Reinventing education

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My first real job was as a high school and college teacher in a missionary school in Baybay, Leyte. And my last full-time job was again as a teacher in a graduate school of business. The teaching, or really, learning methodologies were very different in many ways. Both jobs were among the hardest I ever held.

In my first job, there was a lot of administrative work. Preparing lesson plans, designing tests, checking and scoring tests, recording grades. As I was also an English language teacher, I had to check English language compositions, at least twice, for each of 200 themes (informal, then formal). Fortunately, I was very young and had a lot of energy even though I had little sleep.

I had been a poor student in grade school and high school, leaving class whenever I found it boring. Therefore, I went out of my way to make my classes more interesting by assigning students special readings and challenging them to openly discuss and debate various topics. Perhaps it helped one of them one day to become president of a large state university and the Philippine expert on indigenous trees. Another received an award as “the most outstanding Carolinian” (at the University of San Carlos which had more than 6,000 college students).

I also realized then that English in Baybay was truly a foreign language. There were no newspapers nor television. Media was basically radio, which broadcast in Cebuano or Tagalog. In order to overcome students’ lack of confidence in speaking English, I allowed discussion in a mixture of languages. The important thing was to sharpen their thinking skills. I had taken a course in English as a Second Language, so I treated it as such. American Peace Corps volunteers in the area, after all, could speak Cebuano almost like natives after only six months of training in Cebuano as a second language.

Our poor performance in international evaluation of learners’ skills in reading, writing, and mathematics may be caused by our students’ inability to think independently and by their learning confusion in a language (English) foreign to them. We should just be realistic and teach English as a second or (third) language. Linguists classify Cebuano and Tagalog as languages, not dialects. Nevertheless, while they communicate (send and receive) better in their mother tongue, English happens to be de facto the international language. Moreover, textbooks and other reading material are generally in English. And access to global knowhow and trends are in English.

In the graduate school job, I had to do a great deal of reading (cases, written analysis of cases or WACs, management research reports) and deep thinking. The challenge was how to draw out sharp analysis and simulate strategizing and problem-solving among the students. The learning methodology was facilitating the learning process through case discussions. There was little lecturing. There was also a simpler framework for grading students’ performance. Rather than mathematical grading in numbers, as in my high school and college teaching, there were four options: Pass, Fail, Distinction, and High Distinction.

It was such a joy to discover Paolo Freire’s book on “pedagogy.” He advocates regarding the learner as a “Subject” rather than “Object.” He criticizes the “banking” methodology of lecturing or depositing information for the students to play back in tests in order to be considered successfully educated. Per Freire, the learner as subject acts, rather than being acted upon. The teacher’s job is to challenge the learner to think and analyze and judge; to become skillful at understanding and dealing with reality and the social, political, economic, and natural environment.

The objectives for education are to educe (draw out) and enhance knowledge, skills, and orientations. It seems to me there is too much emphasis on the knowledge aspect and less on the skills of independent thinking, judging, and decision-making. In this age of rapid progress in technology and information dissemination, knowledge is constantly evolving. AI (artificial intelligence) is increasingly taking over much of the thinking and doing. The learner needs more to develop skills in independently obtaining knowledge and processing it. There are enough ways to access information with computers, Wi-Fi, and search engines on mobile phones.

The poor quality of our education outputs has got to be partly due to the overworking of our high school and college teachers who are burdened with too many administrative requirements. I know that as a high school and college teacher, I had to give almost daily quizzes in order to have numbers as the basis for grades. In these quizzes, so-called “objective” questions tended to emphasize memorizing of data such as dates, names, and places since these are easier to check and count.

I propose using the AIM (Asian Institute of Management) system of having just four options for student performance evaluation: Pass, Fail, Distinction, and High Distinction. Passing quizzes and tests tends to require good memories and playback of teachers’ inputs rather than sharp and independent thinking.

Emphasis on learning rather than teaching can enable our students to avoid being easily manipulated. They can become more discriminating and responsible citizens and voters. Open discussion and debate among learners will help sharpen their independent thinking. There are, after all, many ways to skin a cat.

Orientation also needs to be reemphasized. Learning about wholesome family and community life and responsible citizenry have to be a crucial part of the curriculum. It should be obvious from the generally poor quality of our chosen leaders that there has been little attention to these objectives.

Reengineering education will, of course, require highly intelligent and skillful teachers. This means teachers should certainly be paid much more than cops and soldiers. We will have to recruit the best and the brightest into the teaching profession. And they will need to be trained in learning, not teaching methodologies.

Teresa S. Abesamis is a former professor at the Asian Institute of Management and fellow of the Development Academy of the Philippines.