4 Jan 2017

Educational Institutions Should Teach Students Independence in Addition to Obedience

As Republic Day approaches, the school in front of my house has started conducting marchpast rehearsals. Groups of students march to the sound of a loud drum. It's an exercise where you do as you're commanded, down to each step you take. It's all about obedience and discipline and following instructions. As are other aspects of school life, though not as blatant. You go to school at the time they tell you to. You follow the timetable they give you. In class, you do what the teacher tells you to. And so on. Every aspect of school life is about obedience.

Conformity is sometimes needed in life. A lot of activities require coordination, which means that not everyone can have his way. Sometimes we follow rules that make little sense, because we can't fight every battle and want to focus on fighting the ones that matter. The companies we work for may be bureaucratic, but so are other employers, so we live with it to some extent. And so on.

But while students need to learn to conform, they more importantly also need to learn independence, to think for and make decisions for themselves.

Schools need to teach both, not just conformity as they do now. They do an abysmal job of teaching independence. Our education system is depressing, designed by the British to turn out mindless drones to fill clerical positions, and we haven't changed it in many decades of independence. How might we change it to teach students to think for themselves?

One important aspect of independence is making decisions ourselves that affect our lives, rather than leaving it an authority to make them on our behalf. How might schools implement this? Start small.

Maybe students, from 7th class onwards, should be able to choose one of the subjects to study that year. In other words, if they have to study 8 subjects this year, let the 7 be fixed, but the 8th, a choice between two subjects. Ideally, both the classes would be run, and each student would go to the one she's selected at the beginning of the year. It doesn't matter which one a student chooses as much as that she's exercising her own mind. The exercise matters more than the outcome [1].

This is the minimum amount of choice — we don't need to make all subjects optional. Just one optional slot in the timetable, that too a choice between just two subjects, not necessarily four or five.

Another aspect of independence is doing things in a different order, like letting an 8th class student attend a 9th standard class, and take the exam. If they pass, they don't need to take that class next year.

An independent person also may choose to take a different path to reach the same goal. Like learning a particular subject from books or the Internet or others, without attending a class. And taking an exam and getting a certificate.

Moving on, one asymmetry in school life is that teachers often bluntly contradict students, while students are expected to speak more politely. This implies that authorities decide what's true and what's not. In reality, the truth knows no social hierarchy, and couldn't care less about someone's job title.

To fix this, when it comes to academic matters (rather than, say, being late to class), students should be free to disagree with their teachers using the same language and tone their teachers use. If the teacher says, "That's wrong!", the student should be able to say so, too, and not, "Sir, shouldn't that part be...". We're all equals when it comes to the truth.

Another way of teaching independence is to give students a task and let them solve it any way they choose. These should be real-world tasks, not dry hypotheticals that exist only in a textbook and are hard to relate to.

There could be individual exercises, group exercises where different groups compete against each other, and exercises where everyone works together to achieve a goal. And all in these exercises, only the goal should be specified, and students should be left alone to achieve it any way they want.

Here's an example exercise: make sure there are equal number of chalk pieces in every classroom, and do it as quickly as you can. That requires the students to organise themselves into groups, coordinate, and move chalk pieces from the rooms that have too many of them to the that have too few.

One solution is to first move all chalk pieces to a central place, then divide them equally, and redistribute them. Another is to just convey the information, rather than physically moving the chalk pieces to the central place. And so on. Let students come up with creative solutions to the problem, given a blank canvas.

See how open-ended this is compared to the contrived "problems" we have in text books, which are usually just the material in the book restated as a question. The material would say that speed is distance divided by time. And the question would ask how long a train going at 100 km/h takes to travel the 500 km between Bangalore and Chennai. This is so obvious that it amounts to spoon-feeding, not an exercise in creativity, and nothing like the problems we face everyday in life, which aren't direct applications of a formula that was just told to us five minutes ago.

Another important exercise should be giving students a task that you know ahead of time to be impossible, and seeing how quickly they realise it and tell you as such. Tell them that the first person to finish the task will get a prize, to encourage them to dive into it. A really smart student will be able to take a step back, without being prompted, and in fact despite being incentivised to dive in, and tell you that it's impossible before spending a lot of time getting busy. He should be the one to get the prize. A trick question. Which occur all the time in real life.

In addition, students should sometimes be rewarded if, when given a dull, routine or mundane task, but with a related question or topic that's fascinating, explore that promising area, rather than just sticking blindly to the given task. In real life, being able to change the subject is sometimes incalculably more important than diligently sticking to the given question, and students should be rewarded for that. As Voltaire said, judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.

Educational institutions should adopt these methods to teach students independence and creativity, rather than just conformity. That will empower rather than stifle students' innate curiosity and energy, and equip them to enter society trained and energised to solve problems rather than just do as they're told.

[1] If the school can't afford the overhead of running two classes in place of one, let the students vote to pick one. With no interference or "advice" from teachers, of course. This is collective decision-making, not as good as individual decision-making for the purpose of this exercise, but better than nothing.

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