Saturday, March 6, 2010

What do we call education today?

No matter how many times I have asked myself this question over the last 4 years, I still do not seem to have a concrete answer.

From my point of view, our notion of formal education, at least where it relates to higher learning from a Bachelors' Degree onwards, seems to have evolved into a structured hierarchy of training. Students globally compete to attend institutions of higher learning, many of whose names are known worldwide. Some institutions become credible for hosting driven and committed students who expect to land top jobs (check out a forum discussion here) for a variety of reasons, including a large alumni body, community partnerships, or privately funded fellowships.

In the process of accommodating more students applying to more institutions, guidelines have been formed that have today become solidified. That is, institutions are standardizing the way they teach, so as to preserve methods that produce effective results in students.

But they are not standardizing the way they, as institutions of higher learning, learn from their students. If we define formal education at the primary and secondary level as foundational instruction, at the tertiary level we expect education that also involves dialogue. We expect to learn through implementation, and through mutual understanding of value-based conclusions. I do not see this happening much on the tertiary level. What I see more often is a uniform solution to educating that has high barriers to entry and success.

I imagine a system of higher learning education that provides opportunity more than listed qualifications. I imagine a system where the role of students and teachers merge in the classroom. Teachers still teach core curriculum, but embedded in the curriculum is also what students learn from their implementation of the subject, either through experimentation or extended study. See one example of how teachers can in fact play the role of social change makers here.

So my take on this is that there's two solutions, or one that is a combination of two. First, I think the bigger, better-known institutions of higher learning (Harvard and Oxford are two distinguished examples) need to talk to each other. They need to talk to each other about their curricula, and about how they engage students to add value in the world after their studies as opposed to just during. They also need to figure out how they can collaborate to produce what the real product of education should be - understanding as a basis of human progress - instead of producing statistics of how better one institutions' education is better than the other.

Secondly, I think students need to become more aware of their potential as knowledge seekers and implementers. They need to discuss how opportunity for learning lies both, within and outside, the classroom. They need to work together to create projects that, even when they fail, can be learned from.

A combination of these two - a dialogue between both, higher learning institutions and students - would effectively adjust the status quo of what we call education today. Once again, this is my point of view.

Carpe diem.


  1. This is interesting; I like this post, I am trying to understand a few of your points here, hence I have some questions:

    Do you think that it is detrimental for educational institutions to act as separate corporations competing against eachother? Competition tends to spawn innovation as you have to continue to outdo one another so that may improve things. But obviously there are countless pros to increasing collaboration between the institutions. I guess ultimately my question is, when you say that schools should talk to each other about their curricula, do you mean that the goal should be to approach a standardized curriculum? A standardized way of teaching? Also, do we know that schools don't already talk to eachother about their curricula?

    Another aside is what you mean by "understanding as a basis of human progress" - is this not already the product of education? To give us information and understanding. I wonder whether "understanding" is enough -- I think perhaps education should be pushing us not to understand but to, as you say later become "knowledge seekers". I think it's important to teach students to be critical of their surroundings and be critical even of things that they think they understand. That is, to always try and look for a deeper understanding regardless of what we think we already know.

    I realize I have a lot of questions/comments here. Interested to hear your thoughts/answers!

  2. Thanks neechi. I've made a lot of assumptions, including that schools don't talk to eachother. I have also assumed that it's the standardization that is causing the lack of "talking".

    By suggesting that schools should talk to eachother, I mean that the core knowledge that these schools share should be exchanged, on a very large and dynamic scale. In this case, it would mean more than just exchanging curriculi, but different schools (globally, not just the developed world) discussing how they can include multiple perspectives (including cultural background) in their own service of education.

    Of course, this assumes that this 'cultural education' exchange doesn't already happen globally.

    And here I agree with you - that it's important to teach students to seek deeper, critical understanding. While we continue to gain more access to information right to ourselves as individuals as opposed to in a classroom with others, it's important to build collective environments. The "understanding as a basis of human progress" was a wack sentance :)

    Thanks again. Let me know.

  3. Al,

    This post came at a great time. Just this weekend I was in the northern Malaysian state of Penang on business and my current "business" is in education. I was sitting in education fairs and went to a few local colleges to speak. In the end I felt like I was selling education like a commodity but I see that education has become a commodity and it is certainly reflective of the different systems of education that have come up in the Western world.

    Take the UK and Australian models. After O-levels, students go into an A-level program or other pre-university program and by the time they take their entrance exams they need to know what they want to do. They are streamed from very early on and undergraduate degrees in these systems are on average a year shorter than US degrees (due to the absence of general education requirements) and are much more intensive in the fields they want to go into. This isn't to say the US liberal arts system (with on average 2 years of gen ed and 2 years of coursework in your major) is super better, but it is more flexible.

    That said, it is at the graduate level where we see streaming in the American system and debating about what master's program to enroll in is as serious as anything else. Which degree program will give me better career prospects? More money in the long run? Seldom is getting a graduate solely about "the love of learning", though for many who continue may indeed have this in mind. For certain fields certainly, a master's degree and some graduate training is essential. And when we invest money into our education we definitely want to make sure it pays off. But is it essential that everyone in the world go to grad schools for specialized degrees, especially as emerging fields are, well, emerging all the time? Does every single field of study known to man need a professional degree, or can we have graduate degrees in liberal arts for those who are content in learning?

    Thanks again for this post!!