Do you remember or have you heard of Malcom X, the Black American freedom crusader of the 20th century? While I remember his struggles, I remember him more for what he said about education.
He said: “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today”.
Education policy makers, curriculum designers and policy reviewers should thus ask: Are we preparing our children and young adults for life’s tests or merely life’s tests’ sheets, as one writer asked? But what future are we preparing them for? Are we preparing them to be humans who can think and rethink, and who are capable of creativity, innovation, empathy and problem-solving, or simply those who copy and paste and only wish they will fit in the changing world for as long as possible without influencing change? Are we preparing children and adults who will never question anything and who will sacrifice their fate and destiny to those who happen to be in positions of decision-making in the belief that they will decide well for them? Are we preparing people who will value their paper qualifications so much that they will not care about what happens around them?
Besides, shouldn’t we be rethinking “thinking” about higher level thinking as Reed Geertsen (2003) suggested? What dimensions and types of higher-level thinking should our education emphasise? Can our education system ensure that all people who have engaged in higher level education, either as teachers or learners, really engage in high level thinking meaningfully and effectively? If not, how should we design our education so that we can teach higher level thinking?
There is no doubt that any rethinking of education in the 21st century must address these questions. Ultimately, any education policy review must ask: What type of thinking would we like to see in our students at all level of education?
So far, I have written as if all of us agree on what education is. Let me tell you what I think education is and what it can do if properly designed.
Education is freedom from conditioning. The learner is caught between his own desire for freedom to do what he wants and society’s demands for conformity. Education has no meaning unless it helps you to understand the vast expanse of life, with its extraordinary beauty, its sorrows and joys. You may earn degrees, you may have a series of letters after your name and land a very good job, but then what? What is the point of it all if in the process your mind becomes dull, weary, stupid? It is very important while you are young to live in an environment in which there is no fear. But the education we have does not only breed fear but allows fear to be central to it at all levels of the educational ladder: fear of failure or being failed, but fear is integral to virtually all the products of the education system.
One writer said education is supposed to develop a country’s economy and society. Therefore, it is the milestone of a nation’s development. Education also provides knowledge and skills, as well as shapes the personality of the youth of a nation. However, we can ask: “Can education shape the youth’s national identity? Can education cultivate the person’s identity or sense of belonging to the nation?”. These are challenging questions for those deigning education policy and education curricula. Developing identity in young people requires taking many factors in account: culture, race, history, ethnicity, gender, class, identity, language and religion etc. All these apparently are cultural identifiers, which education ignores only at the disadvantage of the country. Besides, it matters how the identities are shaped. Unfortunately, these may not count more than the political interests of the ruling class or clique that desires to use education as a tool of domination.
Cultural and traditional identity is important in any community as it reflects the social values and social norms of the respective society. On a broader scale, the national identity development in any country is often planned through education to shape the identity of the nation.
Culture is an important part of the structure of a society and can be defined as the life style of that society including every moment and relation and connection of individuals from birth to death. Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1952) have defined and discussed 160 definitions of culture. But we are educating “being educated” when the digital culture cannot be ignored by education policy designers and education curriculum designers as a new culture that must be central to education in the 21st century and beyond. I will come to this at a later stage in this article.
Filiz Meşeci Giorgetti, Craig Campbell and Ali Arslan (2017) state that culture and education are complex phenomena and their causal relationship is of a “chicken or egg” character. There is of course a great debate over what constitutes both “education” and “culture”, let alone their relationship with one another. However, we can note that their relationship is as follows:
Preservation of culture
Education through its formal and informal agencies play a significant role in preserving all those values, customs, tradition, belief, usage, practice knowledge and experiences, achievements, and non-materialistic sphere which are worthwhile in the present age.
Transmission of culture
All the agencies of education play an important role in transmitting the culture from one generation to another generation. It is due to the role of education that the thousands of years old culture could be transmitted to the present age to a great extent.
Promotion or enrichment of culture
Education not only preserves and transmits the old culture to the coming generation in the same form but it also plays an important role in the enrichment or promotion of the culture by adding new experiences, knowledge, inventions and discoveries in the field of science and technology and other achievement made by society to the culture before transmitting it to the next generation.
Refinement of the culture
Education also brings refinement to the centuries-old culture by deleting or excluding those customs, traditions and practices that have either lost their utility or are scientifically discarded.
Diffusion of culture
Education plays a significant role in bringing a diffusion among the culture not of different sections of society within the country but also of different countries of the world. Mass media as an informal agency of education is playing an important role in bringing the diffusion of the culture of different countries of the world.
Removing cultural lag
Education bridges the gap that exists between material and non-material culture through activities and programme development.
Adjustment of culture:
Education helps individuals to adapt to the changing culture of society.
Development of personality
Education aims to develop the personality of the child for this, it employs diverse cultural patterns of thinking, behavior and items of cultural values so that children are physically, mentally, socially and emotionally developed to the maximum extent
There is no doubt that any education policy review must take these relationships between culture and education seriously. However, more specifically education must fit us in the new cultural environment dominated by technology. It must prepare our children and grandchildren adequately for the 21st century and beyond
As Fieldman (2022) has amply stated, “Our education system equips us well for things we have experienced before and expect to stay that way, while leaving us extremely ill-equipped for everything else. This is the case throughout the education system. Our thinking is highly specialised in a manner that the modern world has demanded of us; and it is thinking that is increasingly obsolete”.
Epstein says, “A rapidly changing ‘wicked’ world demands conceptual reasoning skills that can connect new ideas and work across contexts.”
Our education system, however, is at higher levels of education, mired in producing specialists in this, that and the other. Yet specialisation is the enemy of creative thinking; and worse, it turns out that once our minds are hard-wired to specialize, it is an uphill – often insurmountable – battle to grasp things that challenge our well-formed and deeply grooved beliefs” (Fieldman, 2022). We want experts out of specialisation; nothing else, as if everything requires disciplinary specialists, or as if our world is disciplinary or organised in disciplines. We know “an expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less until he or she knows absolutely everything about nothing” about the world about him or her.
Fieldman is right. “What we need to be taught is how to be ready for change in a quickly changing world– not how to dominate a field that may disappear overnight. We need graduates with the ability to tackle problems from a variety of angles, through broad learning and the playful trial and error that it precipitates. This is what shows up consistently among the most creative people in any field; those who also manifest as innovators. We need more people “whose knowledge spans a substantial number of subjects, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems. These people called polymaths, are not favored by our education system. Yet they are people who are not burdened by rigid conclusions or circular thinking that dogs the public at large. And the only reason it dogs us is because many of us lack the tools to see beyond what we have been taught. We are prisoners to what we have been taught, how we have been taught and why we have been taught”
Again, Fieldmsn is right. By the way education has been designed and the way we have been taught, we have fallen out of love with polymathy. So, we the products of the education system frequently use synonyms as insults. “Amateur” and “Jack of all trades (master of none)” are wielded largely to disparage or impugn people for lacking sufficient expertise to warrant our attention or speak with authority. And yet: from Aristotle to Da Vinci to Newton to Darwin to Edison and beyond, these polymaths’ outsized contributions to humanity (engineering, math and philosophy included) emerged from their lives.
We need an education system that teaches question-seeking rather than answer-finding. We need an education system that encourages children to explore their worlds without regard for being wrong, and to share the questions and thoughts that emerge; and to gather the collected reflections of the entire class, as a pretext to structured learning. Such an education system should have been constructed long ago before this complex century of complex wicked problems that cannot be addressed by simplified minds of the disciplines.
We need an education system that encourages curiosity, listening skills, collaboration, inductive reasoning, dialectics, agency, tolerance, neuroplasticity, comfort with change, courage and fear-free environment.
We no longer need to lead children (and adults) towards efficient answers, rather than effective questions. We no longer need to focus on monetising adulthood, rather than exploring childhood. We should no longer dream of guiding our children’s mastery over something that will differentiate them, in lieu of encouraging an amateurism that may have no clear application, but would seed their long-term resilience.
Why not have an education system that tolerates big mistakes in order to create the best learning opportunities? When I was a secondary school student as Busoga College, Mwiri in the 1960s, I came across Edison. When he was questioned about his missteps in creating the electric light, he said, “I have not failed 10,000 times – I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”. Why continue with an education system that shields learners from making mistakes, yet we learn from mistakes?
Like the Ancient Greeks before us, and the polymaths who engaged their worlds with broadly applied curiosity, rooted in ideas but free of preconceptions, we would be well-served by guiding children and adults through a life of open-ended co-exploration.
Self-taught musician Shinichi Suzuki, cited by Epstein, once said, “Children do not practise exercises to learn to talk… children learn to read after their ability to talk has been well established”.
We should have an education system that is fully cognizant of the dominance of the digital era on our learners at all levels of education. Teaching critical thinking should be the way forward because, as Fieldman warns, artificial Intelligence and machines are increasingly outperforming people on rote tasks. Critical thinking will add value and longevity to our productive lives
Our learners at all levels of education are waiting for our political leaders, education leaders, curriculum leaders and the whole society to practically embrace creativity and innovation. We must usher in a new education system that is open-ended, emancipative, fear-free and opportune in the sense of providing new opportunities for thinking, rethinking, creating and innovating. The digital era demands such an education that liberates the minds of our young people. We must teach our students at all levels of education not only critical thinking but free thinking without fer or favour, and to solve complex, sophisticated problems using computers. In the 21st Century and beyond complexity matters. Simplicity is backward. Teamwork is the way forward; individualized work is backward-looking. We need a new education system to produce people who will be comfortable changing their careers between learning and work.
Credit goes to Epstein who wrote that “the more contexts in which something is learned, the more the learner creates abstract models, and the less they rely on any particular example. Learners become better at applying their knowledge to a situation they have never seen before, which is the essence of creativity.” Besides, graduates so produced will not fear to initiate debate on anything considered taboo or not taboo. They easily accept responsibility for their mistakes and do not refuse correction.
Lastly, good thinkers make good citizens and good leaders. An education system that encourages critical thinking in teachers and students will definitely prepare both teacher and student for a rapidly changing world of the 21st century mediated by the World Wide Web.
Education should be the pathway to an open free society in which “thinking correctly practice” is at the centre of everything, including leadership and governance. Where there is such a practice corruption is tameable. However, environmentally speaking, our education must be about teaching our learners at all levels of education to live on our only liveable Planet Earth under pressure. Environment must be at the centre of the education system. It must be free of worship and praise of those who emerge as leaders.
For God and My Country
- A Tell report / By Prof Oweyegha-Afunaduula, a former professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences of the Makerere University, Uganda