Why isn’t school very cool? Have we asked our kids yet?

Look what education is doing to me!
A few days ago, while cleaning the spare room in our home, I came across a piece of paper stuck on to the wall. These words were scribbled on it: “I was born brilliant – but education ruined me!” (see photo).

My daughter Dhara, 14, admitted authorship without any hesitation. It’s not her original line, of course — but a clear reflection of how she feels about schooling and formal education. When we think about it, these few innocent words become a severe indictment of a mass-scale system in which families, societies and countries invest so much money, time and hope.

She’s certainly not alone in her misgivings about the value of institutionalised education. As George Bernard Shaw once declared, “The only time I interrupted my education was in school.”

Although I had a happy school life, I can well appreciate how and why many people feel like this about school. Don’t take my word for it – do a quick, random sampling of those around you. How many of them will admit to having happy memories of their school days?

Let’s face it: the whole concept of a school is flawed. Education may be a great leveller among human beings, but schooling in most parts of the world operates at the lowest common denominator level. How can you group together 30 or 40 children at random, expose them to the same curriculum, imparted at the same pace, and expect all to thrive? Some will keep up; others will lag behind; and a few will be completely bored out of their minds – like I was, for a good part of my primary and secondary schooling.

Yet there is not much that even the most dedicated teacher could do under such trying circumstances. Oddly enough, no one in any self-respecting healthcare system would want to prescribe the same medicine for patients with very different ailments. Yet the one-size-fits-all approach is never questioned when it comes to education. Why?

A hapless school kid being primed for the Great Rat Race - cartoon by W R Wijesoma, 1994

One reason why this abuse has thrived is because no one listens to the most important voice in this debate: the average schoolgirl and schoolboy. The learner’s perspective is largely missing in most educational policies and plans. There is so much emphasis on teaching, infrastructure, performance and resources. The handful of men and women who decide what should be taught in our schools hardly ever pause to think how their decisions affect the last link in the chain: the hapless, overburdened, over-driven student. Over 4 million of them — like the one in the cartoon above.

Must things remain like this forever? Is there any hope that our much-tinkered (and much-maligned) education system could one day be more student friendly, more learning oriented and more responsive to the different needs of different students? Will those in charge of the system begin to treat students and teachers as something more than movable statistics? And most importantly, can we restore the joy of learning, the sense of wonder and fun of schooling?

I don’t have easy answers to these – nobody does. But these are worth asking, even if they are uncomfortable and unpopular questions to pose. For too long, the formal education sector has carried on with its business-as-usual with the typical self-righteousness and arrogance of a matronly school principal.

It’s time for us to storm the citadels of learning and make them more caring, accommodating and sensitive to the needs of the most important people in the system: the learners.

Nothing less than our children’s individual and collective futures are at stake.

Note: The views in this blog post are adapted from a longer essay I wrote in 2002, titled Let’s Restore the Joy of Learning.

Related blog post, March 2010: SOS from the Next Generation: “We need Good Parents!”

A perilous journey covering school, lessons, tuition classes, exams...Cartoon by W R Wijesoma, 1994