Tag Archives: learning

#16: A Few Scattered Drafts on Learning How to Learn

What should schools be good at? The quick answer: learning – and teaching students to learn. It is almost an educational truism that students in schools should “learn how to learn” and to sharpen the mindsets that would help them to do such. I’ve always assumed, pragmatically, that students just forget whatever they learn after they are tested for that knowledge, so unless they are particularly turned on with such information, then they should at least be able to graduate with something of value: ways to learn how to learn plus the mental acuity for such.

***

In the Philippines, what is school’s function? There always goes the familiar chorus: “So that children will grow up and be able to get jobs.” That underscores most of serious schooling talk in the Philippines aside from grades, tests, and schedules. It’s a constant grind: parents remind children to study hard to get high scores in tests to get good grades, and there’s no letting down because the schedules are tight. At the base of all these is the hope that all graduates would somehow be able to get good jobs, mostly abroad, where plenty of money is to be earned. Diplomas, moreover, serve as social signals that someone is educated; just notice how they are conspicuously displayed at every home, along with some medals and certificates.

***

I’m not saying that education should stray as far as it can from industrial demand. Of course, schools need to produce a mass of graduates able to take on high-level technical work. But we can’t just manufacture students who can “do” without building up their thinking. Many technical procedures today might become outdated later on, and many new ones will emerge. Graduates are in a better position to learn those new techniques if they know how to learn – thus saving themselves from becoming what Alvin Toffler called the “illiterates of the 21st century”. And, oh, many professionals today insist that most of the stuff they know came from the job itself.

***

A strong proposal: Leave the expertise to the jobs; while at school, teach students to learn how to learn, with the subjects as vehicles to that end. Ideally, I want every last student in the Philippines to learn Math. It’s a highly rewarding discipline; it has the dual benefit of having lots of industry applications and its being hospitable to play. One can do Math with a definite purpose or without one. However, Math teachers know well that with a few exceptions, most of the Math (content) that students learn goes down the drain. So while teachers should still teach Math, they should do so in such a way that students will become curious with every discussion, not feel trapped with the knowledge they have (couldn’t it be possible that sometimes knowledge can be trap – we’d rather be inside it than confront the outside world where wolves sometimes thrive?)

***

Curiosity is important in “learning how to learn”, and such a trait manifests in constant questioning. Schools should certainly encourage this attitude; when a teacher declares “Any questions?”, he or she better be sincere. Connected to this is the purpose of questioning; is its main (perhaps for some, only) purpose to assess what students already know? What if teachers began asking questions without needing students to answer, with just the remark that these questions are good questions but they need not be answered right away? After all, the best questions always stick in the minds of interested thinkers for hundreds or even thousands of years.

***

Many of us still assume, naively, that doing is what happens when learning is finished. That is the notion behind the “study well so that you’ll get a good job”. Curiosity can eradicate that notion: when you do something, you learn from it; you constantly reflect; you find better ways to do it; you can find creative twists to it. Curiosity surely helps anyone explore all that is contained within an action, from participants to stakeholders to methods of improvement to “whether it deserves to be done at all”, and such exploration is learning, and it mostly involves asking the right questions and chasing down partial or total answers to them. With this, learning is already doing; the two are not any more distinct.

Do teachers think similarly? Is learning to them a part of doing, or something that should happen before doing? The teacher’s way of teaching will show her orientation toward both learning and doing, and students will absorb what they see.

***

One of my friends just remarked that he wanted to be freed from the pressure of books and he doesn’t want to hold any more books forever. I wonder what has happened exactly to him, but it could be this: Books are not something to be read, but “pressed” upon him. Reading, for him, has become a passive activity in which he becomes a receiver, not an active one in which he is deliberate. Reading can’t always be “You have to” from without if it is to be sustainable; it has to be often an “I will” from within.

There could be a Pyrrhic victory behind his situation – he got what he wanted from his education, but I wish he didn’t get an aversion to further learning, especially from books which give not only information but also ways on mobilizing and organizing them with due thoughtfulness.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Education

#13: Loose Analysis of Questioning in Philippine Education with Geert Hofstede’s 5-D Cultural Model

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?

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Education