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..

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

– 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.

JEE and school system

“The old JEE (is?) destroying school system, leading to rampant coaching industry, biased in favour of urban areas and boys.”

“IITs cannot pursue excellence at the cost of the school system. They must also have a stake in Board exams.”

via Firstpost.

What Kapil Sibbal says is maybe true. But the damage is already done. Lets see what is the outcome of this.

If sharks were people…

This is how one of the most subversive books School is Dead by Everett Reimer opens.

‘If sharks were people,’ his landlady’s little daughter asked Mr. K, ‘would they be nicer to the little fish?’ ‘Of course,’ he said, ‘if sharks were people, they would have strong boxes built in the sea for little fish. There they would put in all sorts of food, plants and little animals, too. They would see to it that the boxes always had fresh water, and they would take absolutely every sort of sanitary measure. When, for example, a little fish would injure his fin, it would be immediately bandaged so that he would not die on the sharks before his time had come. In order that the little fish would never be sad, there would be big water parties from time to time; for happy fish taste better than sad ones. Of course, there would be schools in the big boxes as well. There the little fish would learn how to swim into the mouths of the sharks. They would need, for example, geography so that they could find the sharks, lazing around somewhere. The main subject would naturally be the moral education of the little fish. They would be taught that the grandest, most beautiful thing is for a little fish to offer himself happily, and that they must all believe in the sharks, above all when they say that they will provide for a beautiful future. One would let the little fish know that this future is only assured  when they learn obedience. They must shy away from all lowly, materialistic and Marxist inclinations, and inform the sharks immediately if any one of them betrayed such tendencies. … If sharks were people, there would of course be art as well. There would be beautiful pictures of sharks’ teeth, all in magnificent colors, of their mouths and throats as pure playgrounds where one can tumble and play. The theatres on the bottom of the sea would offer plays showing heroic little fish swimming enthusiastically down the throats of the sharks, and the music would be so beautiful that its sounds would lead the little fish dreamily to the chapels and, filled with the most pleasant thoughts, they would stream down the sharks’ throats. There would certainly be religion. … It would teach that true life really begins in the sharks’ bellies. And if sharks were people, the little fish would stop being, as they are now, equals. Some would be given offices and be put over the others. Those a little bigger would even be allowed to eat the smaller ones. That would  only be delightful for the sharks, for then they would more often have bigger crumbs to gobble up. And the most important of the little fish, those with offices, would look to the ordering of the little fish. And they would become teachers, officers, box-building engineers, etc. In short, there could only be culture in the sea if the sharks were people.’

Bertolt Brecht: Kalendergeschichten