I think when it comes to education we need to go back to the basics. We have made the system needlessly complex and it has not surprisingly failed.
A few years ago, at the university, all of us in the student housing co-op were required to attend a presentation by a HIV+ man. At one point he took out a small polythene bag. It had about 70 pills and he said that he took them daily for avoiding getting sick. The pills would make a substantial snack. So why so many? Well, there was this one yellow pill which boosted his immune system. But that made him nauseous. So the red pill was to suppress that. The three green ones were to compensate for the side-effect of the red pill, though. But if you take the three green ones, you had to take the 8 white pills to give you back the vitamins that the green ones made you lose. Now the large blues pills were required for the upset stomach that the white ones gave you when you had them in combination with the yellow pill, the one that you actually needed. The story went on till about 70 pills had been accounted for.
Simplicity is beautiful, to paraphrase E. F. Shumacher. Education is a simple exercise. Basically, it is the ability to think and internalize information. There is a native intelligence that we are all born with along with a few native skills. What education does is to boost the skills we already have, and to give some direction to how we think. To take an example from the domain of language. We humans are born with a grammar engine. Non-humans lack this. We therefore can learn language, even invent one when needed. Without the grammar engine, you cannot learn nor teach a language. What can be taught is the vocabulary and the syntax of a particular language. The semantics is derived by our brains. Parrots can be taught vocabulary but they don’t have any semantics associated with the vocabulary.
What we need essentially, every child possesses natively. What we can teach is the equivalent of the “syntax and vocabulary” of the language. This bit can be taught and learnt in a relatively short time. The sequencing of this bit of instruction is important. And it is important that only this short bit be taught. The rest the child will work out on his own. If you try to teach or force into his head what he should learn on his own, he will not really learn what he needs to learn and it would just confuse the heck out of him.
Let me give you another analogy. When you start a computer, it “boots” up. That word “boot” comes from the idea of “bootstrapping.” Bootstrapping is the impossible task of lifting yourself up by pulling up on your bootstraps. Nevertheless, in computerese, they use the word for the process which starts the computer. The computer is just a bunch of electronics. It needs instructions which it can follow. These instructions when collected in a bunch is called a program. So you have to load the program. But to load the program, you have to give the computer instructions. Where does this end? It ends by keeping a very rudimentary small program resident in the memory which the hardware executes, and the execution of this little program — called the bootstrap program — loads the actual huge big program called the operating system and then the computer starts.
Education is all about loading the bootstrap program in the brain of a child. And after you have done that, the child himself is capable of loading the other bits of software required to do everything else, or what we call learning. The important point is that the bootstrap program has to be loaded first and it has to be very small and very efficient. I think that there is sufficient evidence around that the bootstrap program is very small. One only needs to know how to read and write (at least in one language), do a bit of arithmetic, and understand a bit of rudimentary logic. That is all that is needed as part of the “bootstrap” program. The rest does not have to be taught. The rest has to be learnt. To learn a subject is then just a matter of time and effort on the part of the student, given that relevant subject material is accessible.
I learnt a new subject. I had no prior training in it but I did my PhD in it. How? I knew how to read, how to do arithmetic, and how to think logically. The professors pointed me to a few books and a few papers. I pondered over them and spent some time in classrooms talking with my professors and more importantly with my peers, and I learnt the subject.
That is what I am going to do in education. First, teach a very small core set of skills: a language and some basic vocabulary, a bit of arithmetic, and logical reasoning. That is the sum total of the teaching. The next bit is learning and that is what the student will do. They will not be taught history or physics or geography. They will be pointed to the resources and they will learn what interests them by studying the material, cogitating about them and talking to others about it.
Has this happened before? Yes, numerous times and people have missed drawing the lessons. Let me take only one example. Abraham Lincoln had only a few books and had less than two years of teaching from informal teachers. No laptops, no access to the world wide web, no multimedia presentations, practically nothing. He learnt everything he needed to as he went along. Became a lawyer and then the president of the US.
Even an average person like me can do it. I estimate that I probably had in my entire schooling about 70 books — not very substantial books even. I am sure that the entire contents of those books can be put on a USB drive of about 256 MB with room to spare. Today it will cost you Rs 200 to store the entire information base that I constructed my high school education out of. I learnt not because I had gazillions of gigabytes of information at my fingertips, but rather because I had a reasonably small information set but I took the time to go through them a few times slowly, internalized them consciously, and discussed what I had learnt with my peers. I did not learn huge amounts of physics, mathematics, geography, astronomy, calculus, world history, moral science, civics, law, or whatever. I learnt only how to read, write, do sums, and think logically. But because I unhurriedly took the time to learn the small set of core skills, I was confident of my understanding of what I knew. The rest I picked up when I needed.
My method is therefore: teach the kids the basic bits in a relatively short time, perhaps two or three years. In those two or three years, give them instructions for maybe at most 3 hours a day. The rest of the time, they must not study. Then when they have mastered those basic skills — that is, the bootstrap program is loaded — let them have free access to a large set of high quality information in all subjects. And let them learn whatever interests them on their own. No teaching, only pointing to resources from this point onwards.
In software engineering, programs have bugs. To fix a bug, you put in what is called a software “patch.” When you do, the patch may cause or reveal some other bugs. So you need more patches. After a few years, the system is full of patches. Because different people have at different times patched the system, the system is hard to comprehend due to the complex set of patches. At some point, it may be better to scrap the entire heap and write an entirely new program.
Our education system has got too many patches. We need to re-write that one. The new program must be well-designed and one of the main design principles would be that it will be short. And because it will be a short and simple program, it will not have too many bugs. And if there are very few bugs, you will not have zillion patches.
The education system has become like the guy’s collection of 70 daily pills. The core problem is with the attempt to push too much insanely incoherent stuff into a child’s head. Then when the child is unable to learn – primarily because it is not appropriate for the child – more stuff is pushed at him. The pile keeps growing and the more the child struggles, the greater the burden placed on him. “Daily floggings will continue and even intensify until morale improves,” appears to be the strategy.
We need to go back to the basics because we are ruining the lives of millions of children. The teachers don’t know what it is all about and it is not surprising that they can’t help with education. Some of the most dearly held beliefs of this entirely patched system is fundamentally wrong. How many teachers actually believe that homework is good for children? About 99 percent of them, I would guess. Perhaps only one percent know that homework does no good and actually hampers learning. How many know that the less time you spend teaching, the more time the child has for learning?
Our problem is that we have lost our way. We have forgotten that education is not about competition or exams or endless hours of drudgery in classrooms and in tuitions, offline or online. It is about having an inquisitive mind, reading a little, thinking a lot and then talking with others. It is about the exercise of one’s imagination, not about rote learning. Not everything can be taught but everything can be learnt. We need to understand the futility of teaching and the desirability of learning. We need to make that distinction. In our obsession with teaching we have forgotten the core idea that it is about learning. My idea is to stop teaching them so that they can start learning.