The Evolving ‘R’ – Story of Education in the West (Part-3)

We are discussing the history of education in the West. In Part-1, we looked at Greek and Roman education, influence of Christianity that led to the formation of Church schools, Monasteries, Grammar schools and later to formation of Universities. The 3Rs of education at this point were – Reading, ‘Riting and Religion. In Part-2, we looked at the influence of growing trade that gave impetus to Apprenticeship and also added the fourth R – ‘Rithmetic to the education mix. Renaissance and Humanists propagated the idea of ‘education for all’ and Age of Enlightenment then gave rise to the scientific method. Reason became the 5th R of education.

The bohemian spirit of Renaissance went up in steam… literally! The Industrial Revolution took a dictator-like grip on education, demanding schools produce large numbers of compliant, inter-changeable cogs for the industrial behemoth. Education entered Modern Times, and much like Charlie Chaplin, students were force-fed and accelerated along an assembly line of standardised curriculum.

To train large number of people in new skills, experiments such as the Monitorial system were tried. A teacher standardised the instruction, trained a few students – called monitors – and these monitors then imparted the same standardised instruction to their fellow students. This way, one teacher could teach hundreds of students while keeping the cost of imparting education low. In 1892, the American National Education Association appointed a Committee of Ten. The Committee recommended 12 years of compulsory education and its standardisation, which meant adopting a one-size-fits-all curriculum and pedagogy.

Denizens of the agrarian economy thought of time in months – plough the land, sow the seeds, then harvest. But the ideal worker for the factories required changing this mindset to ‘work in 8 hours shift, with short breaks in between’. So they invented school bells. Study one subject for 40 minutes, then switch to another subject. Take a short lunch break and get back to class again. Sit in rows, follow rules and routine (timetable) and be obedient. Sound familiar?

The World Wars that needed very large number of soldiers and nurses and the post-war immigration further stoked the need for mass standardised education. In America, to sort students quickly and efficiently, a professor in Kansas invented the multiple-choice test, which he described as ‘a test of low order thinking’. This format has become the most used assessment format in education today and has made us outstanding at mass testing lower order thinking, which in turn means that now lower order thinking is all we prepare students for!

Though on the positive side, after the Wars schooling was extended and school-leaving age raised. Child labour was abolished. War created disabilities raised awareness about special education. In England, The 1918 Education Act, made schooling for all disabled children compulsory.

Pavlov’s experiment with salivating dogs and Skinner’s operant conditioning chamber led to the adoption of the carrot & stick approach to motivating learners. Rote memorisation and regurgitation of this learnt-by-heart information in exams, strict discipline imposed through fear and emphasis on conformity became the norm of education. Think Pink Floyd’s anthemic “We don’t need no education. We don’t need no thought control.”

By and large this post Industrial Revolution education system is what we are still following. Students get admitted to a particular grade or class based on their age, not based on their ability. All students in a particular class then learn the same curriculum in exactly the same way and face standardised assessment. Some thrive in this system. Many fail. It could be argued that education today does not even meet the age-old objective of ‘Know Thyself’ thus making joyful living elusive to most.

At Timeless Lifeskills, we believe this need not be the case.

Seven billion human population that will soon become nine billion (mostly frustrated or unhappy), growing inter-dependence that leads to local problems cascading globally – be it a financial crisis or a viral epidemic, poverty and widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, diseases, climate change, terrorism, wars, advances in technology and other such factors require not a redefined set of ‘R’s but a paradigmatic shift in education.

We need to shift from the narrow ‘R’s based education to an education system that addresses all aspects of life. The 4Ds of education should look at success in all four dimensions of life – social success, physiological success, psychological success and existential success (a life of exuberance, joy and bliss). This 21st century education should also be personalised – suiting the ability and disposition of each learner, highly affordable and universal. From being a privilege, such education should become a life long right, for all.

Only then can we hope for this story to meet a conclusion we can all benefit from.