Just because schooling is traditionally a teacher in front of the class doesn’t mean it’s the best way.
I was intrigued by this article in this copy of the New Scientist (8 Sept) I picked up at our school library. I think we’ve all been unduly bashing the education system and pushing for educational reform without considering all alternative options. We’ve all been revolving around the PSLE, O- Levels, etc, etc- but since we’re going to change the way our educational system works, why not take a bigger risk and revamp the entire curriculum rather than keep making minor tweaks?
This article talks about how online education is gaining ground in the US. I think with the rise of technology and the entry into a ‘virtual’ age, the loss of traditional teaching methods is somewhat inevitable. Thing is, we couldn’t possibly consider something like this in Singapore due to mandatory restrictions- all Singaporeans have to go to primary school. And not just any primary school, no. Local primary schools.
What if we don’t want to put our kids through such a system?
There is no alternative.
Of course the benefits of online learning and being home-schooled are questionable. Children need social interaction, and really the most important things they actually learn in school are how to interact with other people and how to ‘play nicely’- as well as develop leadership skills and let their personality bloom. And at a stage before they have matured to have a reasonable amount self-discipline and determination to do well, I suppose online education could be rather detrimental. However, I think we have to keep in mind that Singapore is different from the USA. Such a manner of teaching may be feasible and even better for Americans due to the lack of teachers (or the lack of money to pay them), but in Singapore we hardly lack teachers (although class sizes are horrendous), and testing systems are so rigorous it simply isn’t possible to keep up by yourself.
In fact, going to school is not enough. Why else do tuition centers thrive in Singapore?
Back in Shanghai I used to go to church, and there was this kid (can’t remember her name) who was home schooled. She was smart, eloquent, and pretty normal in the sense that she talked to all of us and rambled about the same things, squealed about her new toys, etc, etc. I think at some stage though, every child should go to school. We live in a society where pretty much everyone has gone to school, and for excluding any child from that environment could be called alienation.
I think the benefits of online education only extend to children who are very self-motivated and are already very exposed to different sorts of environments and cultures, and who have other activities (eg. sports, church) that allow them to interact with other people. However, I don’t think online education has to be viewed as a substitute for traditional teaching methods, but rather as a supplement for those who want to know more.
Online education provides knowledge to those who want it- I’ve been looking at the MIT courses online (OpenCourseWare) and the trove of knowledge available is just astounding. I’m planning to do a few courses by myself this upcoming holiday, and really this sort of thing wasn’t possible just a few years ago. Back then, if you wanted to learn things at such a level, you would have to work your ass off, score straight As, and get yourself into a good university to have access to people that are willing to share this research and knowledge with you. Now, it’s free. It’s everywhere.
Perhaps schools should give less homework or be shortened for students to pursue what they want. I can envision at least three quarters of students wasting that time, however. Schooling systems cannot change to one where students take charge of their own learning due to the apathy and lack of interest of the vast majority. I think the only way to have a schooling system that fits everyone is to assess every child and see what way he/she learns best. Does he/she need guidance from parents and teachers? Or does he/she need more room for self development?
But how can these things be assessed? How can they be quantified?
And that’s a big issue. Quantification. Quantification of our grades, our CCAs, and now even our learning style?
No, it can’t happen. See what’s happened with the co-curricular activities in Singapore? After quantifying it, people have just been joining CCAs that give the most points, or going into an activity initially liking it, but trained and pushed to the point where interest has waned. And really, sports and arts have morphed from leisurely, pleasurable hobbies to worry-inducing, point-oriented chores.
What happens when we quantify learning style? It’d be alright if we had a different environment. But in Singapore, there always has to be a clear-cut best and worst. Students will be constantly pressurized by their parents to change they learning style so that they can be classified as hardworking, motivated, etc, etc. Schools will all want to take in the most self-motivated students, and so on.
So it isn’t feasible.
Coming back to the topic of online education. I think for the US, though, a mixture of online education and traditional teaching methods is the best way. Okay, shortage of teachers. Why not adopt a dual system where there are two groups of children, one schooling on Monday, Wednesday, Friday; the other Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday? And for two other days of the week, they can do their own learning online and pursue their own interests?
That way the same number of teachers can teach twice the initial number of students. That would mean teachers would have to deal with a 6-day week, however.
Or maybe have an afternoon and a morning class?
I’m not an educationalist, and I don’t know what is and what isn’t feasible. But maybe we should broaden our view beyond traditional methods and look for educational alternatives that may give rise to a better future.
Before schooling moves inexorably online, we need to know whether it works. Otherwise its virtues and vices will become yet another bone of contention in the evidence-lite, overtly ideological battle over how to educate our children.