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Giving an Edge to Education

Here is a bitter truth for those of you who have gone through formal schooling: the 12 or so years of your life that you spent in school was, accept it or not, quite worthless.

 Yes, few things we learn in school are useful, like reading, writing and math skills; it may feel good knowing some history and certain laws of science, but it seems quite odd to me to spend 12 years (12 years!) just for that. I always took a leap of faith telling myself that all these hours spent sitting in classes, doing home works, and toiling for exams will ultimately pay off some time in the future. Now, in retrospect, after having completed 16 years of formal education, I am still bewildered. I wish I had been taught how to bargain rather than calculating profit and loss in the traditional method. In fact, I am starting to think that my grandfather might have been luckier who was given a pair of scissors and a piece of cloth, instead of paper and pen when he was a kid. By his teens he was making caps that were being sold in shops in Asan. Lets get to the point. Something must be seriously wrong with our education system when 90% of students cannot make it through all the levels of schooling and even those who do have very hard time finding jobs, and then we say education is one of the pillars of development. With the jingle ‘education for all’, many government outreach programs and NGOs are working hard to bring education to families that don’t have access to it, by building more schools, printing more books, and providing scholarships. But as it seems, the current face of our education system is likely to do more harm than benefit. It is time to find the faults and look for alternatives.

A Cracked Pillar

The model of compulsory schooling that we currently follow in Nepal, originated in 20 Inspire Europe during the 19th century partly, as a response to the industrial revolution. This kind of education was meant to prepare an individual for an industrial society whose goal was to maximize production. To reach out to the large sections of the poor population that provided labor to the industries, education had to be standardized through books, curriculum and exams. So schools started to resemble factories.

Children, after going through multiple levels of tutoring were tested not unlike products in factories before they were sent out to the market.

This ‘factory’ model might have worked well for the development of Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century, but it has its flaws, which have amplified due to the way education is currently operating in our country. The standardized nature of such schooling tends to level out the differences in skills and abilities in the students. The Nepalese population is composed of diverse group of people who differ from each other in many aspects including culture, ethnicity, religion, geography, and language. Such diverse conditions of living means that the kinds of skill sets useful for particular kind of people living in particular geographical regions would differ from others. But students from all parts of the country irrespective of cultural and ethnic backgrounds have no option but to follow the one curriculum set by the government. A single set of knowledge and skills is prioritized over others.

Heavily book-based and exam centered nature of our education is based upon the assumption that academic, knowledgebased method of learning is superior to other practical and experience based methods. Neither the curriculum, nor educational institutions take into account that different students have different ways of learning, and different pathways to understanding and sense-making. While some students might be good at learning through books, it may not work for everyone. Some, usually artists, are visual learners while for some, discussions are more stimulation. Many of us find it easier to understand by doing things. Practical engagement is a far more effective way of learning than just intellectual absorption. At present in most classrooms in Nepal, with theoretical bookish learning on pedestals, practical sides of matter are brushed aside.
Probably the most horrifying aspect of our education system is the excessive emphasis given to exam results and academic degrees. Degree certificates are status symbols, which completely eclipse real learning. The culture of evaluating students by their examination results, on one hand, adds unnecessary pressure on the students, and on the other, fosters practices such as cheating in exams and forgery of mark sheets and degree certificates. In our country, getting a job and building a career is still to a large extent determined by one’s level of education. Aside from thousands of various degree holders who are still having a hard time finding jobs, and data shows that out of every 100 students who enroll in grade one, only 10 go on to pass the SLC. The remaining 90% are left without qualifications or skills, even to make a living.

The world has come a long way from the milling plants of the industrial era. We are at the midst of a technological revolution that is changing our society at an unprecedented pace. The outdated system of education operative currently in Nepal needs a replacement. Several better models can be found in other countries around the world. But we need not look afar. Some brilliant alternatives have already been built upon in Nepal itself.

Practical Education: Ullens Kindergarden

Many of us, as students have gone through the phobia of schools, starting at an early age. The methods of teaching in most schools tend to be, not just boring but even repulsive to children. Aside from spoon-feeding, the use of coercion and intimidation has become a part of the education culture. Such practices smother the curiosity and natural instinct for learning, making the learning experience unnatural, forced and hence ineffective.

The recent trend in elementary schools and kindergarten shows some signs of change. In most kindergartens, teachers respond to children’s natural tendencies for learning. The focus is more toward making the classroom experience more interactive and fun. A similar, but more carefully derived innovative kindergarten education is in practice at Ullens Kindergarten in Jawlakhel. Almost a year since its inception, the Ullens Kindergarten implements child-centered teaching, in which methods and contents are derived from the needs and interests of children.

At Ullens Kindergarden, textbooks, or papers and pens aren’t the priority. Classrooms are not confined spaces where students sit all day to learn. Groups of children move in and out of rooms, walk around on the lawns and gardens with teachers. As I began my tour of the school with Nadege Lecomte, Director of the school, we first walked by a small kitchen garden with growths of tiny carrots. “Our kids planted seeds in this garden some time ago,” Ms Lecomte explained, “on the next day and the day after, they continued coming back here, looking for carrots. We didn’t tell them how long they might have to wait. This is the way they learn about plants, the life-cycle and food, not through textbooks and pictures, but by being a part of a live experience.”

The teachers observe their children carefully throughout the day, and based on the abilities and needs of each kid, they plan activities for the class. “Although the kids seem to be having fun, it is not free play,” says Ms Lecomte, “all activities are carefully planned out and thought through by the teachers. The goal is to ensure that all of a child’s social, emotional, cognitive, physical and creative developments are taken care of.”

Ullens Kindergarten is modeled after some of the most progressive practices worldwide, particularly Bank Street in New York and Children’s Center at CalTech. Both institutions use teaching approaches derived from the latest research, based on longitudinal observation of young children. Ms Lecomte believes that this kind of education in kindergarten helps to create dispositions that enhance learning, like curiosity, collaboration, creativity and social consciousness. With a solid foundation, a child should be able to flourish anywhere long after he/she is done with kindergarten.

Sowing Seeds: Vocational Education

Ullens Kindergarten might be a baby version of what Mr. Khem Lakai, the Founder CEO of GATE College, envisions as a dream to chase for, in the Nepalese education system. In countries like Australia, Canada or Germany more than 80% of education is vocational and practical education, while in Nepal merely 3% of those who have access to education, get practical training.

Mr. Lakai believes that vocational education must be given first priority. If it is done in the right way in Nepal, the change can be made without raising the cost of education. Schools in most villages don’t need much extra resources or facilities to give vocational training. It can be done using locally available resources. Even in schools, classes can be held on farming techniques, ways to make organic fertilizers, basic food hygiene and so on. In most rural areas, children are already involved in farming. This can be easily integrated into the curriculum, which would also be very helpful to their families. Localized education can incorporate cultural, as well as geographical aspects of the locality.

In Nepal, we look down on professions that require physical labor like farming, cleaning, waiting, construction, etc. We consider it less dignified than office-room professions. The prioritization of academic over practical skills in our education system is to blame. Our education system is restrictive. It limits the range of opportunities for students to build a career. It is only producing manpower with qualifications and skills appropriate for top managerial level jobs. There is a heavy lack of manpower at lower tier occupations. That is why most people who succeed in completing higher education don’t see their scope in Nepal, as there isn’t enough skilled manpower to work for them. There is a strong lack of vocational trainings and degrees for all kinds of jobs and all levels of jobs, from clerks to managers, for the public.

Brilliant models of vocational education system are in operation in many developed countries. Australia has TAFE (Technical and Further Education), which provides vocational education courses covering a wide range of fields, from business and tourism to engineering and Information Technology. There are trainings provided for more than 600 trades from flower decorations to wedding planning. About 80% of students attend TAFE after high school, even those who go to university for academic degrees need to attend TAFE where they learn how to apply the knowledge they gained in universities. Nepal also has a vocational training program called CTEVT (Council for Technical Education and Vocational Training) but its reach and appeal among students is minimum.

Vocational does not necessarily mean less theoretical and less intellectually rigorous. Vocational education develops practical competence as well as intellectual rigor. For instance, a person studying hotel management in a vocational school will spend at least two semesters working in a hotel in addition to acquiring theoretical knowledge on different topics in management. This kind of vocational education gives students the flexibility and adaptability necessary to act in real life situations.

Education should be about acquiring actual skills that will be useful for the society and the country rather than merely about earning degrees. Every individual has the capacity to make a difference in the society, whether small or big. Practical and vocational education can expose an individual’s skills and talents to make them useful. A country’s development will depend on how much it can tap into this reserve of manpower.