we all know how difficult it is to find a good mechanic or plumber these days – and there were fewer indiscipline problems in schools.

I believe that many of these problems arise from the great disconnect between what the student is being asked to do and what he/she really wants to do or is capable of doing. No wonder we are wasting such a high proportion of our human capital. The major reason for this vast waste is what Robinson calls “academicism,” the preoccupation with developing certain sorts of academic ability to the exclusion of others, and its confusion with general intelligence.

Many people do well in the school system as it is and enjoy what the education system has to offer. But too many leave school unsure of their real talents and of what direction to take next. Too many feel that what they’re good at isn’t valued or encouraged by schools. Too many are led to believe that they’re “a waste of time” and not good at anything.

Education systems across the world were developed to meet economic interests in the 18th and 19th centuries, interests that were driven by the Industrial Revolution (roughly 1760-1850) in Europe and America. Math, science, and language skills were essential for jobs in the industrial economies. Our education system is derived mainly from the British model.

While this system has worked well for the purpose for which it was intended, times have changed, and changed quite dramatically in the last 20 years. The one-size-fits-all approach to education stopped working a long time ago, yet we persist with it even as it becomes less relevant and effective.

How many schools teach dance and music every day as a formal part of the curriculum they way they teach math? Come to think of it, how many schools teach computer programming every day to all students they way they do science? I can make (and have made) a compelling case that all students, starting from elementary school, should learn computer programming.

I would wager that, in some of our schools, very many more students would be interested in dance and music than math. Interestingly, Gillian Lynne said that she did better in all of her subjects once she discovered dance. She was one of those people who had to “move to think.” Unfortunately, most children don’t find someone to play the role the psychologist played in Gillian’s life. When they fidget too much, they’re reprimanded or drugged and told to calm down.

The changes now sweeping the world are unprecedented. In terms of technological change and innovation, no other period in human history could match the present one for size, speed and complexity. We live in a world that none of us can predict what it would be like in ten years, much less fifty, when current secondary school students would be retiring. Given such uncertainty, those who can creatively adjust to a changing world are the ones who will survive. In such a world, we will not succeed with “business as usual school systems.”

We are preoccupied with preparing students for the world that existed two hundred years ago when we should be preparing them for the world of their future: a world in which many will have multiple careers over the course of their working lives and many will have jobs that haven’t been conceived as yet. All we know is that the future will be very different from it is now. Shouldn’t we be encouraging our students to explore as many avenues as possible with an eye to discovering their true talents and passions?

At graduation time, children will hear many speeches exhorting them to follow their dreams and pursue their passions – all good advice. But one gets the impression that they are supposed to do this only after they have left the school system. I submit that we should change the way we view education and restructure our education system so that many more of our young people can begin to pursue their dreams and ambitions during their school years.

If we do that, we will produce happy people whose lives have meaning and purpose in and beyond the work that they do. If we do not, many of our children will be left behind, leading to more crime and violence among the young; we would not be able to produce the problem-solvers and creative thinkers this country so desperately needs, and our society would descend to a level of anarchy and chaos we cannot even begin to imagine.

–Dr Noel Kalicharan is a senior lecturer in Computing & Information Technology at The UWI, St. Augustine Campus. This is an edited excerpt of an address given at Naparima College on July 8, 2011. Read the full text here.