The process of educating children should be such that their needs are taken into account, and not just the views of the adults.
ABOUT a year ago, after two weeks into her Year One of primary schooling, my daughter caught me with a blunt question: “Why are we not learning in Malaysia?”
At that time, we had just returned from the United Kingdom where she had spent three years studying in nursery and primary school.
Baffled by the question, I asked her: “What do you mean?” Without hesitation, she replied: “In Manchester we learn, in Malaysia we study.”
Still clueless of where she was going with this, I tried to dig deeper: “What’s the difference between the two? Aren’t they the same?”
I was dumbfounded by the simplicity of the answer: “Learning is fun. Studying is for grown-ups.”
I couldn’t have seen it any clearer than that. That was the key to what was fundamentally wrong here. The main issue is in our philosophy, or lack of it, of how education should be delivered.
The main stakeholder in the educational process is the children themselves, and they should have a say into what it should entail. Unfortunately, we have been treating this from a one-sided angle, from the grown-ups’ perspective.
And in doing so, we are leaving out what matters the most — whether the process is favourable to the children.
Learning can be exciting to children, when what they learn answers certain questions they pose themselves or when what they learn is directly applied into what they intend to do.
Studying is normally a grudgingly dreary and tedious process, imposed primarily by the compulsion to excel in exams.
Simply put, learning is driven by curiosity whereas studying is driven by fear. Only a few can truly muster a desire to learn out of this “fear” to study. We definitely don’t want our education system to serve just a few.
The essence of the issue is that adults and children view the world differently.
While we take education more seriously with important goals to achieve, young children are definitely more carefree about it.
What they care the most is whether they have fun or not.
Parents want their children to outperform other children in exams. Teachers want their pupils to behave well in class.
Headmasters want their schools to perform in national exams while governments want to be able to say that their education systems are one of the best in the world.
But have we ever asked what the children actually want?
In a system that we have set up for them, are the kids enjoying their education or do they have to “endure” it? Looking at our statistics, I would say the latter is more likely the case.
The problem of not being able to cultivate a conducive environment for all children to learn is not a new one.
John Holt, in his classic 1964 book How Children Fail, argued a similar case for early learners in the United States. Holt wrote that children fail because they are afraid of getting wrong answers and of disappointing adults who have high hopes for them.
They also get bored with the trivial and boring things they are told to do at schools, which undermines their real capacity.
How then do we build curiosity into children? To imbue this tendency on a national scale will definitely take years to succeed.
Our greatest challenge here is to change the cultural and intellectual environment that our children are in, to free them from any unnecessary “boundaries” that are limiting their potentials.
One way of doing this is to support letting nature take its course. Children, by nature, are inquisitive when it comes to the things around them. They are not shy to ask, even if it sounds silly.
Rather than being annoyed and shutting them off, as grown-ups normally do to children who “ask too much”, we should instead entertain their curiosity and nurture that inquisitive attitude.
If we choose to constantly shut them out from asking too many questions with primitive excuses, we will be the ones who are guilty of killing their curiosity in the long run.
Coming back to the riddle between learning and studying, we definitely need to start listening to our children more.
Sometimes, they can see more clearly the things that we have been accustomed to.
ZULFAA MOHAMED KASSIM teaches aerospace engineering at Universiti Sains Malaysia. The STAR Online Home News Education 01/12/2013