"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Monday, February 25, 2013

Make Us Think or Make Us Sink

I recently read an article by Anna Gabriell Balan, a psychology sophomore at the University of the Philippines, Visayas. This article, "Education in the Clouds" was published as an opinion piece in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Here are some excerpts:
For sheer adventure, I was led to a place where science is taught but is often contradicted by practice. I had heard news of a series of deaths that struck a grade school. The incidents were ascribed to the supernatural because three students died without a logical medical reason, and more of them manifested the same symptoms...
...The school has nothing to boast of by way of innovation except for a newly purchased but outdated desktop computer. The roof posed grave danger, and one time a huge snake just dropped from it into the middle of the class. Anyway, the students have adapted to that, so no one let out an elitist scream. The library seemed to be a repository of ancient texts, with decaying books that still recognized Pluto as a planet. If you’re a visiting student from an urban area, you’d think you have the best education in the world. 
The students are trained, not to be scholars and leaders, but to be future modern slaves. In the morning after the flag ceremony, they go to the garden to pluck grass, fetch water from the well (three kilometers away), cook, etc. It’s like what they usually do at home or in a caregiver school. In my educational experience in an urban area, I never knew such a technique of enhancing students’ knowledge exists...
...This is basically the practice because there is not enough equipment and materials to use in teaching. Like, you want the kids to learn about microorganisms but there is no microscope, or badminton, but there are no rackets. The teachers know very well that this is wrong, but they can only teach mathematics and language because these subjects do not require a laboratory. At first I blamed the teachers, the principal, and other stakeholders, but apparently, their reasons are valid enough. It’s difficult to make conclusions from an experiment conducted in the imagination....
I went through elementary school without having access to any fancy laboratory. In fact, at the the Quiapo Parochial School, we stayed inside the classroom all of the time. There was no library and no playground. All we had was a classroom, with a blackboard and rows of desks. But perhaps, we still had imagination. Those classrooms were certainly not the ones Jean Piaget had in mind when he wrote:
The principal goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done; men and women who are creative, inventive and discoverers, who can be critical and verify, and not accept, everything they are offered.
- Jean Piaget, 
Education for Democracy, 
Proceedings from the Cambridge School 
Conference on Progressive Education (1988)

Piaget learned a lot from his own three children. The problem is that his sample is simply too small and probably highly influenced by the environment. Piaget's work on children was certainly revolutionary. It paved the way for psychologists to probe further into how a child develops intellectually. Since most of Piaget's work is on children, his ideas regarding education apply to early childhood learning. If I may, I would like to compare the above quotation of Piaget with something Einstein said:
"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein
Taking into extremes, the two quotes actually do not agree with each other. In Piaget's statement, the learner is simply a discoverer. Before we embrace Piaget's idea, we must keep in mind that his are loftier goals for education. We cannot teach our children to become discoverers and inventors without teaching them to listen first, to read other people's work, and to learn from others' experiences. Discovery-based learning cannot replace our traditional way of instruction. In Einstein's words, the learner inherits knowledge. Starting from scratch is daunting and time-consuming. And perhaps, it is highly ineffective. The following is an abstract from a recent paper published in the Journal of Educational Psychology:

Piaget's ideas do sound lofty and ideal. The reality, however, is that education is indeed a lot more about standing on the shoulders of past generations. Discovery-based learning is good. In the sciences, we call this laboratory work. For higher education, laboratory courses are indeed expensive to provide. These require special facilities and equipment. The same holds true for any high school that desires to provide hands-on experience in biology, chemistry and physics. In elementary school, what is really required are teachers who can bring the joy of inquiry and discovery to children, in addition to teaching students how to listen carefully, follow instructions, and make observations.

Richard Felder wrote in "There's Nothing Wrong With the Raw Material." Chem. Engr. Education, 26(2), 76-77 (Spring 1992):
... I visited a fourth-grade class in a rural community outside of Raleigh. I spoke a little about what scientists and engineers do, ran some chemistry demonstrations, had the students do some experiments on detection of acids, and talked about acid rain.

It was a remarkable experience---I couldn't hold those kids back. Early in the class I divided them into groups of four and gave each group two small closed vials containing colorless liquids, one labeled "H" (which contained water) and one labeled "V" (for vinegar). Before I gave them the vials I told them we would do some experiments to figure out which one was acid and which was just water. As soon as they got the vials, they took off. They shook them, sniffed them, held them up to the light. One child saw that one of the liquids was somewhat thick and bubbly when she shook it and the other behaved more like water, and she guessed that the first one was the acid. Another student in the same group saw the H on the second vial and said "Yeah, that probably stands for H2O. Someone in another group detected a faint aroma coming from one of the vials, saw the V on it, and said "This one's vinegar---hey, is vinegar an acid?" I hadn't opened my mouth yet!

The whole class went like that. The children flailed their hands in the air after every question I asked, hoping I would call on them. They debated vigorously about the experiments they were performing and came up with possible interpretations that hadn't occurred to me. They asked questions about acids (including "If I poured some of that on his head, would it go all the way through to his feet?"), and acid rain, and what scientists do.
Of course, at that point, Felder already had the attention and interest of the children. Seeing Felder's experience above, I could relate to the following comment submitted by Jao Romero in response to the article written by Balan:
You don't need laboratories to teach effectively. All the equipment you need as a teacher, you already have - your brains. If equipment was needed, how do you imagine teachers taught in ancient times? and they were the ones who originated our earliest scientific theorems and laws... 
...Teachers complain of lack of books, lack of papers, lack of pencils, lack of tables, chairs, etc. These are the superficial problems, quite easy to resolve if the teacher is resourceful. Problems that are much more harder to resolve are student absenteeism because of poverty (they need to work), malnutrition, difficulties in getting to school because they live far away - these are systemic problems that needs greater coordination with the national government in order to be resolved....
Making children think is lofty. But they do need something at the beginning. Teachers may be challenged with limited resources, but a good teacher must not forget that he or she can still impart something of value to children. Past generations have indeed given all of us so much. But when teachers have nothing to offer, there will be no assistance. Learning will be most difficult.

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