Questioning Education after Teaching Around the World

Questioning education after teaching around the world

Let me begin by saying that this is going to be a rather controversial topic. Everyone has their own set of experiences and own inclination to which way of educating they think is best. I, too, grabbled with it for the longest time and as a teacher myself the endless sources of information and research can be conflicting and overwhelming to say the least.

If you are an educator or parent yourself, you may often find yourself wondering if the choices you are making with regards to your children's education are the right ones.

My Personal School Experience

I was educated in public schools in South Africa from kindergarten to high school and attended a South African university. You could say I began my education during the constructivist movement so there was a transitioning away from lecture-based instruction and students were encouraged to work together more in groups and interact. Assessment was done throughout the year rather than a final exam at the end, and teachers were beginning to explore alternative ways of educating. I had my share of older teachers who were still stuck in their ways, and discipline was favoured in the classroom.

That being said, I absolutely LOVED school. I wouldn't say I was the brightest in terms of being top of my class academically by any means, but school was the best. Mostly because I loved stationery, and my books and assignments were always in impeccable condition. And it probably helped that I was a quiet, shy little thing that hardly got into any kind of trouble.

South Africa has had it's fair share of curriculums and over the course of my education our national curriculum changed about four times. It's safe to say, as a country we're not leading any educational movements compared to countries like the US, New Zealand, and the ever-praised Finland. 

The point I'm trying to get to here, is that after teaching abroad and being surrounded by educators who studied in other parts of the world with "far better" education systems, I didn't seem to be any less qualified or competent than they were. It's not as if I could tell that I was less or more educated, even though one would think that a student educated in say, Australia, would be in a better position than someone educated in third-world South Africa. 

Teaching Experiences

Now let's give you insight into the very diverse range of institutions and curriculums I have experienced around the world. Many of them being in rural areas where education is still developing, and others at the fore-front of education innovation. 

From teaching at a public school in South Africa where there is a focus on standardised testing, to a rural village in Bhutan where rote-learning and memorisation play key roles in education, to a jungle school in Costa Rica where inquiry and holistic learning are the centre of attention. I've seen it all. 

Teaching in rural Bhutan

Here's some of the things I've deciphered after teaching around the world over the last few years: 

1. Homework is unnecessary

I don't mean assignments that involve interacting with parents and communities, or the kind where you need to find research for a project at school. I'm talking about the tedious practicing of math equations or assigning an entire project solely to be done at home. I would think that the learning and school activities are done at school, and no other work should be required outside of those hours. What are we trying to do? Create working machines, or balanced little people who have time for playing and being outside - for having down-time in the afternoons?

Between the Grade 2's I taught in South Africa who had hours of homework each day and the second graders who had no homework in Costa Rica there was virtually no difference academically (better or worse) despite their after school activities. 

2. More time does not equal more learning

Spending more time at school or hours doing homework, does not mean our students are going to learn more. The saying "practice makes perfect" comes to mind, but what if we've worked ourselves to a point where nothing more can be learnt? Children and adults have their limit when it comes to focusing which means anything past the threshold will be pointless. 

I've found that having school on Saturdays or having longer school days did not impact students' performance for the better. If anything, students were more tired and less likely to focus during the lessons. 

3. Depth over Breadth

With all of the standards and topics needed to be covered in most of the curriculums today, its no wonder students and teachers can't keep up. We quickly move over things to tick a box, to complete a requirement. Why not pick fewer topics and truly go in depth with them, ensuring deep and meaningful connections are made, and solid learning takes place? 

4. Studying (aka rote memorisation) is pointless

If a student does not "perform" during an assessment I personally feel that its a reflection on me as a teacher. A student shouldn't have to study for an exam or an assessment, they should rather just be applying what they already know and understand. If I assess a student at any time on something we have already covered, the student should be able to complete the assessment if they understood the content.

Whereas if they go home and study definitions or terminology, complete and "pass" the assessment I'm pretty sure they will forget it in a few weeks and have to re-study before the next assessment. This personally happened to me during every exam at school and I don't see the point. 

5. Standardised testing for the flock

It amazes me that this is still a thing. It is common sense that we are all different, and widely accepted and proven that we all learn differently, so why is it that academic performance and assessing everyone according to the same standard, the same test, is still a thing? 

Why can we not give students an opportunity to show us their understanding, their learning, in anyway they see fit. I know this is still developing and various ways of assessing are still being introduced, but we have to do better. We cannot group everyone together and expect that they will all do well. 

What is the point of education? 

I think what I've come to realise is that most of the time we're just scrambling trying to fit a whole bunch of content into our days, weeks, years at school as teachers and students alike. Most schools still focus on getting students to perform academically and to fit into a little box as if we are trying to create adults who will be an army for the workforce. We're trying to create workers - that's what school was originally designed for. 

I think our focus should be more on developing curiosity and teaching students how to learn, how work things out for themselves and letting them explore their own interests. And yes, it sounds like a pretty tall order.