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3 July, 2019 11:10:49 AM

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The purpose of education

Misconceptions about using inquiry-based learning in the classroom include inquiry being too difficult for most students
Mohammed Abul Kalam, Ph.D
The purpose of education

The Ancient Greeks modeled a form of education that, invariants, has endured for centuries. But with climate change and globalization, the world has changed, and the role of education with it.For much of human history, education has served an important purpose, ensuring we have the tools to survive.

People need jobs to eat and to have jobs; they need to learn how to work. Education has been an essential part of every society. But our world is changing and we’re being forced to change with it. So what is the point of education today?
The ancient Greek model: Some of our oldest accounts of education come from Ancient Greece. In many ways, the Greeks modeled a form of education that would endure for thousands of years. It was an incredibly focused system designed for developing statesmen, soldiers, and well-informed citizens.
Most boys would have gone to a learning environment similar to a school, although this would have been a place to learn basic literacy until adolescence. At this point, a child would embark on one of two career paths: apprentice or “citizen”. On the apprentice path, the child would be put under the informal wing of an adult who would teach them a craft. This might be farming, potting or smithing – any career that required training or physical labor.

In Ancient Greece, boys would become either apprentices or citizens. Women and slaves didn’t get any education. The path of the full citizen was one of intellectual development. Boys on the path to more academic careers would have private tutors who would foster their knowledge of arts and sciences, as well as develop their thinking skills. The private tutor-student model of learning would endure for many hundreds of years after this. All male children were expected to go to state-sponsored places called gymnasiums (“school for naked exercise”) with those on a military-citizen career path training in martial arts. Those on vocational pathways would be strongly encouraged to exercise too, but their training would be simply for good health.

Homer’s Iliad is usually thought of as the first work of European literature, and many would say, the greatest. It tells part of the saga of the city of Troy and the war that took place there. In fact, the Iliad takes its name from “Ilios”, an ancient Greek word for “Troy”, situated in what is Turkey today. This story had a central place in Greek mythology.

We learn to work – the ‘pragmatic purpose’: Today we largely view education as being there to give us knowledge of our place in the world, and the skills to work in it. This view is underpinned by a specific philosophical framework known as pragmatism. Philosopher Charles Peirce – sometimes known as the “father of pragmatism” – developed this theory in the late 1800s.

There has been a long history of philosophies of knowledge and understanding (also known as epistemology). Many early philosophies were based on the idea of an objective, universal truth. For example, the ancient Greeks believed the world was made of only five elements: earth, water, fire, and aether.

Pragmatism sees any concept – belief, science, language, and people – as mere components in a set of real-world problems.In other words, we should believe only what helps us learn about the world and require reasonable justification for our actions. A person might think a ceremony is sacred or has spiritual significance, but the pragmatist would ask: “What effects does this have on the world?”

Education has always served a pragmatic purpose. It is a tool to be used to bring about a specific outcome (or set of outcomes). For the most part, this purpose is economic. Education benefitsus personally because we get to have a job, and it benefits society because you contribute to the overall productivity of the country. But for the economics-based pragmatist, not everyone needs to have the same access to educational opportunities. Societies generally need more farmers than lawyers or more laborers than politicians, so it’s not important everyone goes to university.

We can, of course, have a pragmatic purpose in solving injustice or creating equality or protecting the environment – but most of these are of secondary importance to making sure we have a strong workforce.Pragmatism, as a concept, isn’t too difficult to understand, but thinking pragmatically can be tricky. It’s challenging to imagine external perspectives, particularly on problems we deal with ourselves.

How to problem-solve (especially when we are part of the problem) is the purpose of a variant of pragmatism called instrumentalism.

Contemporary society and education: In the early part of the 20th century, John Dewey (a pragmatist philosopher) created a new educational framework. Dewey didn’t believe education was to serve an economic goal. Instead, Dewey argued education should serve an intrinsic purpose: education was good in itself and children became fully developed as people because of it.  Much of the philosophy of the preceding century – as in the works of Kant, Hegel and Mill – was focused on the duties a person had to themselves and their society. The onus of learning, and fulfilling a citizen’s moral and legal obligations, was on the citizens themselves.

Inquiry-based learning emphasizes a student’s role in the learning process and asks them to engage with an idea or topic in an active way, rather than by sitting and listening to a teacher. The overall goal of an inquiry-based approach is for students to make meaning of what they are learning about and to understand how a concept works in a real-world context. The inquiry approach is sometimes known as project-based or experiential learning. To learn about a topic, students explore resources, ask questions and share ideas. The teacher helps students apply new concepts to different contexts, which allows them to discover knowledge for themselves by exploring, experiencing and discussing as they go. Learning through inquiry can be done differently depending on the subject area and the age of the student. Inquiry-based teaching and learning practices feature in many classrooms across the world. Teachers are conducting lessons with an inquiry-based approach, or aspects of it, without realizing it.

From primary to secondary: The primary school classroom offers rich inquiry opportunities as there is usually one teacher per class and s/he can use inquiry to link ideas and activities between learning areas. I observed a Year 1 classroom where the teacher and students were exploring nursery rhymes while developing early reading skills.

During the reading of Jack and Jill, a six-year-old boy (in our English-medium school) asked: “What is the hill made out of?” The teacher built on this question to create an inquiry experience spanning five weeks. The children learned concepts in science (forces, pushes, pulls, friction, soil types, and rock types) and mathematics (slopes, fractions, time).

In doing so, children’s reading, writing, and spelling (push, pull, trip, fall, tumble, slope,etc) were enhanced. The class explored the geography of hills and mountains. Literacy, mathematics, science and humanities lessons revolved around learning about hills and answering the original question.

The class concluded that Jack slipped on wet clay and Jill tripped on a rock embedded in the clay. The class also discussed pushing and shoving each other, with one child asking if Jill could have been pushed by the same person who pushed Humpty Dumpty off the wall.In secondary schools, there are multiple teachers and classes, and therefore reduced the opportunity for integrated inquiry. So the inquiry is generally within disciplines.

Challenges and misconceptions: The main challenge with an inquiry approach is assessment. Standardized testing monopolizes educational assessment, which puts a value on core literacies: reading, writing, computation, and the accumulation of facts and figures. Educators are only beginning to identify parameters through which they can assess students’ discovery of knowledge and making meaning.

Global culture has become one of innovation, discovery and interdisciplinary thinking, which means solely relying on a standardized way of learning and testing is at odds with the outside world. Educators promoting an inquiry-based learning system believe it is only a matter of time until inquiry skills take precedence over learning content.

Misconceptions about using inquiry-based learning in the classroom include inquiry being too difficult for most students (that it is for the older gifted child) and that during the inquiry the teacher does little and the class is in chaos. But inquiry-based learning, guided by a teacher who models the process to various students, is valuable for the whole class. Classroom chaos is rarely seen in situations where the teacher is an active learner alongside their students.The inquiry is part of human nature, but one can benefit from learning how to be a good inquirer. This includes learning skills such as how to ask and answer questions, solve problems and conduct investigations and research. To be an inquirer is liberating, exciting and transformative. It involves taking risks and is intellectually demanding. And, above all, it helps us learn.

The paradigm shift: Our world may not be as clean-cut as we previously thought. We may choose to be vegetarian to lessen our impact on the environment. But this means we buy quinoa sourced from countries where people can no longer afford to buy a staple because it’s become a “super food” in Western kitchens.

And climate change is forcing us to reassess how we have lived on this planet for the last hundred years because it’s clear that way of life isn’t sustainable.Contemporary ethicist Peter Singer has argued that, given the current political climate, we would only be capable of radically altering our collective behavior when there has been a massive disruption to our way of life.If a supply chain is broken by a climate-change-induced disaster, there is no choice but to deal with the new reality. But we shouldn’t be waiting for a disaster to kick us into gear.Making changes includes seeing ourselves as citizens not only of a community or a country but also of the world.

As US philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues, many issues need international cooperation to address. Trade, environment, law, and conflict require creative thinking and pragmatism, and we need a different focus in our education systems to bring these about.  Education needs to focus on developing the personhood of children, as well as their capability to engage as citizens (even if current political leaders disagree). If we’re taking a certain subject at school or university, have we ever been asked: “But how will that get me a job?” If so, the questioner sees economic goals as the most important outcomes for education. They’re not necessarily wrong, but it’s also clear that jobs are no longer the only (or most important) reason we learn.

The writer is  former Head, Department of Medical Sociology, Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control & Research (IEDCR), Dhaka, Bangladesh, E-mail: med_sociology_iedcr@yahoo.com

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Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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