Contextual Education

When the knowledge gained over centuries has to be presented to students through a 12-15 year study, it has to be abridged and organized elaborately. This process of encapsulating all knowledge into an educational course often results in fragmentation of knowledge and a mental divorce from life. Life knowledge that is reduced to objective principles may be intelligible to the intellect, but is incomprehensible to the imagination, creativity and emotional intelligence, all of which are important to the full development of personality. A study of Economics without the human and social dimensions, industrialization detached from ecology, or science devoid of moral accountability results in problems. Education of each part must be in the context of the whole. Knowing the whole context helps one get the right perspective to address the issue effectively. In the education of the future, the gap between abstract concept and social relevance must be bridged. The following article explores the need for contextual education and the ways in which it can be implemented.

1. Our Education Today
Watching a tiny seed sprout and grow into a plant, early humans stopped foraging for food as they had been doing for tens of thousands of years before. They found when the sprouted seed flourishes, when it shrivels, what makes the plant bear flower and fruit, what makes it wilt, how much water a plant needs, how much sun helps this bush, and what type of soil that tree grows best in. Then they perfected this art over thousands of years, which resulted in agriculture that feeds seven billion people today.

When people traded their nomadic lives to a more settled one, they stayed in caves and trees. Then they fashioned crude shelters with mud, stone, animal skin, wood. Small settlements grew into villages. People began to produce what they required—food, clothes, vessels, tools—and traded them with each other. Roads were laid, connecting people. This networking of people and their ideas set off an explosive growth of civilization. Towns and cities developed. Countries, governments and the rule of law came to be. Money, banking, financial systems and trade evolved. Today as we look down from our glass and steel skyscrapers to see megacities develop, we continue our attempts to create perfect organizations, and learn.

We have seen tides rise and fall, and traced them to the impact of the moon. We have sent people to the moon, and brought them back safely to earth. We spoke to people on the other side of the earth, first through wires. Then we began to do the same without the wires. Now we have virtually fitted the entire world in little devices that fit in our palm. We have split the atom and decoded the DNA. We have lengthened life spans, made human life more comfort­able, and continue to make marvellous inventions. But among all the greatest achievements of humanity, education ranks close to the top.

Universal education, schools, colleges, distance education, MOOCs and education reforms draw so much debate that the wonder of their origin and evolution is often lost. When something soft and cold fell from above, the early man, or woman, looked up to find where it came from, and could not find anything. What fell on them seemed like the same substance that they found flowing, or stagnant, in different places around them—water. It made them wet and uncomfortable. But they needed to consume it every now and then, just as the animals and birds did. Also, plants seemed to do better with it. You never knew when it suddenly fell from above. At times, you could tell somewhat in advance. When dark clouds were above, it fell. Sometimes, it kept falling for many suns and moons. Then there was a long gap, after which it began again. There were also other times when it was accompanied by strong winds. People told each other what they knew about it, one generation taught another. Slowly, the occurrence, rain, was connected to the water that was in the lakes and rivers that the sun heated. Patterns were detected. People sowed their seeds in sync with the pattern, and planned their travel and stocked up on essentials keeping it in mind. Superstitions as to the causes of rain were weeded out. The cleansing power of water was found and used. Connections were detected between diseases and stagnant water. Methods to purify water and transport it over long distances were developed. All this that a primary school student learns from a science text book today, as the simple concepts of clouds, water cycle, rain, weather and seasons, was discovered over thousands of years of living and learning, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. This knowledge, along with a large dose of misinformation and superstition that was regularly pruned, was transferred first orally and then by the written word, over generations and across regions separated by journeys that were often weeks or months in length.

As a far cry from our age of information overload, knowledge was such a precious commodity that it came to be treasured, even hoarded. Schools were set up by the Church to train young monks and nuns. Kings established universities to train scholars who would serve the royalty. Books were chained to libraries because of their rarity. Education was at first only for the aristocracy, then it included all the wealthy. Hesitantly, it reached women. It spread horizontally, to include more and new academic disciplines. To the traditional 3 Rs of education—Reading, Writing and Arithmetic—were included science, literature, history, philosophy, law. From the university towns and the ‘developed’ world, it moved to every town and village, and to all the ‘developing’ countries to varying extents. It grew vertically, and delved into each subject more and more. Beginning from kindergarten up to the post doctorate level, education has been classified and organized most elaborately.

Through this marvellous system of education that we have devised, we take all the knowledge that humanity has learnt in the past few millennia, weed out mistakes and super­stitions, organize all the componential elements within a comprehensive framework and multi-layered structure, encapsulate everything into a 15 or 20 year study, and offer it to our youngsters. Anyone who enrols in school today has a fair chance of being equipped, at the end of a 12 or more year long period of study, with a gist of all that has been accumulatively learnt by all people, all over the world, from the first instance of recorded history till date. For those with the inclination and means to pursue education further, it is possible to specialize in one or more topics, and learn all that there is to be learnt on the subject, and carry out research to find out more.

Added to this system is the few-years-old phenomenon of online education that is accelerating the spread of education, while erasing the horizontal and vertical limits in unimaginable ways. Though the UN Millennium Development Goal of Universal Primary Education by 2015 has been missed by a gap of 58 million children, aided by communication technology, education is well on its way to becoming universal, accessible, affordable and lifelong.

2. The Problem of Abstraction
A cartoon that did the rounds on the internet had a man looking at a lengthy calculus problem from a high school Mathematics textbook and declaring, ‘I’m still waiting for the day when I will actually use this in life’. There are many similar statements one hears from students, such as

What is the use of learning about the French Revolution?

Will I get a job because I can quote Shakespeare?

Why should I read another man’s biography?

Why should I memorize the Latin names of plants? Who speaks Latin these days anyway?

Why history, isn’t it the future that is relevant?

After graduating, does anyone use Pythagorean theorem or recite lines from Macbeth?

Why are we still following the pattern that our colonial rulers set?

Why do we still use a curriculum that was designed for the Industrial Revolution?

When it is forecast that 60% of today’s youth will work in jobs that aren’t invented yet, what am I preparing myself for by reading this textbook?

and so on. Marvellous as the system of education is, many students do not connect to it any more than they need to, which is simply to pass the grade and get on with the next, with exams appearing to be hurdles that need to be cleared along the way. The fascination of discovery and the joy of learning are no longer real to many. How and why did this happen?

All those who have seen a famous beautiful painting, or any painting for that matter, from very close know the difference between the big picture that one can admire from a distance, and the apparently rough brush strokes that appear when the same painting is viewed from a few inches away. A digital version of the same phenomenon can be experienced when a person’s photo is zoomed to 1000% of its actual size, to show the pixels that make up the photo. The beauty of the face is no longer visible, in its place is a jarring mix of dots in different shades. When one sees the close-up and the close-up alone, there is nothing beautiful or admirable there. Similarly, with education.

When all the knowledge that humanity has collected over millennia is to be presented to every new generation in one or two decades, it has to be abridged and organized elaborately. Knowledge is broken into different parts, what we call subjects. The spoken and written word become Literature. Everything connected with the living world we call Biology. The study of the world and natural phenomena is Geography. The world of numbers and computations is called Mathematics. Within each subject, we again classify knowledge into smaller parts. That part of Geography that studies the earth is Geology, the weather is classified under Meteorology, outer space study becomes Astronomy. Then there are those parts of knowledge that are subsets of two subjects, and we name them accordingly—Biochemistry, Behavioural Economics, Geopolitics, Marine Biology. In thus partitioning knowledge into smaller and smaller portions, we begin to stare at the large picture from closer and closer, losing sight of the beauty of the whole. This horizontal divorce of knowledge from the real world context is described by Marilyn Ferguson, American author and speaker, when she says that our educational institutions “break knowledge and experience into subjects, relentlessly turning wholes into parts, flowers into petals, history into events.”

Another process by which we have accomplished the organization and abridgement of all knowledge into educational courses is by condensing knowledge of life experience into a series of generalized mental abstract principles. When we do this, the divorce is vertical—it leads to the separation of mind from life. It divides whole perceptions of truth into partial aspects of reality in which the sum of the parts is far less than the whole and each partial truth remains incomplete when divorced from the wider context of which it is a part.

Take the topic of the French Revolution or the Indian independence movement, for example. The injustice in French society and the poverty and hardship of centuries that the lower classes had faced reached a point where they could be contained no longer, resulting in the French Revolution of 1898. A lot of concurrent and subsequent events that transpired in different parts of the world were a reaction to this violent means to equalize society and usher in liberty, equality and fraternity. A hundred years later, shunning all violence, against a better armed colonial ruler, Mahatma Gandhi awoke the dormant aspiration of all Indians, channelized their energy and obtained independence for India. This event was followed by three dozen more countries obtaining political independence in Asia and Africa. Gandhi’s life and struggle inspired and continues to inspire movements for civil rights and freedom across the world. But when such complex and multidisciplinary themes are reduced to facts that students are required to memorize—King Louis XVI ruled France from 1774 to 1792, and was executed in 1793, during the French Revolution, a period of social and political upheaval that lasted from 1789 until 1799, and M.K. Gandhi (2 October 1869–30 January 1948) employed nonviolent civil disobedience and led India to independence from the British on August 15, 1947—profound ideas are condensed into definitions and formulae, such as the algebraic formula (a + b)2 = a2 + 2ab + b2. In this process, the student is lost, and so is much precious knowledge.

It is this horizontal and vertical fragmentation of knowledge from life, the abstraction, the divorce of the part from the whole, this breaking of flowers into petals that creates the disconnect that students experience from education. No wonder students quip, “Dear Algebra, Please do not ask me to find your x, I don’t know, and don’t ask y”.

Janani Harish: Associate Fellow, World Academy of Art & Science; Senior Research Analyst, The Mother’s Service Society

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