Ian On Sunday

By Ian McDonald
In Guyana getting a good education is defined as getting good exam results. And getting good exam results involves going to school twice – to school itself and, more importantly, to ‘extra lessons.’
This double dose of teaching deprives children and young people of an absolutely vital part of their lives – that part which should be spent in games and recreation, in pursuing hobbies and developing creative talents which have nothing to do with any exam syllabus, in simply having fun, enjoying themselves, getting really good at some sport, stretching their imaginations in art or dance or drama or in reading books that have nothing to do with the classroom. In other words they are deprived of making the most of a time in their lives when all-round ability, mental flexibility, character, social skills and special aptitudes are practised and developed to face the much larger and more important exam of life itself. It is a tragedy of the first order.

Parents mean well but they should know that what is involved in the exercise of ‘extra lessons,’ taken to the lengths that now obtain in Guyana, is child abuse by another name. I find it unbearable to think of the countless aimless hours which our children and young people spend in school classrooms all over the country to be followed by further countless hours spent in crammer’s sweat shops preparing for exams. Our educational authorities should also find it unbearable.

The educational system, especially including ‘extra lessons,’ is geared to cramming for the purpose of doing well at exams. Doing well at exams is a worthy objective but it is certainly not the only purpose of education and cramming information into young minds is the worst possible way of teaching anything properly.

In Guyana we desperately need to recover the fundamental purpose we should have in mind in educating a child for the complicated, eternally changing, infinitely challenging world he or she will inherit.

Richard Feynman, Nobel prizewinner for his fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics, Professor of Physics at Cornell and then at the California Institute of Technology, once spent a sabbatical during which he taught basic electromagnetism to students at the University of Brazil in Rio. He found himself deeply disappointed because the students meekly refused to ask questions. The need to memorise had replaced the impulse to understand. He pointed out to the Brazilian educational authorities that the students could recite Brewster’s Law: “Light impinging on a material index N is 100 per cent polarized with the electric field perpendicular to the plane of incidence if the tangent…” But when he asked what would happen if they looked out at the sunlight reflecting off the bay and held up a piece of polarized film and turned the film this way and that, they stared at him blankly. An examination question would read “What are the four types of telescope?” Students could answer by rote and yet, Feynman said, the real telescope was lost; the instrument that helped begin the scientific revolution, that showed humanity the humbling vastness of the stars.

What Professor Feynman was trying to impress upon the Brazilians was the uselessness of simply cramming facts into students: words about words – hardly anything about the intricate tapestry of meaning which lies behind mere words repeated over and over again. Standardised, memorized knowledge is hollow knowledge, a shell without the life of true learning. Rote learning drains away all that is valuable in knowledge: the inventive soul, the habit of seeking better ways to do anything, the impulse to discover the deepest wells of thought and understanding. Not everyone can be a Nobel prizewinner, but everyone should pay attention to how a Nobel prizewinner views life and teaching. Richard Feynman advised the Brazilians how they should approach science in their schools.

“Science is a way to teach how something gets to be known, what is not known, to what extent things are known (for nothing is known absolutely), how to handle doubt and uncertainty, what the rules of evidence are, how to think about things so that judgements can be made, how to distinguish truth from fraud, and from show.”

Feynman was a scientist so he spoke about science. But his advice is just as applicable to all the subjects in the curriculum of any school.

If we do not listen to what Professor Feynman once told the educational establishment in Brazil we will fail our children. As it is, we are badly off track. The evidence is that our children in their vital formative years are being subjected to an educational regime which is hopelessly unsuited to preparing them for the accelerating challenges that lie ahead in this world. Day after day we cram them with stalely repeated information ordained year after year by tired examiners going through the motions in an impoverished and infinitely slow-moving system. Words about words about words, repeated again and again, remain just that: inert, stultifying, lacking the life and magic of how the real world works, giving little clue how to unravel the subtle mysteries of what men seek to know and need to understand.

When Richard Feynman was a boy of ten he learnt a lesson worth more than getting by heart the answers to a hundred old exam test papers crammed into him ten times over and over. He was walking with his father one day in the Catskill Mountains of New York. “See that bird,” his father said and pointed. “It’s a Spencer’s Warbler. Well, in Italian it’s a Chutto Lapittida. In Portuguese, it’s a Bom da Peida. In Chinese, it’s a Chung-Long-Tah, and in Japanese it’s a Katano Tekeda. You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you are finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know what humans in different places call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing – how it flies, how it sings – that’s what counts.”

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