For the most part of my early school, lessons were unvaried repetition of topics I had already mastered on my own. With nothing to challenge, engage and direct the imagination of a little boy, I found amusement and thrill in disrupting the class, much to the chagrin of my teachers.
The classroom was stifling. The classroom was about competition. Out in the playing field we had the liberty to think, solve problems, together. The classroom was where nothing but unreasoned submission to authority was demanded. In a sense school, in the narrow context of the classroom experience, was a detention camp.
The reason I did not drop out of primary school was because school outside the classroom served a vital social function; provided bountiful space for playful co-learning and peer-collaboration. In retrospect, I learned the most valuable virtues – teamwork, kindness, honesty and loyalty – outside the classroom, in the playing field.
High school was strange, a kind of mongrel or half-breed of a penitentiary and a military camp. And I always wondered why anybody would imagine that such sequestration somehow provided a suitable environment for preparing teenagers to become responsible and productive citizens. Freedom in high school was greatly curtailed, far more curtailed than any adult would endure in a workplace setting. I am not sure that anyone, least of all teachers and parents, understand that this could cause psychological damage to many children.
Throughout high school I was consumed by this naïve and romantic view of university as some kind of intellectual Canaan. I was enthralled by this crazy expectation that university was the space for co-creation of knowledge by students and professors. Throughout high school I fantasized about the university lecture theatre as the sanctum of robust academic debates, unfettered imagination and intellectual enterprise. Several years later I entered university and to my utter dismay, I watched a repeat of primary and high school authoritarianism in the university lecture theatre. The self-importance and hubris of the professors was hugely disempowering.
As parents and as a society we are expending huge proportions of our income and tax revenue on education. We get gravely concerned, and rightfully so, whenever we are confronted with the evidence that our children are not learning. We can comment endlessly on the literacy and numeracy levels of primary school children and the intellectual capability of our university graduates. The conventional logic is that we could fix failures in the education system with more money, better teachers, more testing and, even more radical, curriculum reform.
But what if the real problem is the institution of the school? I believe, from my own experience, that by its very logic and design the school has failed our children and is not serving the needs of our society. Here is what will surprise you; the basic logic and design of the school, as we know it today has no basis in scientific evidence about how children learn. We have come to understand that children learn deeply, meaningfully and with greatest gusto in conditions that are almost antithetical to those which obtain in the school.
The School as we know it today is inextricably bound with the mission of colonialism. The idea was to “educate”, for the colonial administration, native functionaries who would serve and obey colonial authority without questioning. That the colonists were unambiguous about this purpose is evident in the school mottos of our early missionary schools. Here are some examples: “Perseverance shall win through”; “Strong to serve”; “Serve is to reign”; “Walk in the light”. Clearly, that schools would be places for forging curiosity, critical thinking, complex reasoning, creativity and innovation was the last thing on the minds of the founders of our school system. Moreover, the authoritarian knowledge transfer, teach-and-test method is highly suited for transmitting dogma and training subservience. Ironically, children are designed for self-directed learning. Children have an innate proclivity for learning though, curiosity, creative playfulness and collaborative sociability.
We must rescue the child from the authoritarian school system and provide centres of learning that would optimize curiosity, playfulness, innovation and creativity. Our schools must allow playful exploration and emancipate learning from the tyranny of the curriculum. Teachers must not be oracles but facilitators of self-directed learning. A child’s drive to play, collaborate and discover serves the core mission of education, not only in hunter-gatherer cave culture but in today’s skyscraper globalized knowledge economy as well.