A Defense of the Formal Education System (of sorts)
This paper chronicles some epiphanies I have had concerning the formal education system. We have spoken in class several times of the need of formal education reform. We have detailed how insufficient the current system is in creating creative thinkers or even educated thinkers. We have spoken of how the system sets many people up for failure and disregards many other children whose minds work in ways different from the ones prized by our system. I wholeheartedly agree with all these sentiments, but as I think on them, my mind harkens back to two incidents: a conversation I had with my friend who attended school in Ghana and a book I read for pleasure.
Gwen (not her real name) attended a private school that followed the Ghanaian curriculum until tenth grade, where she transferred to a prestigious school that taught in a British fashion the acclaimed international baccalaureate system. I myself was enrolled in a private school that taught the Ghanaian curriculum until seventh grade, when I switched to an American school that taught the international baccalaureate system. We found ourselves in liberal arts colleges in America, and during one of our conversations talked about the school system in Ghana (Gwen). Everything that has been touted to be wrong with school systems in America and the UK is wrong to a worse extent, in Ghana – the sciences are placed far above all other subjects, the schools do not nurture creativity, and many students do not receive the help they need (Robinson). In addition, cultural practices also mean that student feedback was not even a consideration – children out to remain silent in the presence of their elders, who know best (Gwen). I found myself comparing the education I received in the Ghanaian school to the one I received in the American school; the Ghanaian school came up wanting.
That was when Gwen surprised me. She stated that the loved her experience in the Ghanaian school and that it was one of the best anywhere. She further stated that she did not agree with attempts to pattern the school system after American schools or any other schools. She thought that what needed to be changed were the teaching methods and not the content or the hierarchical structure of the school (Gwen). The second incident occurred when I was reading Chinua Achebe’s The Education of a British-Protected Child. Achebe pointed out that no matter how evil the colonial system was, it is statistically impossible that it was completely evil. Colonialism had it benefits, albeit they were unintended consequences (Achebe). In the same way, the current system, which is immensely flawed, is also immensely good, something that is oft forgotten in the many criticisms of the formal education system.
It would also seem that many of the ideas we would tout as ideal and time-honored are not particularly so, or are taken out of context. Cole points out that individualized learning did occur in the past, as we rightly state (461). However, he points out that individualized learning, in almost all societies, is discarded in favor of some form of institutionalized learning once societies acquire some form of “advanced technology” (like bronze tools for agriculture) and begin to settle in large, relatively dense populations (Cole). In addition, it would seem that even in societies that have not acquired advanced technologies (like hunter-gatherer societies), individualized practical learning is also supplemented with some form of formal, institutionalized instruction (Cole). Thus came my first epiphany: the ideal of individualized learning is a myth, especially as societies become more complex. In fact, there has not been any society that has been recorded to exist solely through individualized learning. The reason for this lies not the institutionalized system, but in the culture of human beings. For the inhabitants of any social group to coexist in harmony, group values and ideals must be taught to the inhabitants of the group. From childhood, members of the group are socialized into the group, so that they may be able to function within the group. This suggests the notion of basics: we must have basic tenets we teach our young ones. Teaching them the tenets together is what creates an institutionalized, formalized mode of instruction (Cole, Robinson).
Like Gwen, I have come to believe, that it is not the structure that we need to change, nor even the content, but the methods of our teaching. I too remember my days in the Ghanaian school, and like Gwen, it was one of the best experiences of my life. It was where I made friends, and learned new things. My aunt loves to tell the story of how I came home from nursery school one day holding a library book under my armpit. Apparently we had talked about animals in school that day and I had decided my favorite was the hippopotamus. I proceeded to make everyone read my book and see the hippopotamus. I would not let go of the book for days, it would seem (Ladzekpo). The purpose of this little vignette is to show that, even for all its flaws, formal education can and does open up children’s minds, it does breed creative thinkers, it does open up possibilities. The problem is the packaging. I loved to read even at a young age (and still do), so reading for me is a natural vehicle to nurture my mind. I do not like to draw and most probably would not have been so enamored of hippos if I had had to draw one. Similarly, children who are auditorily stimulated would not gain much from a literature class if the teacher only made them read the material. Children who work best in spatial form would find sitting stationary in class torture.
Like Gwen says, much of the time, the material we are taught in school is useful for training creative, critical thinkers who are able to engage vibrantly with their world. However, like Sir Ken Robinson, it is our methods of teaching that stifle the benefits children might reap from the system. Perhaps instead of “reforming formal education systems,” what we should be attempting to do is “reforming teaching methods.” For too long, teachers have been taught to teach students in only one way, whatever that way is: lecture, interaction, whatever. That is the most important thing we can do: teach teachers to engage their students in a variety of ways. It is not the structure that counts – the structure is necessary and sufficient to the task. It is not even the substance that counts, since is also seems to be necessary and sufficient. It is the administration of it that counts: it is definitely insufficient!
Achebe, Chinua. The Education of a British-protected Child: Essays. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. Print.
Cole, Michael. "What's Culture Got to Do with It? Educational Research as a Necesarily Interdisciplinary Enerprise." Educational Researcher 39.6 (2010): 461-70. Print.
Gwen. "Discussion about education reform in Ghana." Discussuion. Summer 2010.
Ladzekpo, Caroline. "Discussion my childhood." Personal interview. Summer 2010.
Robinson, Ken. "Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity." TED: Ideas Worth Spreading. Feb. 2006.
TED.com. Web. 27 Sept. 2010. <http://www.ted.com/talks/ ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html>.