A Good Education System Produces People Who Say: “There’s Something Very Wrong with the Education System”

I attended a conference several months ago. It was a science conference, yet during one of the breaks, it was very interesting to hear academics from all over the world complain about their own education system:

“The education system is stifling creativity!”

“Young people don’t know how to innovate or think outside the box anymore!”

“The education system places too much emphasis on examinations. Students and teachers are focusing on passing exams instead of actual learning.”

These are some examples of the things they said. Did it surprise you that it sounds exactly like the complaints we hear about the education system here in Singapore?

Perhaps the greatest irony is that many of these academics concluded with high praises for the Singaporean education system and how their countries are trying to emulate our own system to rectify some of the above-mentioned problems in their own land. Yet, unbeknownst to them, here we are trying to emulate these Western countries to improve our own system.

Image credit: http://s104.photobucket.com/user/niascissorhands/media/jen4.jpg.html
Image credit: http://s104.photobucket.com/user/niascissorhands/media/jen4.jpg.html

But seriously, from the remarks made about the education system, it seems like everyone’s education system is messed up. So is anyone’s education system any good?

This got me thinking…

I think the mark of a good education system is one that produces people who are then able to rigorously criticise their own education system for its weaknesses, flaws, and failures. They have a certain vision and ideal of what a good education should be, about what is good and right for the people. They are aware of how education can be used to fill gaps in our society, and to transform people for the better. Most importantly, it is precisely because the system has fallen short of these ideals, that they are able to point out where our system is lacking.

(To be clear: I’m not talking about people who simply criticise the system for the sake of criticism. They point out the most obvious flaws, but show little understanding of the system. I am also not referring to people who are simply angry at the system, and are only able to provide vague, unhelpful comments like, “The system sucks.”)

Sure, these qualities can be picked up independently from a lot of heavy reading, or learnt from one’s parents. But it does take a certain amount of education to come to a matured mind, to be able to understand the nuances and the complex problems associated with other sectors of the state and of one’s life. It takes a certain amount of education not to be irrationally drawn by pure ideals, to be able to recognise that grand ideals must be balanced with practical concerns. These are the things that come from education, and it is what brings a student to a level of intellectual maturity.

I am not saying that a good education system makes the majority to have the intellectual maturity of a professor. That would be ideal, but it is an exaggeration. What I am saying is that a good education system leads people to have some degree of that intellectual maturity.

For all the things people have to say about education systems, both locally and abroad, the discourse in most cases are very matured and well-reasoned. While I can’t comment about the rest of the world, I can say that even in Singapore, many locals of varying age groups are able to debate and discuss what’s wrong with the education system in such a manner.  That itself is quite impressive.

And so, despite the flaws and failings of every country’s education system, the mark of a good education is one that empowers people to critically assess things, to hold certain ideals of what is good and right for the people, to be able to spot areas where the system has fallen short of these ideals and comment on it. A good education is precisely one that produces people who can criticise it, and work towards improving it. Such education systems, despite the overall complaints, are decent systems, but are still a work in progress.

Anyway, in the past, I used to think Singapore’s education was pretty messed up because it produced large cohorts of mindless drones who had no real ambitions or goals other than to make lots of money and to procreate. But after hearing all those comments about the education systems around the world, it’s not just Singapore but every other country with a public education system that’s churning out uncreative hoards of mindless drones with no creativity or ambition, in every race, colour, and creed. (Gotta zombify them all!)

It’s a global phenomenon!

Perhaps it’s not the education system that is the problem. Maybe the problem lies in what we’re teaching. I suspect that this problem stems from the over-emphasis on education in the sciences and especially on the reductionist method.

I’m not saying science is bad. Absolutely not!

What I’m saying is that the reductionist method used in the sciences, when over-emphasised in the curriculum during a child’s formative years shapes the child’s outlook and perception of the world. There is so much richness in the world around us. Yet, when we are trained from young to think of things in terms of linear cause and effect (A leads to B, B leads to C) – and over-emphasise this way of seeing things over other ways (or not mentioning other ways) – it’s hard to see the world in any other way. Moreover, the reductionist method requires us to learn how to isolate the subject of study, away from its rich context, to just one or two variables, so that it is easy for us to study the linear causal relationship between the variable and the subject. Sometimes, we need to assume ideal subjects or cases, ignoring all the imperfections, so that we can clearly identify the linear causal relationship. Again, when these methods are emphasized more than other non-“scientific” methods, it’s easy for a child’s perception to be shaped in such a manner: to see the world as nothing more than a series of linear causal relationships, to ignore other factors or variables that do not suggest a direct linear involvement with things of interest.

Let me be clear: the reductionist method is great when it is applied to the sciences.

The problem arises when the reductionist method is taught as if it is the one and only method to everything. It thus pervades their perception and thinking, to the extent that they cannot help but see the world in this way.

This is dangerous both to creativity and to a tragedy to one’s life. The world is rich in detail, it is rich in its relationship with everything else. Yet, it is sad for children to grow up not knowing how to see the world in its glorious richness. Creativity will never happen because the person has become used to seeing only linear connections. Creativity doesn’t always work that way. Creativity is a mess. Creativity comes about because we boldly dare to connect one idea with another, even though there is no linear connection. The reductionist methods taught in the sciences, inform children that these messy connections are unscientific and should be ignored. Yes, it is unscientific. But at such a young age, it’s easy for them to link “unscientific” with the idea that it’s wrong, or not good, or useless.

So maybe, what we need is an equal emphasis of the humanities in education. This would balance the false impression that the reductionist method is the one and only method in approaching life. Students would then learn that there are other methods that can be employed in one’s approach to non-scientific problems, e.g. human relationships, organisational politics, etc. (Although, to be honest, I’m a little hesitant on making this conclusion because of the difficulties implementing it. Growing up in a society where performance measures of teachers and schools are a big thing, the humanities isn’t exactly a favourite amongst many school leaders. It’s difficult to teach, difficult to learn, and difficult to measure. I don’t have an answer.)

Anyway, as I end this, I thought it’d be interesting to share what some foreign professors have to say about Singapore’s education system, having spent time here teaching in our universities.

One remark, I’ve heard, coming from professors chatting over a cup of coffee (I happened to seat at the table next to them), was this: The education system here must be working wonders because the local undergraduate students are producing top quality work that it matches or surpasses the quality of work submitted by GRADUATE students in their own home countries.

Another remark, came from a professor who shared at a workshop I was in. He said he would discourage his own government in the West to emulate Singapore. There must be something so fatally wrong with our education. Sure, students may be intellectually smart. But he was very disturbed to learn that local university students didn’t know how to use scissors and glue. He had to intervene to show them how. (For the record, I learnt how to use scissors and glue on my own. No teacher taught me the ancient art of cutting and pasting.)

So maybe our education system got some things right, and some things tragically wrong. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just a work in progress, and we’ll need to do what we can to fill in those holes, and maybe implement a mandatory class teaching and examining kids how to use scissors and glue. :p

Well, I wrote this post hoping to provoke some thoughts and ideas. Do share your thoughts here if you have any. I’d love to hear what you have to say.