The problem with what is taught in schools

Many people have written on the problem of what is taught in schools and why children don’t like what they study. One of the major issue seems to be there is no direct relevance to what children are taught in the school and their own personal and social lives. The content in the school textbooks has been dissected of any meaningful connections that the children could make in their real lives. The school tasks are decontextualised so that they become insulated from the real world. The quote below very nicely captures what I wanted to say on this issue.

These kinds of situated-learning tasks are different from most school tasks, because school tasks are decontextualized. Imagine learning tennis by being told the rules and practicing the forehand, backhand, and serve without ever playing or seeing a tennis match. If tennis were taught that way, it would be hard to see the point of what you were learning. But in school, students are taught algebra and Shakespeare without cognitive apprenticeship being given any idea of how they might be useful in their lives. That is not how a coach would teach you to play tennis. A coach might first show you how to grip and swing the racket, but very soon you would be hitting the ball and playing games. A good coach would have you go back and forth between playing games and working on particular skills – combining global and situated learning with focused local knowledge.

Allan Collins – Cognitive Apprenticeship (The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences)

Papert too has some nice metaphors for this, and constructionism hence includes problems or projects which are personally meaningful to the learner so that they are contextualised withing the lives of the learners..

Conditioning hatred for books

INFANT NURSERIES. NEO-PAVLOVIAN CONDITIONING ROOMS, announced the notice board.

The Director opened a door. They were in a large bare room, very bright and sunny; for the whole of the southern wall was a single win-dow. Half a dozen nurses, trousered and jacketed in the regulation white viscose-linen uniform, their hair aseptically hidden under white caps, were engaged in setting out bowls of roses in a long row across the floor. Big bowls, packed tight with blossom. Thousands of petals, ripe-blown and silkily smooth, like the cheeks of innumerable little cherubs, but of cherubs, in that bright light, not exclusively pink and Aryan, but also luminously Chinese, also Mexican, also apoplectic with too much blowing of celestial trumpets, also pale as death, pale with the posthumous whiteness of marble.

The nurses stiffened to attention as the D.H.C. came in.

“Set out the books,” he said curtly.

In silence the nurses obeyed his command. Between the rose bowls the books were duly set out-a row of nursery quartos opened invitingly each at some gaily coloured image of beast or fish or bird.

“Now bring in the children.”

They hurried out of the room and returned in a minute or two, each
pushing a kind of tall dumb-waiter laden, on all its four wire-netted
shelves, with eight-month-old babies, all exactly alike (a Bokanovsky
Group, it was evident) and all (since their caste was Delta) dressed in
khaki.

“Put them down on the floor.” The infants were unloaded.

“Now turn them so that they can see the flowers and books.”

Turned, the babies at once fell silent, then began to crawl towards those clusters of sleek colours, those shapes so gay and brilliant on the white pages. As they approached, the sun came out of a momentary eclipse behind a cloud. The roses flamed up as though with a sudden passion from within; a new and profound significance seemed to suffuse the shining pages of the books. From the ranks of the crawling babies came little squeals of excitement, gurgles and twitterings of pleasure.

The Director rubbed his hands. “Excellent!” he said. “It might almost have been done on purpose.”

The swiftest crawlers were already at their goal. Small hands reached out uncertainly, touched, grasped, unpetaling the transfigured roses, crumpling the illuminated pages of the books. The Director waited until all were happily busy. Then, “Watch carefully,” he said. And, lifting his hand, he gave the signal.

The Head Nurse, who was standing by a switchboard at the other end of the room, pressed down a little lever.

There was a violent explosion. Shriller and ever shriller, a siren shrieked. Alarm bells maddeningly sounded.

The children started, screamed; their faces were distorted with terror.

“And now,” the Director shouted (for the noise was deafening), “now we proceed to rub in the lesson with a mild electric shock.”

He waved his hand again, and the Head Nurse pressed a second lever. The screaming of the babies suddenly changed its tone. There was something desperate, almost insane, about the sharp spasmodic yelps to which they now gave utterance. Their little bodies twitched and stiffened; their limbs moved jerkily as if to the tug of unseen wires.

“We can electrify that whole strip of floor,” bawled the Director in explanation. “But that’s enough,” he signalled to the nurse.

The explosions ceased, the bells stopped ringing, the shriek of the siren died down from tone to tone into silence. The stiffly twitching bodies relaxed, and what had become the sob and yelp of infant maniacs broadened out once more into a normal howl of ordinary terror.

“Offer them the flowers and the books again.”

The nurses obeyed; but at the approach of the roses, at the mere sight of those gaily-coloured images of pussy and cock-a-doodle-doo and baa-baa black sheep, the infants shrank away in horror, the volume of their howling suddenly increased.

“Observe,” said the Director triumphantly, “observe.”

Books and loud noises, flowers and electric shocks-already in the infant mind these couples were compromisingly linked; and after two hundred repetitions of the same or a similar lesson would be wedded indissolubly. What man has joined, nature is powerless to put asunder.

“They’ll grow up with what the psychologists used to call an ‘instinctive’ hatred of books and flowers. Reflexes unalterably conditioned. They’ll be safe from books and botany all their lives.” The Director turned to his nurses. “Take them away again.”

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Though fictionalised the above passages capture what makes people hate books in general. The conditioning happens in reality in a more subtle manner. The conditioning laboratory is the school. In school children are made to engage with the books, textbooks in most cases, in the most artificial and dishonest matter. Another problem is the quality of textbooks themselves. Though the school has a “textbook culture”, not enough effort is put in by the writers and designers of the textbooks to make the best that they can offer. Instead cheap, copy-paste techniques, and a mix-and-match fashioned content is crammed and printed onto those pages glued together called as textbooks. No wonder, people when they grow up don’t like books or run away at the sight of them. Its just behaviorism at work with Pavlov portrait in the background.

Schooled and unschooled education

It is difficult now to challenge the school as a system because we are
so used to it. Our industrial categories tend to define results as
products of specialized institutions and instruments, Armies produce
defence for countries. Churches procure salvation in an
afterlife. Binet defined intelligence as that which his tests
test. Why not, then, conceive of education as the product of schools?
Once this tag has been accepted, unschooled education gives the
impression of something spurious, illegitimate and certainly
unaccredited.

– Ivan Illich (Celebration of Awareness)

Einstein on his school experience

One had to cram all this stuff into one’s mind, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year … is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty. To the contrary, I believe that it would be possible to rob even a healthy beast of prey of its voraciousness, if it were possible, with the aid of a whip, to force the beast to devour continuously, even when not hungry – especially if the food, handed out under such coercion, were to be selected accordingly.

Seeing that even almost a hundred years later it is almost unchanged gives one an idea of how little effort has gone into changing how we learn.

The Art of Not Reading

The art of not reading is a very important one. It consists in not taking an interest in whatever may be engaging the attention of the general public at any particular time. When some political or ecclesiastical pamphlet, or novel, or poem is making great commotion, You should remember That he who writes for fools Always finds a large public. – A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.
– Arthur Schopenhauer

Very relevant quote with the kind of circus main stream media has become in India.

The Pendulum and The Fixed Points

… And then last year, when I saw the Pen­dulum, I understood everything.”

“Everything?”

“Almost everything. You see, Casaubon, even the Pendulum is a false prophet. You look at it, you think it’s the only fixed point in the cosmos, but if you detach it from the ceiling of the Conserva­toire and hang it in a brothel, it works just the same. And there are other pendulums: there’s one in New York, in the UN building, there’s one in the science museum in San Francisco, and God knows how many others. Wherever you put it, Foucault’s Pendulum swings from a motionless point while the earth rotates beneath it. Every point of the universe is a fixed point: all you have to do is hang the Pendulum from it.”

– Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

Cosmetic Intellectuals (+ IYI)

In the last few years, the very connotation of the term intellectual has seen a downward slope. Such are the times that we are living in that calling someone an “intellectual” has become more like an insult rather than a compliment: it means an idiot who doesn’t understand or see things clearly. Now as the title of the post suggests it is this meaning, not the other meaning intellectuals who know about cosmetics. Almost two decades back Alan Sokal wrote a book titled Intellectual Impostures, which described quite a few of them. In this book, Sokal exposed the posturing done by people of certain academic disciplines who were attacking science from a radical postmodernist perspective. What Sokal showed convincingly through his famous hoax, is that many of these disciplines are peddling out bullshit with no control over the meaning contained. Only the form was important not the meaning. And in the book, he takes it a step forward, showing that this was not an isolated case. He exposes the misuse of the technical terms (which often have precise and operational meanings) as loose metaphors or even worse completely neglecting the accepted meaning of those terms. The examples given are typical, and you cannot make sense of what is being written. You can read, but cannot understand. It makes no sensible meaning. At this point, you start to doubt your own intelligence and intellectual competence, perhaps you have not read enough to understand this complex piece of knowledge. It was after all written by an intellectual. Perhaps you are not aware of the meaning of the jargon or their context, hence you are not able to understand it. After all there are university departments and journals dedicated to such topics. Does it not legitimise such disciplines as academic and its proponents/followers as intellectuals? Sokal answered it empirically by testing if presented with nonsense whether it makes any difference to the discipline. You are not able to make sense of these texts because they are indeed nonsensical. To expect any semblance of logic and rationality in them is to expect too much.

Nassim Taleb has devised the term Intellectual Yet Idiots (the IYI in the title) in his Incerto series. He minces no words and takes no bullshit. Sokal appears very charitable in comparison. Taleb sets the bar even higher. Sokal made a point to attack mostly the postmodernists, but Taleb bells the cats who by some are even considered proper academics, for example, Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. He considers entire disciplines as shams, which are otherwise considered academic, like economics, but has equal if not more disdain to several others also, for example, psychology and gender studies. Taleb has at times extreme views on several issues and he is not afraid to speak of his mind on matters that matter to him. His writings are arrogant, but his content is rigorous and mathematically sound.

they aren’t intelligent enough to define intelligence, hence fall into circularities—their main skill is a capacity to pass exams written by people like them, or to write papers read by people like them.

But there are people who are like IYIs, but don’t even have the depth of the content or knowledge of IYIs. They are wannabe IYIs, all form no conent. They are a level below IYIs. I term such people as cosmetic intellectuals (cosint). We have met them before: they are the envious mediocre and the ones who excel in meetings. The term cosmetic is used in two senses both as adjectives. The first sense is the Loreal/Lakme/Revlon fashion sense as given from the dictionary entry below:

cosmetic

  • relating to treatment intended to restore or improve a person’s appearance
  • affecting only the appearance of something rather than its substance

It is the second sense that I mean in this post. It is rather the substance of these individuals that is only present in the appearance. And as we know appearance can be deceiving. Cosints appear intellectuals, but only in appearance, hence the term cosmetic. So how does one become a Cosint? Here is a non-exhaustive list that can be an indicator (learn here is not used in the deeper sense of the word, but more like as in rote-learn):

  1. Learn the buzzwords: Basically they rote learn the buzzwords or the jargon of the field that they are in. One doesn’t need to understand the deeper significance or meaning of such words, in many cases just knowing the words works. In the case of education, some of these are (non-comprehensive): constructivism, teaching-learning process, milieu, constructivist approaches, behaviorism, classroom setting, 21st-century skills, discovery method, inquiry method, student-centered, blended learning, assessments, holistic, organic, ethnography, pedagogy, curriculum, TLMs. ZPD, TPD, NCF, RTE, (the more complicated the acronyms, the better). More complicated it sounds the better. They learn by association that certain buzzwords have a positive value (for example, constructivism) and other a negative one (for example, behaviorism) in the social spaces where they usually operate in, for example, in education departments of universities and colleges. Not that the Cosints are aware of the deeper meaning of there concepts, still they make a point of using them whenever possible. They make a buzz using the buzzwords. If you ask them about Piaget, they know the very rudimentary stuff, anything deeper and they are like rabbits in front of flashlight. They may talk about p-values, 𝛘2 tests, 98.5 % statistical significances, but when asked will not be able to distinguish between dependent and independent variables.
  2. Learn the people: The CosInts are also aware of the names of the people in their trade. And they associate the name to a concept or of a classic work. They are good associating. For example, (bad) behaviorism with Burrhus F. Skinner or Watson, hence Skinner bad. Or Jean Piaget with constructivism and stages (good). Vygotsky: social constructivism, ZPD. Or John Dewey and his work. So they have a list of people and concepts. Gandhi: Nayi Taleem.  Macauley: brought the English academic slavery on India (bad).
  3. Learn the classics: They will know by heart all the titles of the relevant classics and some modern ones (you have to appear well-read after all). Here just remembering the names is enough. No one is going to ask you what was said in section 1.2 of Kothari Commission. Similarly, they will rote learn the names of all the books that you are supposed to have read, better still carry a copy of these books and show off in a class. Rote learn a few sentences, and spew it out like a magic trick in front of awestruck students. Items #1 through #3 don’t work very well when they have real intellectual in front of them. A person with a good understanding of basics will immediately discover the fishiness of the facade they put up. But that doesn’t matter most of the time, as we see in the next point.
  4. Know the (local) powerful and the famous: This is an absolute must to thrive with these limitations. Elaborated earlier.
  5. Learn the language aka Appear academic (literally not metaphorically): There is a stereotype of academic individuals. They will dress in a particular manner (FabIndia?, pyor cotton wonly, put a big Bindi, wear a Bongali kurta etc, carry ethnic items, conference bags (especially the international ones), even conference stationery), carry themselves in a particular manner, talk in a particular manner (academese). This is also true of wannabe CosInt who are still students, they learn to imitate as soon as they enter The Matrix. Somehow they will find ways of using names and concepts from #1 #2 #3 in their talk, even if they are not needed. Show off in front of the students, especially in front of the students. With little practice one can make an entire classroom full of students believe that you are indeed learned, very learned. Any untoward questions should be shooed off, or given so tangential an answer that students are more confused than they were earlier.
  6. Attend conferences, seminars and lectures: The primary purpose is network building and making sure that others register you as an academic. Also, make sure that you ask a question or better make a tangential comment after the seminar so that everyone notices you. Ask the question for the sake of asking the question (even especially if you don’t have any real questions). Sometimes the questions devolve into verbal diarrhea and don’t remain questions and don’t also have any meaning that can be derived from them (I don’t have a proper word to describe this state of affairs, but it is like those things which you know when you see it). But you have to open your mouth at these events, especially when you have nothing substantial/meaningful to say. This is how you get recognition. Over a decade of attending various conferences on education in India, I have come to realise that it is akin to a cartel. You go to any conference, you will see a fixed set of people who are common to these conferences. Many of these participants are the cosints (both the established and the wannabes). After spending some time in the system they become organisers of such conferences, seminars and lectures definitely get other CosInts to these conferences. These are physical citation rings, I call you to my conference you call me to yours. Year after year, I see the same patterns, so much so I can predict, like while watching a badly written and cliche movie, what is going to happen when they are around. That person has to ask a question and must use a particular buzzword. (I myself don’t ask or comment, unless I think I have something substantial to add. Perhaps they think in same manner, just that their definition of substantial is different than mine.) Also, see #5, use the terms in #1, #2 and #3. Make sure to make a personal connection with all the powerful and famous you find there, also see #4.
  7. Pedigree matters: Over the years, I have seen the same type of cosints coming from particular institutions. Just like you can predict certain traits of a dog when you know its breed, similarly one can predict certain traits of individuals coming from certain institutions. Almost without exception, one can do this, but certain institutions have a greater frequency of cosints. Perhaps because the teachers who are in those places are themselves IYI+cosints. Teaching strictly from a  prescribed curriculum and rote-learning the jargon: most students just repeat what they see and the cycle continues. Sometimes I think these are the very institutions that are responsible for the sorry state of affairs in the country. They are filled to the brim with IYIs, who do not have any skin in the game and hence it doesn’t matter what they do. Also, being stamped as a product of certain institution gives you some credibility automatically, “She must be talking some sense, after all he is from DU/IIT/IIM/JNU/”
  8. Quantity not quality: Most of us are not going to create work which will be recognised the world over (Claude Shannon published very infrequently, but when he did it changed the world). Yet were are in publish or perish world. CosInts know this, so they publish a lot. It doesn’t matter what is the quality is (also #4 and #5 help a lot). They truly are environmentalists. They will recycle/reuse the same material with slight changes for different papers and conferences, and surprisingly they also get it there (also #4 and #5 help a lot). So, at times, you will find a publication list which even a toilet paper roll may not be able to contain. Pages after pages of publications! Taleb’s thoughts regarding this are somewhat reassuring, so is the Sokal’s hoax, that just when someone has publications (a lot of them) it is not automatic that they are meaningful.
  9. Empathisers and hypocrites: Cosints are excellent pseudo-emphatisers. They will find something to emphathise with. Maybe a class of people, a class of gender (dog only knows how many). Top of the list are marginalised, poor low socio-economic status, underprivileged, rural schools, government students, school teachers, etc. You get the picture.  They will use the buzz words in the context of these entities they emphathise with. Perhaps, once in their lifetimes, they might have visited those whom they want to give their empathy, but otherwise, it is just an abstract entity/concept.(I somehow can’t shake image of Arshad Warsi in MunnaBhai MBBS “Poor hungry people” while writing about this.) It is easier to work with abstract entities than with real ones, you don’t have to get your hands (or other body parts) dirty. The abstract teacher will do this, will behave in this way: they will write a 2000 word assignment on a terse subject. This is all good when designing things because abstract concepts don’t react in unwanted ways. But when things don’t go as planned in real world, teachers don’t react at all! The blame is on everyone else except the cosints. Perhaps they are too dumb to understand that it is they are at fault. Also, since they don’t have skin in the game, they will tell and advise whatever they have heard or think to be good, when it is implemented on others. For example, if you talk to people especially from villages, they will want to learn English as it is seen as the language which will give them upward mobility. But cosints, typically in IYI style, some researchers found that it is indeed the mother tongue which is better for students to learn, it should be implemented everywhere. The desires and hopes of those who will be learning be damned, they are too “uneducated” to understand what they need. It is the tyranny of fake experts at work here.

    He thinks people should act according to their best interests and he knows their interests… When plebeians do something that makes sense to themselves, but not to him, the IYI uses the term “uneducated.” (SITG Taleb)

    Now one would naturally want to know under what conditions that research was done? was there any ideological bias of the researchers? whether it is applicable in as diverse a country as India? What do we do of local “dialects”? But they don’t do any of this. Instead, they will attack anyone who raises these doubts, especially in #6. They want to work only with the government schools: poor kids, poor teachers no infrastructure. But ask them where their own children study: they do in private schools! But their medium must be their mother tongue right? No way, it is completely English medium, they even learn Hindi in English. But at least the state board? No CBSE, or still better ICSE. Thus we see the hypocrisy of the cosint, when they have the skin in the game. But do they see it themselves? Perhaps not, hence they don’t feel any conflict in what they do.

So we see that IYI /cosint are not what they seem or consider themselves. Over the last decade or so, with the rise of the right across the world is indicating to everyone that something is wrong when cosints tell us what to do. The tyranny of pseudo-experts has to go.  But why it has come to that the “intellectuals” who are supposed to be the cream of the human civilisation, the thinkers, the ideators, so why the downfall? Let us first look at the meaning of the term, so as to be not wrong about that:

 The intellectual person is one who applies critical thinking and reason in either a professional or a personal capacity, and so has authority in the public sphere of their society; the term intellectual identifies three types of person, one who:

  1. is erudite, and develops abstract ideas and theories;
  2. a professional who produces cultural capital, as in philosophy, literary criticism, sociology, law, medicine, science; and
  3. an artist who writes, composes, paints and so on.

Intellectual (emphasis mine)

Now, see in the light of the above definition, it indeed seems that it must be requiring someone to be intelligent and/or well-cultured individual. So why the change in the tones now? The reasons are that the actual intellectual class has degraded and cosints have replaced them, also too much theory and no connect with the real world has made them live in a simulacrum which is inhabited and endorsed by other cosints. And as we have seen above it is a perpetuating cycle, running especially in the universities (remember Taleb’s qualification). They theorize and jargonise (remember the buzzwords) simple concepts so much that no one who has got that special glossary will understand it). And cosints think it is how things should be. They write papers in education, supposedly for the betterment of the classroom teaching by the teachers, in such a manner that if you give it to a teacher, they will not be able to make any sense of it, leave alone finding something useful. Why? Because other cosints/IYI demand it! If you don’t write a paper in a prescribed format it is rejected, if it doesnt have enough statistics it is rejected, if it doesn’t give enough jargon in the form of theoretical review, and back scratching in the form of citations it is rejected. So what good are such papers which don’t lead to practice? And why should the teachers listen to you if you don’t have anything meaningful to tell them or something they don’t know already?

The noun to describe them:

sciolist – (noun) – One who engages in pretentious display of superficial knowledge.

On Books and Bookcases

“But I am apt to use my books at any time,” I explain to the salesman. “I never can tell when it is coming on me. And when I want a book I want it quickly. I don’t want to have to send down to the office for the key, and I don’t want to have to manipulate any trick ball-bearings and open up a case as if I were getting cream-puffs out for a customer. I want a bookcase for books and not books for a bookcase.

–  Robert Benchley