Monday, April 5, 2010

Whatever Happened to Our Brains

"We are entering an age of complexity, diversity and collaboration in which skills like holistic thinking and critical analysis will be essential"
Noreena Hertz, globalisation thinker

What is the goal of an education system? Should we agree that basically it is about grooming well-rounded citizens who can think critically, then our schools would have roughly lived up to the criteria. That is until the tipping point somewhere in the late 1970s or early 1980s when globalisation kick-started a worldwide cut-throat competition to grab market shares.

Since then, our brawns have been under tremendous strain, while simultaneously, our brains have not been blessed with the adequate training to cope with the fresh challenges and seize the emerging opportunities. Merely echoing "world-class education" or "knowledge hub" endlessly will certainly not allow us to measure up. As if the whole world is chilling out watching us staging a sham named "Drool over how smart Mauritius is".

A touchy issue like education calls for an approach that is savvy. Without an intuitive understanding of systemic lapses, without elaborating a strategy with all stages spelled out, without engaging all stakeholders, barring the media darlings who ironically are rarely the least pampered and influential, every reform proposal will remain an act of self-deception and wish fulfilment and will eventually backlash.

Too many children have already been left behind. The social timebomb has been ticking louder and louder. Yet we played a deaf ear. Now we cannot afford to turn a blind eye on widespread social ills, to a large extent the pitfalls of that self-indulgence. The system is disproportionately skewed towards the mightily-networked. It is no wonder that the capability-deprived gets so mentally oppressed. In that context, the false consciousness to cheer the alienated up through revenue generated by her own bets in the Gambling Industry is insane.

The truth is that a synergy to address the root causes of disenchantment - namely endemic discrimination, gaping social inequalities and ever-declining purchasing power - is critical to upgrading our human capital. More centrally, our education system needs to be overhauled. Latest technologies have significantly modified the psyche of the new generations. The approach to learning must be sexed up to accommodate them.

Learning by memorisation is unavoidable but its share must be gradually scaled down to focus more on interactive play. This means that students learn more through inquiry and research. The Reform group, a United Kingdom-based think tank, warns that "exam-obsessed modules have created a "learn and forget culture" - which is akin to using a sat-nav rather than map-reading skills".

If properly implemented, experiential learning can reap many benefits:

  • it makes learning fun and that is not a negligible asset when we know that boys, especially, lag behind because they tend to get bored by too much emphasis on formal learning;
  • it has the potential to unleash education's ultimate objective: self-development through self- and life-long learning;
  • it creates a critical bent of mind and integrates learning as the transdisciplinary path urges students to explore the complexities of the world.


Education reform is hotly debated worldwide. However few countries are being bold and innovative enough. Among other suggestions, Mauritius is contemplating International Baccalaureate (IB)'s Diploma Programme (DP) as an alternative to the obsolete Higher School Certificate. That is laudable. IB is arguably among the best tested comprehensive methods so far. The caveat is that most students will struggle to adjust to IB's core skill requirements because IB is based on a creative mindset compared to what traditional education actually feeds on.

That creative mindset can only be acquired through a curriculum conducive to the development of the required cognitive skills right from the start of schooling. Contrary to what is generally assumed, IB is not limited to DP, it also steers Primary Years Programme (PYP) and Middle Years Programme (MYP). It is no coincidence that, as it braces itself to imprint its spirit onto globalisation, India has vowed to "detraumatise and internationalise learning" by modelling its education system on IB.

As it shifts to experiential learning, Singapore is introducing Kidz Haven in pre-primary schools to ease up the transition. Likewise, an increasing number of schools around the world are embracing Montessori's ethos. Academic skills must go hand-in-hand with social skills. Under mounting peer-to-peer desocialisation, namely, bullying is on the loose. To rein in unruly boys and mean girls, Canada has launched Roots of Empathy, a classroom program aiming at "building caring and peaceful civil societies through the development of empathy in children".

Lately, two educational issues have prompted a passionately contested tug of war. Some reactionaries even praise "private tuition", a misnomer for extended-school-hours-made-compulsory. Merely legislating against an ingrained practice, however absurd, is bound to backfire because it is very likely to be considered arbitrary. The entire environment needs to be reengineered. This is how Doha Academy, a private school, has managed to ban "private tuition" while still offering the much-dreaded Certificate of Primary Education, for instance, and thriving.

Next came Morisyen as teaching medium. Notwithstanding the relevance of the use of mother tongue, does the fact that English language has become a closed book to many undermine comprehension? If not, why then did the shortcoming not arise decades before? A language is not a communication tool only, it comes with the cultures it absorbs. English language (jointly with its hybrid offshoots such as Hinglish, Chinglish, Spanglish and Singlish), de facto global lingua franca, offers perspectives like no other language. By letting it sink, we have opened the doors to the primacy of another language that is importing parochialism instead.

To narrow the gap, the Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation must air infinitely more cartoons, movies and shows in English Language and/or English language subtitles. Watching celebrity chef Nigella, for example, as she feasts over a tiramisu in her native tongue is simply irresistible. Exposure is key. On another note, we must get rid of the ethnic segregation we internalise early at school where the study of Oriental languages merges with religious items. We must rather sit together to share values, religious or else, to develop respect for the Other.

We have yet to recognise and harness our unique and promising brand of cosmopolitanism. Celebrating our diversity in itself is already a source of invaluable creativity. National Geographic's tagline "Live Curious" must go viral. Not in terms of gossip-mongering though. But by allowing new ideas grow on us and contribute to improve our well-being. No education reform will be complete without the teaching profession regaining its sense of purpose to lure and reward the best and most dedicated brains.

We do not know what the future holds. What is sure is the world will be different. We can only keep our fingers crossed until a transformational leadership rescues us. But are we sufficiently alert to tell the misfit between, say, Bernard Henri-Levy (that slick sophist hyped as a philosopher) and Martha Nussbaum (a humanist thinker who sees herself as a global citizen), or Carlos Slim (that telecoms monopolist currently world's wealthiest man) and Vijay Mallya (a shrewd entrepreneur flying a premium airline from a land not known to be particularly excellence-driven)?

2 comments:

  1. Just let me add something to this: why, instead of the "service militaire obligatoire", we introduce a "service civique obligatoire"? What I mean through this is to have all (absolutely all) our youngsters to have acquired some basic social skills that are based on core human values. For example, during the end-of-year vacations, these youngsters should have
    - stayed and lived for at least 3-4 weeks in a home which is different than theirs, i.e., different ethnic / cultural system. They will have to show that they can prepare food, do groceries, do basic housekeeping etc. This would at least show them that other people exist and how their reality is different, other people's way of living, and understand, therefore develop true respect, these different cultures.
    - have had helped taking care of at least one elderly person and one under-age child. These basic skills are crucial in handling these inevitable stages of your life. This will ensure that they know that old people merit our care, and that babies force us to become more patient.
    - have driven one 2-wheeled and one 4-wheeled vehicle: basic road sign training to avert having road unconscious users. It's a pity that we have drivers and pedestrians do not realise how their misusage of the roads impedes on others' right to a free road and endanger their own lives.
    You can add more to that, as long as you encourage them to develop generosity, altruism and open-mindedness. Just like all teenagers are required to join in sports clubs in Denmark (if you remember Paul Schmeichel, goalkeeper extraordinaire, he started out as a handball player), we could build an entire generation of forward-going youngsters. Dare I dream about a day when youngsters will stop saying invariably in interviews: "ça pas interesse moi ça"

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  2. Thank you akagugo. I find your suggestion very practical. The devil is in the detail. One little action here, one more there and collectively they can make a big difference. But the self-deluded leadership (political, biz, media etc.) wouldn't budge until/unless they feel our wrath!

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