Most schools in the Philippines, I intuit, have the habit of giving us answers while leaving us in the dark about the right questions. At once it is easy to find out some contributing factors to this. When we recall our childhoods, it’s more likely that our elders suppressed our impulse to ask questions – an honorable impulse brought about by curiosity. We also have a derisive term for a constant questioner: the pilosopo.
It is said that education (especially the public sort) can affect all the citizens of any nation. Therefore the culture of any country is a good enough indicator of the education taking place there. To analyze culture we use Geert Hofstede’s 5-D model, with the 5-D standing for five cultural dimensions: (1) power distance, (2) individualism, (3) masculinity and femininity, (4) uncertainty avoidance, and (5) long-term orientation. Here is a summary of how the Philippines fared:
(1) Power distance – 94. A very high score (the highest is 100); Filipinos generally accept the existence of unequal distribution of power in the society.
(2) Individualism – 32. A low score; Filipinos prefer to commit themselves to a group in various settings, especially school and work, instead of fending off for themselves
(3) Masculinity/Femininity – 64. This score is skewed in favor of masculinity; Filipinos, therefore, are highly achievement-oriented, have an assertive stance to daily living and conflict resolution. Femininity, on the other hand, indicates greater emphasis on “quality of life” rather than trophies.
(4) Uncertainty avoidance – 44. This score is somewhat skewed in favor of less uncertainty avoidance. Filipinos are more welcome to deviations from established norms; the manana habit and the breaking off from company protocols are some instances.
(5) Long-term orientation – 19. This score is very low; Filipinos prefer the quick “jackpot” instead of being like the ant that, during the summer, saves for the winter bit by bit.
Now what does all of these have to do with the culture of questioning in Philippine schools? Using these results can make us form a coherent picture:
(1) High power distance places teachers on a virtually unquestionable position. More often than not, students ask questions to clarify what teachers said, not to offer a challenge or to add to the lesson. Offering a challenge threatens the teacher’s sense of position in the school hierarchy. Adding something to the lesson displaces a teacher’s lesson plan and thus shakes her sense of authority. And too often we forget to ask or demand the value of the lessons we’re learning in schools. What did we learn the Binomial Theorem or the different types of algae for? Such innocuous questions, which permit gentle responses, are surprisingly unasked.
(2) Loosely, low individualism can be disabling in asking questions. Suppose you are a naturally inquisitive student surrounded by mostly “contented” classmates. If you’ll be the only one asking questions, then others will perceive you as a nonconformist and sooner you will be contented like them. It is also low individualism that causes students to do in groups what they would be willing to do as individuals, such as collective cheating and frat wars, and there is little questioning going on regarding these phenomena involving the “madness of crowds”.
(3) The masculine orientation allows Filipinos to accept scores, grades, trophies, certificates and the like as untainted marks of education. The fetish for college degrees also falls on this orientation. Unless they get lucky and someone teaches them the fine art of iconoclasm, they won’t ever ask questions like “What do grades really measure?” “What does having a diploma really imply, and what should it imply?” “Is there a correlation between grades and real-life success?” Hardly anyone of us wonders about the “quality of learning” even if we’re left in the dark as to its “quantity”.
(4) Less uncertainty avoidance should be welcome. Asking questions makes us throw off our cloak of “certain” learning invincibility and allows others to know that there are still incomplete aspects to our learning. However, by my experience, less uncertainty avoidance manifests itself by rule-breaking of sorts. In schools in the Philippines, it is a titanic struggle to be certain about one’s values (while refining them daily), especially honesty. “If you see others cheating at exams, then why shouldn’t I”? And we justify similar practices in the name of survival as we grow older.
(5) Our short-term orientation reflects our attitude towards exams and grades. Should you study for the test? Of course you should, because doing so makes you respect “practice effects”, but you should not let your studying get in the way of your learning. Short-term orientation allows students to ask “What will come out in the test?” and thus fixate them to getting good test scores. And then the students forget their learning right after the exams, after the grades, and after school. I also think that many teachers are to blame for this – instead of giving facts for the sake of rattling them again during exams, they should give facts while sharpening the minds of students (using their subject matter) so the pupils can get training on how to make sense of the facts. That training can very well persist throughout life.
Be reminded that Hofstede’s 5-D framework, when applied to education, is in no way limited to analyzing the questioning habits of students. 5-D can lend coherence to many other educational facets in the Philippines.
However, I chose questioning because it’s a valuable skill useful not only in intellectual and artistic work, but increasingly at all sorts of work. We can attribute the dearth of scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, and book writers to the failure of graduates to learn the right questions to ask, but we’ve lived with that for long already. But we can’t live with that any longer once we find out that questioning is a valuable work skill and many employers around the globe are asking for their employees to have it (and I’s daresay too that employers who do otherwise are becoming extinct).
Here is education innovator and consultant Tony Wagner’s take on the issue. In his book The Global Achievement Gap, he recalls the answer to his question on “what qualities he most wants in a potential new employee”:
First and foremost, I look for someone who asks good questions… Our business is changing, and so the skills our engineers need change rapidly, as well. We can teach them the technical stuff. But for employees to solve problems or to learn new things, they have to know what questions to ask. And we can’t teach them how to ask good questions—how to think. The ability to ask the right questions is the single most important skill.
Education in the Philippines has plenty of catching up to do when it comes to improving the questioning skills of the students. To accomplish that, however, requires a massive shift in cultural priorities. We can start asking a few questions, and you can add more of yours (now here is a chance to practice those questioning skills): Would teachers be willing to give up some of their authoritarianism in a possibly risky exchange for more discussion in class? Will students get used to that setup? In a culture used to having parents who reward children getting grades over the roof, how can we explain the real significance of those grades? How can we ensure that students don’t leave our classrooms with stuff they may have forgotten before exiting the door? Does God exist, and how do we treat those who believe otherwise?