School reforms: The problem statement

When well-meaning people start questioning the way current school education works, they run into a fundamental problem. You see, our entire experience of education is from within this deeply flawed system. So when we try to think of making things better, we are unconsciously trapped within the limits of the existing system. A little bit like a person in a jail cell trying to move towards freedom by painting the bars of his prison sky-blue. Sounds like an exaggeration? Let us go a little deeper and see.

We can start by listing out some of the features of modern mass schooling:

– It covers 12+ years of childhood, mostly sitting quietly inside classrooms with 40 other children (all wearing school uniforms).
– Teachers who have very little interest in education or in children and are there because they couldn’t get another job, spend most of their time in classroom management (which means ensuring silence and discipline in the classroom).
– The 12-year academic curriculum starts with learning the alphabet and basic maths and ends in ridiculous things like organic chemistry and integral calculus.
– Academic achievement and conformity are rewarded and the children who do not see the point of the nonsense that passes for academics or are spirited enough to rebel against the system are labelled ‘failures’ and thrown out.
– With its uniforms, discipline and pointless hard work, it is like a jail which lets its inmates out on parole every evening on condition that they come back the next morning.

When sensitive people feel the problem and think of doing a better job, these are the kinds of things they typically try (and the flip-sides to their solutions):

Well-meaning attemptFlip-side
Having teachers who actually care for children and could have actually got other jobs but chose to become teachers for some misguided reason.Having confused well-meaning teachers is not better than having confused apathetic teachers. Sometimes healthy neglect is the only way for children to navigate through a toxic system without permanent damage.
Having fewer children in the jail-cell-classrooms so that the teacher can pay individual attention.This leads to the immediate discovery of the spirited children and their ‘normalisation’. It is easy to hide in a 40 child classroom and difficult in a 10 child one. Also as mentioned above, individual attention from a confused teacher may not be a very good thing.
Letting the children have a lot of ‘freedom’ in a ‘non-stress’ environment.Since life does not give us simple ‘freedom’/’discipline’ type of choices and because the people who are trying to make things better are reacting to ‘discipline’, which they think of as a problem of mainstream education, they tend to lean towards too much ‘freedom’. This invariably has bad effects on the children on whom it is inflicted. Too much ‘freedom’ is probably worse than too much ‘discipline’.

We can make this list longer, but I hope you see what I trying to say. There is no way to improve or repair a faulty system by thinking within its boundaries and tweaking things inside it. So, what can we do? The first obvious step is to break free from our conditioning that assumes that the current type of education is the only option possible. If we are able to do that, some avenues may open up, we may be able to ask questions about what a good education, one that is appropriate for our country and its people, can look like. I plan to explore some of these ideas in the posts next week and the week after that.

(Disclaimer: There may be readers who do not find organic chemistry or integral calculus ridiculous as part of a mass schooling curriculum. I was one of them! But instead of making fun of my weirdness, the system actually rewarded me by making me think that I am better than others. It has taken me a very long time to break out of that.)

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