Teach our children well

When adults aren’t even able to form a respectable line for the subway, what does it say about the basic skills being taught by our education system[s]?

As I was trying desperately to organize my seven-year-old students into a line at the end of class today, I thought about how much I feel like doing that in other areas of life sometimes. You know the sort of thing I’m talking about: when you’re lined up in the right place while waiting for the subway and then someone wanders in and stands in front of you. And you think to yourself, “Did this person fail kindergarten?!?!” And then you wonder if it’s worth the hassle of telling them how a line works (usually it’s a monumental waste of time, dear readers).

Maybe it’s because I spend way too many hours inside a classroom, but I am often offended by the everyday behaviour I see in the outside world. I’m referring to the kind of behavior for which I deduct points from my students, so that they may not get a star at the end if they don’t straighten up and fly right. Isn’t the concept of lining up, or waiting your turn, or listening while someone else is speaking, something that is supposed to be hard-wired from the age of five onward, thanks to attending school? When I see people “misbehaving” in the adult world, I wonder how much of an effect our schooling has actually had on us. In those moments, I tend to think it’s hardly had any effect at all. Then there are other times when I speak with the parents of my young students, and they become quite fixated on numbers and assessments, and I think perhaps too many things from school days of yore have had a lasting effect.

If schooling does indeed have a significant impact on us up until our adult years, how does it manifest itself in the everyday world of being a “grown-up”? And perhaps more importantly, are we thinking of education as a means to a positively practical end as we leave school behind us?

The old and not so reliable

Some time ago, way back when I was teaching English at a high school in a rural area of South Korea, I had a lengthy conversation with a co-worker about the massive amounts my students had to study each night. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around why they had to memorize so much information, only to spit it out on a test, and then promptly forget it so that they could cram a whole new pile of information in before the next test. It didn’t fit into any idea I had about learning, but my co-worker explained that the education system was a hangover from many years before when the country was still recovering from the devastation of the Korean War. The government decided that they needed labourers, factory line workers, and farmers to build the country up again. So, it designed an education system to support such needs. Creating this type of workforce called for an education that taught skills like rote memorization, but lacked in others like creative thinking and ingenuity.

I don’t know how much of the explanation I received was accurate, or how much of it remains true, but I was fully aware of my students’ struggles to process and produce the things I taught them in my class. They had no problem regurgitating entire paragraphs from English textbooks, but really struggled when I asked them to take what we had learned that class and write about it on their own. I often wondered how that would impact the population later as the country developed and became a place that needed thinkers and leaders in a much different way than the previous generations.

Growing pains

Korean children learning to line-up on a field trip. Photo by Nancy Cater.
Korean children learning to line-up on a field trip. Photo by Nancy Cater.

Some time ago, while I was still living in Canada, I watched an interesting documentary about the way Canadians were raising their children and how it was negatively impacting their ability to function once they’d left home to go to university or work. I think the point of the documentary was more a treatise in how to not “helicopter parent” your kid, but I spent the entire time wondering if it was possible that some of the struggles being discussed weren’t a result of an education that had misfired in shaping these youngsters’ skills sets.

Not having taught in Canada, I can’t really comment on much beyond news stories of students being pushed through despite not having passed exams. Blaming an education system for not being the same as it was years before is a bit too get-off-my-lawn for my liking. I’m definitely not of the mind that things were better “back in my day”.

My schooling was fine, if not a touch uninspired. My parents’ schooling seemed rather rigid and wildly archaic to me, but they (and others of that generation) remain convinced that they “learned” far more than any generation after them. Maybe it was just a case of an education still being a good fit for the society it hoped to produce at the time. Perhaps education is an organism in a constant state of flux, and sometimes the growing pains of one generation will greatly benefit the one coming up behind.

A means to what end?

I suppose it comes down to what a country/people/group wants an education to be. In my case, I want my students to learn English. I would run into a bit of trouble if that wasn’t at least among the top three goals of my class, to be sure. But I want them to leave with more than that. I want my students to be confident and self-aware. I want them to think critically, to utilize deductive reasoning, to problem solve and so on. I’d like to know that the skills I am (hopefully) teaching them are the kind that will grow with them, and will evolve into useful tools for navigating their adult lives. I don’t want their success to be measured out in numbers on a chart and letters across a table. And if we can all sit nicely in a circle, raise our hands, and wait for our turn to talk about how awesome it’s going to be to see the Smurfs movie this weekend – well, that’s a pretty successful learning curve in my book.

That, and being able to form some sort of recognizable line-up when class is over.

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