In 2015, 193 Member States convened to agree on a set of goals with specific targets to be achieved by 2030, that would help us align our efforts towards achieving a more sustainable planet. Of the 17 United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), SDG-4 aspires for ensuring inclusive, equitable and quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all. But what does this mean in reality? Is it about improving the quality of our present education system and making it inclusive to include learners who learn ‘differently’, and developing this same education system so it is equitable to all learners?
I would posit that we have put the cart before the horse. That we must first ask if the present education system is the 'right' system for our learners or is a fundamental change needed if we are to meet the challenges of the 21st century and beyond. This piece focuses on ‘quality’ education and defining what it really means.
Majority of schools in the education system offer rote learning in large classes. (Representative photo: Reuters)
Our present education system can be traced back about 350-400 years ago. It was designed largely to provide knowledge to the masses to help them contribute to the industrial revolution. In other words, the system was largely designed to build an efficient and effective workforce for the production and service economy. Economic growth in many of the developed countries was rampant, and the benefits of industrialisation were enjoyed by the masses. The same model is being followed by many of the developing countries, with similar outcomes expected for their populations.
What is our present education system? It is a system based on the provisioning of knowledge from the teacher to the student. Aside from a few outliers, the majority of schools in the education system offer rote learning in large classes following one curriculum and with learners assessed in centralised examinations. Every variable mentioned above has been criticised by the education community. Research demonstrates that it does not maximise the learner’s potential, and in fact, learning and creativity are stifled. The focus has been primarily on building intellectual intelligence in a very static and “accept without question” attitude. However, this system ignored a number of basic scientific facts about learnings.
Let me elaborate. First, learning is not a completely rational and intellectual process. Learning is influenced heavily by our emotional state and likewise, our emotions dictate what we learn. Therefore, ignoring the building of emotional intelligence is a major flaw in the present education system.
Second, each learner has neurobiological differences and learns differently. Therefore, having large classes of over 40 students with one teacher overseeing the learning process will fail to maximise the unique characteristics and strengths of each learner. This is not to say to we need to have a one-to-one student-teacher ratio but classes with about 10 students to a teacher seem to work relatively well.
Third, the curriculum is rigid, static and lacks interactive participation with the learner. The notion of a textbook as being an exciting companion of a learner is a rarity than a norm. Imagine instead a learning device that allows the learner to interact, experience a real-world problem that is being taught in real-time in the very rapidly changing world.
Fourth, the teacher of today is really not so different from the teacher of about 100 years ago. However, the environment has changed drastically, with technology making a huge impact in the world of information and knowledge generation. The new role of the teacher must be revisited, especially in the light of the emphasis on both intellectual and emotional intelligence.
Recent research from the neurosciences suggests that just as our brains can be trained in intellectual intelligence, they can also be ‘wired’ or ‘taught’ emotional intelligence, through the concept of neuroplasticity. Training the emotional parts of the brain to recognise the self, and be empathetic, compassionate and mindful towards those around us will help us work towards achieving human flourishing. Our education systems then should employ the whole-brain approach to learning by training both the intellectual and emotional parts of the brain.
SDG-4 is indeed an ambitious goal and all governments must strive to achieve it. But let’s take this opportunity to explicitly define what we mean by quality education – an education that nurtures the whole brain and pairs equal attention to building the intellectual and emotional intelligence of all learners.