Basics of education

October 26, 2017

The famous University of Oslo Aula, the main auditorium used for festive events, is adorned with wall murals by Edvard Munch. The main one at the front is ‘The Sun’, making everyone feel uplifted and optimistic. On the sides, there is an old man sitting with a group of children, looking exited and curious, listening to the teacher’s stories, preparing for their countless questions and imaginative ideas. On the opposite side, there is an old woman with a group of children. She seems to be at the laundry spot on a riverbank, working and being helped by the girls, and telling stories about life and living.

What beautiful and informative paintings these are! Romantic and simplistic? Maybe. They show basic aspects of education, not only schooling, which we focus on in our time. The paintings show that even when schools don’t exist, or after school, they can learn in informal settings. In our time, though, schools are needed, and it is important that Pakistan and other countries with out-of-school children get them enrolled and get all to complete the basic education cycle, which should also be made compulsory.

Yet, I am not so sure about the full-time and full-day schools that we have in our time. I am not so sure that the competitive system we have as the overarching model – in Norway, Pakistan, China, Kenya, Argentina, and almost everywhere else. We have made crowded curricula, stressful schooldays, many tests and exams, competitive world outlook, worries about getting employment, and all that goes with what we think is good education. But is that really education? Are we developing the explorers, innovators and creators in our children that the world needs? We should remember that soon they will turn the wheels, yes, sometimes in the opposite direction of what we thought was right.

Being an educationalist myself, with comparative education studies and research under my collar, I must also take my share of the shortcomings of education today. I don’t only blame everyone else, the many thinkers, academics, teachers, parents, politicians, the private sector and others; I also blame myself for having allowed education, i.e. schooling, to go astray. It takes so much time, attention and money in any society, still not providing the good start in life for all children and in the society they are there to serve. I maintain my worry, yet, I also want to say that a lot of good work is being done by great teachers, pupils, education authorities, parents and others involved in education.

In Norway’s recent parliamentary election last month – won by the conservative side – but where everyone thought more or less the same about education. They all just wanted to refine the system, and make a few changes, such as placing more emphasis on vocational training and apprenticeship at secondary level. Generally, though, the just wanted more of the same: the same content, process and results, yes, so that the pupils could progress to the next education level. The politicians, even those on the left, ‘forgot’ to ask the deeper and more philosophical questions, in spite of all the research and other information that exist.

Suddenly, somebody rugged the boat, but they came out after the election. Interestingly, they were not pedagogical specialists, but from medicine; one a general practitioner and one a medical researcher. They sounded the alarm about one area of the education sector, notably how the school affects the pupils’ health and well-being; they failed the education system, or maybe it was a poor ‘D’ pass. They referred to research and used common sense, concluding that the schools are dangerous to the pupils’ health and well-being. The school days are so stressful to the pupils (and teachers) that it is damaging to them psychologically and socially, today and in the future – and thus also reducing their contributions.

Some will say that the schools we have are good – and schools are fairly similar all over the world. They prepare the children and youth well enough for a competitive work life and everyday life as adults – provided they succeed in the system. To some extent they are right. But not if the schools make the pupils fall sick!

Of course, some basic knowledge and skills must always be part of basic education. But not in the amount that schools all over the world do today. Let us say that three-quarters of all the content that is there today could be slashed. Imagine then how much time there would be to learn and explore what is really valuable to children and youth – to them in today’s and tomorrow’s world! They could finally ‘learn how to learn’, as we say is so important in a time when knowledge and skills change so fast.

We could make school systems which are not just for ‘little soldiers’ in a global race to achieve. We need as systems for the creative explorers, dreamers, thinkers, yes, and pragmatic doers, too. We need systems that make pupils feel happy with themselves; systems that are all-inclusive and take up issues about how to live good and well as children, adults and in old age, in a world of migration, climate change, and wars that must be ended. Why we don’t focus more on this, is incomprehensible. Do we think children and adults must be controlled, kept busy and kept in line, is that the reason? Is it that we just want to keep status-quo in society? Or, what is it? It intrigues me and is beyond my imagination – yes, since I too am a product of the ‘old system’, well, today’s system. In a book title from 1974, Egil Frøyland, a Norwegian educationalist, called the school, ‘The Laying Box’ (‘Verpekassen’). Little has become better since; most even worse, more competitive, more standardised and technocratic – making many more children sick and injured for life.

True, the Norwegian system isn’t the worst. For example, the formal grading system doesn’t kick in until late in the primary school cycle (in spite of the temptation having all the software in computers). Also, children with learning difficulties, dyslexia, for example, are not relegated to being seen as second class pupils any longer. And children with other psychological and social special needs, temporarily or for a long time, are also no longer discriminated against, at least not as much as before. In words if not quite in action, we have begun to realise that in God’s garden people come in all shapes and formers, and all are valuable, gifted and unique. No, they cannot be ranked in the same pyramid and measured with the same tape and on the same scale. How ridiculous wasn’t it to do so in the first place! How misunderstood isn’t it, for example, when a kindergarten child of four in Pakistan comes home with a score card in mathematics and language! But I know it has happened.

The old man and woman, and the children around them, in the University of Oslo mural paintings I mentioned in the introduction to my article, knew quite a bit about good education. You too do. Please send me some emails about what you think is important to do, so that I can write more articles about education, one of any society’s most important sectors.

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.

atlehetland@yahoo.com