We don’t need no education

I was reading with interest Will Richardson’s Motivating DIY Learners and his links to Alan Levine’s The Gaping M Shaped Void for DY Education and then following up on Anya Kamenetz who has written a new book called DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education which I have to read, and I couldn’t stop getting into an uncontrolled bout of expression, perhaps more an unsubstantiated vent.


Do we have a reason to learn? Sure. Depending upon the context, which could range from generating income to enabling ourselves to perform a task to whatever. 

Who benefits when we learn? We should (and perhaps mostly do), but our employer, collaborator or the society at large, directly or indirectly, benefits from our actions that result from our learning.

How are the choices made? Of course, we may exhibit individual agency and demonstrate our choice over what we learn, but that in turn is partly conditioned by our constraints and the expectations we have about the results from learning, material or not. In part it is conditioned or influenced by what is expected of us.

When Alan Levine asks “What is going to motivate the large swath of a society to become educated or to learn something in a self-directed fashion?”, in the context of Anya’s new DIY U concept (and book), I am reminded of the question that was posed in CCK08 – “What do you think it will take for this change to happen?” (in the context of Connectivism and its potential impact). Both questions are about change, and the change being discussed is as much about the “why” of our learning as about the “how we are learning”. Both questions focus on the traditional systems of education as the reference point.

And this leads to a chain of things – the way the curriculum is designed, the certification process, linkages to placements when we finish a program of study etc. Not that this chain is always something that is well applauded for its outcomes, in fact in India we see a flurry of activity under names such as “Industry readiness programs” which seek to “bridge the gap” between academia and industry. These programmes demonstrate that there is a gap and academia/policy is not moving fast enough to bridge that.

Even when we pass through this chain, it is difficult to estimate what amount of knowhow we are made to pickup, that we would actually be able to push into the field when employment starts. I scratch my head sometimes and ask myself if it was really worth spending time learning about the Gangetic plains in India when today it is a click away, in resplendent glory, on the web. Alternately, if I had chosen to major in Geography, and didn’t know about the Gangetic Plains, that would be a distinct shame, wouldn’t it (actually most of us do forget by the time we get to that stage anyways). This is indeed a personal reflection, by definition not generalizable.

But educators can’t foresee where we will eventually land up, right? So their job is to prepare us for anything – build the foundations. And they are not depressed if we end up turning everything upside down and do something they did not think of preparing us for. In fact I believe that most schools, through their emphasis on discipline and values, try and engineer a well-rounded personality more than just a score-making machine.

Actually speaking then, there is no determinism then in what happens as we progress through the cycle. What does definitely determine where we ultimately land up are the opportunities we get and the choices we make. The opportunities are a function of competition too. And good scores are the embedded rules for smooth propagation in the system (now even those are being supplemented by an additional screening layer of entry assessments).

What equally stands out in my mind is the fact that every passing day, I am able to make better sense of the opportunities or appreciate why I need to learn something. If today, I decided to study as an engineer, I would perhaps do much better than I would have if I had taken an engineering course right after school.

Wait a minute. That doesn’t sound right, does it. What would schools do then? The one question I have never asked is why do we require 12 years of schooling; why not 5 years of primary education and then increasing specialization for the next 10 years; or for that matter, any other logical breakup? Like in Japan, education is compulsory from 6-15 years. Finland starts its students at the age of 7! I believe, in countries like Japan and Finland, post 15 years of age students can branch off to either an academic stream or a vocational stream. Finland, Denmark, Australia and New Zealand are ranked jointly the highest in the UN’s Education Index. The vocational and academic streams have started allowing some cross-credit exchanges as well (RPL in Australia).

But the fact is, that school starts a year or so later and ends in about 9 years, by the time the child is 15 or so. Then it is time to make decisions to go one way or the other with opportunities to merge at some point.

I like the concept better than what we have here. I would prefer that schools actually cut down on curriculum, maybe by 50% (borne out of experience with my daughter completing 5 years of primary school in 2011 – please don’t teach her India’s 5000 year history in a 4 page chapter). The time “allowed” to learn versus the time actually required to “learn” is probably the best indicator of what we are putting our young minds through.

We did not learn anything from Pink Floyd when they sang “we don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control” – instead, we are overloading our curriculum, overburdening our young minds (now President Obama has initiated “adding” 21st century skills curriculum to STEM!) and generally not aligning with what the economy and society require. 

I somehow think we are really putting the burden of growth on our children rather than dealing with it ourselves. 

So if someone is listening, please do give some more thought to this meandering:

cut down school content, start school later, end it earlier, focus on growing the mind, building teamwork and other “21st century” skills, enabling our children to become responsible and knowledgeable citizens with a global perspective, reshape the assessment tools and frameworks that we have today to evaluate richness and variety of expression in our young minds, build new avenues and focussed curricula to strategically align with what we really need, get industry to recognize vocational education on par with regular degrees – basically – give our children a break, they don’t need this education.

5 thoughts on “We don’t need no education

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  1. Very interesting points. In many ways it makes sense, if the sole purpose of education is preparing children for jobs in the future. But education is more than just obtaining the skills required for a specific vocation. Being aware of the history, for example, of this country and the world is important, especially considering how global our world has become. Isn’t there a saying about those who forget history are doomed to repeat it? I agree that there need to be changes to our educational system, but I think that kids being prepared, or not prepared, to take on jobs or college after graduation has more to do with changes in our society than a failure of the education system.


    1. Thanks for your comments! My perspective is that the education system or the rest of society are not individual components loosely linked in a larger structure, but are in many complex ways intermeshed and entangled. So to blame an educational system alone is not the right thing to do. We need to look at failure or success holistically; look at them as a way of constructive change rather than a blame game. Students will need a job in the future to support themselves and others, whether vocational or not – how they get there is important. History is important, so is philosophy, so is logic, so are many other disciplines such as languages, art, science and mathematics – all are tremendously important in the preparation towards this future. But how far are we prepared to dilute this knowledge, which is what we are doing by continuously expanding an already huge and unmanageable curriculum.


  2. I agree that education should occupy a new place and purpose today because I believe that our most important learning is spread out over the entire course of our lives. In 1800 when the Library of Congress contained 3000 books, and the card catalogue changed very slowly, it made sense to think of education as an accumulation the best of western civilized knowledge gained before venturing forth to make our mark on the world. I’m really liking Hagel, Brown and Davison’s ideas in the “Power of Pull”; networked peer learning. I still think there is a place for education into our early twenties, including a large curriculum, but instead of knowledge accumulation, how about maturation, intellectual, personal, social and emotional maturity, and lots of skill building. Self discipline could also be important, but directed toward one’s passions and creativity, not towards authority. Of course, as you point out in the entanglement discussion, this also means changing institutions beyond education because it’s education for loose cannons, not for fitting into authoritarian structures and old style management structures.


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