Judging a fish by its ability to climb

Here’s an excerpt from an essay called “An Education Allegory” by Aesop Jr., published way back in 1898.

“A long time ago, when the animal creation was being differentiated into swimmers, climbers, fliers, and runners, there was a school for the development of the animals. The theory of the school was that the best animals should be able to do one thing as well as another; and if there was an apparent aptitude in a given animal for doing one thing and an apparent inaptitude for doing other things, the time and effort should be spent upon the latter instead of the former.

If one had short legs and good wings, the attention should be given to running so as to even up the qualities as far as possible. So the duck was kept waddling instead of swimming, the pelican was kept wagging his short wings in the attempt to fly. The eagle was made to run and allowed to fly only for recreation, while maturing tadpoles were unmercifully guyed for being neither one thing nor another.

All this in the name of Education.

Nature was not to be trusted in her make up of individuals, for individuals should be symmetrically developed and similar for their own welfare as well as for the welfare of the community. The animals that would not submit to such training, but persisted in developing the best gifts they had, were dishonored, called narrow-minded and specialists, and special difficulties were placed in their way when they attempted to ignore the theory of education recognized by the school.”

The education system makes an assumption – that students are raw materials and are processed through each level of the education system. They are tested periodically and batched into standards. When they graduate, they receive a degree – the extent to which their processing is complete.

The concept of a classroom full of students listening to a teacher’s monologue was created by industrialists. My university took it even further by grading students using a bell curve, with standard deviations. One required at least 3 sigmas for securing the top grade.

Another assumption the system makes is that children lack discipline and have to be threatened into learning by administering examinations. This is the reason school isn’t fun for most children. I’ve woken up from many a nightmare where I am trapped unprepared in the midst of an exam. Perhaps you can relate to this too.

The real truth is that humans have always been natural born learners. The education system merely imposes industrial standards on children. When they fail to adhere to these standards, this is cited as proof of the assumption. As students, we are all trapped in this wicked self-fulfilling prophecy. What makes things worse is that we have known this for more than a hundred years now.

As Indian children, cricket came naturally to us. We watched every minute of 5-day test matches, often waking up at 4 AM to catch the ones played in New Zealand. Cricket is a game packed with statistics, and yet, we knew the batting averages and bowling averages of several players, including their best and worst performances. To keep track of overs, we learnt to divide and multiply by 6 without thinking. We watched our television sets and implemented what we learnt on the playground. Every Indian boy is a half-decent cricketer. And yet, there was no system that imposed this on us. No examinations to measure our progress. To learn was to play, and to play was to learn.

So this is the challenge thrown forward to educators in the 21st century. Our outdated methods that produce homogeneous obedient students is doing more harm than good. With technology in our midst, we can transform this system from ground up. For instance, every student can watch pre-recorded lectures and use classroom sessions to complete their learning by doing fun assignments, rather than by passively listening.

Most importantly, we have run out of excuses to stick to this flawed artifact, which we have clung on to for more than a century past its useful life.

Inspiration: Seth Godin’s mind-bending podcast – Akimbo

Source: An Educational Allegory

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