What is education?

Since 1999, I have been volunteering with Asha for Education - a non-profit focusing on education to wedge disenfranchised communities in India towards socio-economic development.

I was listening to The Economist (audio edition) and it brought up the topic of financial education. I had been mulling over this topic and related topics for years and all of a sudden I had an urge to write down my thoughts. So here it goes.

Political Context

To the British, educating Indians was a way to filter the best minds and train them to do the Empire's bidding. Initiative had to be suppressed. Meta-thinking, culturally and locally relevant knowledge had to be discarded in favor of abstract non-contextual, specific subjects. That Gandhi, Tagore and Ramanujam came out of this system might be seen as a testament to the quality of education afforded to them. However, I see it as disservice to the masses whose determination and intellect didn't reach super-human levels.

Around the world, there are many examples of explicit and implicit subjugation of inquiry for the sake of dogma. Religious indoctrination, communist propaganda, unquestioning prostrations to capitalism and nationalistic fervor are examples of the same ill - closed mindedness. Since this is exactly what education is supposed to counter, one can see how the influence of political context on education defeats the purpose.

Defining Education

I divide education into two realms: navigating the world as it is today and open-mindedness. The first must be relevant in your context. The second allows you to adapt with your context, or more importantly change your context as your needs evolve.

Navigating the world as it is today

First, you need to be able to read, write and do arithmetic. The three-Rs. Its so obvious, right? Yet so many people, even in the west, get it oh so wrong. There are two common threads: 1) Minorities and immigrant groups are almost always behind. Eg: Lower castes in India, African-Americans in the US, Turks in Germany, new immigrants in Sweden. 2) Homogenous populations, especially of affluent communities do well.

That means one thing: people in power set the rules which the outsiders cannot easily navigate. So, even to do something as ‘simple’ as the 3Rs, context is king.

The solution is two fold: improved techniques and curriculum customized to context.

Improved techniques

A critical phase where teaching techniques need to be improved are in the first six years of a child’s life. Here’s a short list:

None of these are new concepts. See Jean Piaget. Yet, somehow, we manage to de-prioritize, sacrifice or otherwise ignore them.

Custom Curriculum

The criticism for customizing curriculum circles around differing standards. How can you measure progress across the varying curricula? How do you know if you are providing ‘equal’ education? I say lets worry about that at 10th grade. Until then, the path a child takes could be and should be relevant to the particular environment the child is in. A child in coastal regions should learn how to fish and a child in a desert should learn how to ride a camel. What is important is how well they do in their environment and that isn’t always comparable.

Specifically, these would make a huge difference:

There are additional aspects that are either ignored today or not universally available. Here’s another list:

Open Inquiry

When it comes to contextual learning, Vygotsky’s work is very pertinent. Given that context plays a huge role in the development of any individual, it is entirely possible to create a compliant society. However, the next challenge lies in rising above it. How do you create a self-correcting, sustainable and peaceful society? That’s where open inquiry comes in.

To get there, three things need to be nurtured:

I remember how I learned as a child. I learned a lot of things by watching others and imitating - cricket, for instance. But I also learned things by discovering them. I discovered sewage treatment plants in the forest. I discovered Mercury (its found in thermometers). I discovered electricity (its found in batteries). I even discovered non-conformism before I ever heard of Thoreau. While following others and doing as you are told are important, the next level of learning takes place through discovery.

When a child discovers something, it increases self-confidence, it increases curiosity and it increases initiative. I believe discovery oriented education, be it in science, social studies, language or geography, is critical in a child’s intellectual development.

As self-esteem, joy of learning and initiative are established, it is also important to step outside the Vygotskian trap - that of social context. It is critical that kids are introduced to those on the other side of the tracks. Further, making friendships across caste, ethnic or class boundaries allows one to question one’s own perspectives and biases. It leads to open inquiry and a meta-level understanding of one’s society and self.

But why?

I don’t buy into too many absolutes. The end-goal isn’t the ideal state defined by any particular ideology. To me, the end-goal is two-fold: graceful adaptability in an ever-changing world and continuous drive to make the world a little better. 

This includes how we react to daily hurdles as well as to tragedies. Lets take tragedies first. There are several things that are tragic. The ones that get me riled up the most though are when people with the capacity to change a tragic situation don’t - either because they don’t want to go against the grain, or because they don’t see the tragedy or even worse they think somebody else should do it. Whether it be Darfur or the Tsunami or Hurricane Katrina. As a people, we can react sooner and more effectively if we (myself included) had a greater empathy, initiative and sense of responsibility. This can be developed as outlined above.

Day-to-day hurdles, on one hand, are a practice-field for how we react to the big ones. On the other hand, they are much more relevant and have a greater impact on each individual. How do we react to finding ourselves in debt or in a racially segregated city (like Chicago) or in a jealous rage or in the middle of an armed conflict or around a corrupt bureaucracy?

I believe the answer lies in education as defined above.