In one of the most powerful scenes in the edu-documentary “Most Likely to Succeed” (which, by the way, if you haven’t seen already, you absolutely must), a teacher trying out something new in a classroom is having a meeting with some of his students to talk about the new pedagogy he has introduced in class. Pedagogy that is intended help the students “learn” rather than just prepare them to ace tests. Some of the students (mostly the high-performing ones) are hesitant about these new methods he’s brought in. “Is it more important for you to learn or to do well in the tests?”, he asks, cautious hope in his eyes. “Do well in tests,” one student immediately responds. The others chime in almost instantly, agreeing. The look of confusion and concern that he has on his face after that summarises what a lot of us feel about our education system.
It got me to think about my own early experiences as a student. I wasn’t a bad student. I got decent grades, my teachers would call me a sincere student. Yet, despite the fact that I loved learning, studying (for exams – which I found out later wasn’t necessarily the same as learning) was hard. Even after I managed to find healthier educational opportunities, the same struggles followed me into the real world. My questions, stemming out of genuine curiosity, were often met with well-intentioned advice of “don’t complicate your life too much”.
In the past year, being encouraged to “complexify” my life, I have come to think about how we are taught about the “real world”. When a wiser person tells us there’s a certain way the real world works and certain ways that it doesn’t, our learnt default response is to believe in that, because experience is true, and if that were really how the “real world”- which is in any case too overwhelmingly massive and intricate for one person to fully understand – works, we don’t want to risk being on the wrong side of.
Our education system, I have come to believe, is one such system that is formed around such assumptions about what the real world need and values. Our schools and colleges work so hard to prepare us to do well in a system that we all know is messed up. Whether or not they succeed in doing even that is a whole other conversation.
These assumptions have been around for a while, and with history. At the risk of hyper-simplifying its nuances, the well-known story goes mostly like this:
Years ago, with the Industrial Revolution showing us dreams of a fancy new society, an era of moving from our agrarian/ artisan culture to that of professionalism, our metrics for measuring success changed. We now thought of productivity through the lens of efficiency – how much more can you produce in a shorter period of time, how fewer mistakes can you make while doing that, and can you be trusted to be consistently as accurate – measures that we inherited from the machines we created. Mass-production of goods led to a culture of mass-production of people and their skills – what we (currently) know as our educational system centered around exams and standardised tests. What was meant to measure learning became what learning focused towards. Our systems came to be designed so that we would memorise to prove our competencies – static knowledge of facts and procedures to do well in the industrialised marketplace, with rights and wrongs to be handed down by teachers who are considered authority. In industries, the employee was individually involved in a very small part of making the product, was easily replaceable and was thus supposed to be detached from the product – and slowly, these values came to also structure the qualities we hold as valuable in people. Values that are represented in our education system. Certainty, consistency, order and uniformity. Words that sound like music to the industrial companies.
Of course, there are several ways that this is changing with the advent of the Internet era; there is much that the Googles of the world are changing in the work marketplace and there are several schools, colleges and non-institutional settings that are doing phenomenal work to change that. Yet, we are largely still functioning in the same way; these versions of learning are being passed on across generations, setting the boundaries of what we call success even if we decide to challenge the ways we learn/ work for it. The square pegs-round hole analogy has in my head always been about cookies – the cookie boxes are round, so all our cookies need to be cut with round cookie-cutters, and the square ones need to be chipped off the edges to fit the boxes. Individuality then gets restricted to how many colours you can make these round cookies in, which is easier than changing the shape of the boxes to fit all kinds of cookies, including the ones that don’t have a perfect shape. Add to that the very real problems of lack of equal access and resources, and we have a nice little vicious cycle, a whole machine of faulty systemic gears. A cycle that continues to perpetuate, because those who come into power, very often if not always (thank god!), do so because of this system, and by the time they get power, might not have sufficient motivation and credibility to really change it as substantially as it deserves to be.
There are several people asking questions about this and finding fascinating ways to shift these gears – a task that, as you can well imagine, is rather tricky given that you need to change multiple gears while the machine is still in motion. But here’s the question that keeps me up at night – what can I, as an individual, subject to the risks that come with not “following this system”, do to change it?
Although far from having an answer, I do have a hypothesis that I am testing out right now. (I must state at this point that I fully recognise the privilege that underlies my ability to say this – the privilege that comes from having encouraging teachers, professional mentors, like-minded peers and supportive family along with access to opportunities that allows me to venture on this experiment). It was a thought that was planted in my head by a very enthusiastic Alfie Kohn dancing around our classroom stage, as he spoke about the “BGUTI culture” i.e. the “Better Get Used To It” culture that we are slowly hammered into. The culture of being told “that’s how the real world works, better get used to it” every time we question something that does not make sense. The culture where we are told that questioning and challenging and changing are privileges reserved for the “already successful” club, and we need to be successful within the system before we start to change it. A culture of keeping our head down, take only calculated risks, and continuing to believe that it is only a dog-eats-dog world out there, and the only way to survive it is to learn to be a part of it. I have no credibility to say that that is not true. I am just not sure that that is the only truth.
I have been wondering about the versions of the “real world” that we come to believe as true, and that has made me conscious of what my own versions are that I use to build my life in, and what I pass on and contribute to through the choices I make. Trying out what happens when I ask good questions, questions that come from a place of genuine curiosity, when something doesn’t make sense to me. Not rebelling, not challenging blindly, not being idealistic/ unrealistic, but questioning to understand, so I can know why and how I make choices, and thus make better ones.
So far, it’s served me well. It’s opened up opportunities and space for conversations. Conversations like the one I had with one of my professors when I spoke to him about my learning in his class. What I wanted to gain from that class was different from what the class’ learning goals were – and having a conversation asking him what his learning goals were and why, and defining the same for my goals, led to him helping me get to my goal, so long as I respected the criteria of the class in the assignments I submitted. This discussion itself brought to the forefront the learning that was happening from the class and gave me better focus, rather than the bitterness that I had begun to develop. Conversations like the ones I have with new people I meet when we realise that we are mutually baffled with small talk, and thus don’t need to work so hard at trying to do that at all – this one in fact has made parties so much more bearable for me. It’s not always been yay-ish, I haven’t always received answers, sometimes I found
It’s not always been yay-ish, I haven’t always received answers, sometimes I found good reason why things worked the way they did rather than the way I thought they should – and all of this allowed me to contribute better. There have been several days that not asking felt a lot more convenient and comfortable. Yet, the times that I did muster up the courage to ask questions, I have felt more empowered, as though I had more information on the map that I navigated through my world. I felt more a part of how things worked, than just an object to assumptions of it. It’s opened up space for more possibilities, opening me up from the binds of only one version of them. Kinda like the time someone said, wait a second, why did you say women can’t have the right to vote again?
I would like to invite you to try your own adventure of curiosity with some faith in the good in this world. Next time you find yourself craving into believing that the real world works in a certain way only, maybe stop and ask what proof you have of that, and if there are other possibilities you might imagine. Maybe, if you feel particularly daring, seek out and test out some of those possibilities. For the few times that they work out, let people know those possibilities can happen. And maybe, just maybe, we will all be able to put those possibilities together and create better versions of the “real world” we live in. If you do embark on this journey, I would love to know about what you learn so that I can add it to my repertoire of “tested assumptions of the real world”.
July 15, 2017. 10.00 am