We should have been taught to listen, read, count, write, speak – intelligibly

While grading undergraduate essays (and as usual tearing at my hair wondering at the minimum language standards for university admission), I mused:

What should our education system achieve?

It is often said that in this information age, anyone can find information off the internet. It therefore doesn’t make sense that the aim of education is to impart knowledge. They can get that themselves…

…with a caveat: as long as they can read and, when needed, count.

So we’re back to our basics on education.

What we really need to do is to equip a student with the ability to receive the knowledge, understand it, process it, add value to it, and then communicate the knowledge++ to others. That is, they need to learn to:
1. listen
2. read
3. count
4. write
5. speak.

An education system should be to build these five skills progressively to greater proficiency. Subjects such as the sciences and humanities provided at the higher levels of education should still revolve around these five skills but using their knowledge domains as sources to draw examples from to practice these skills and to learn how to add back to them.

Based on this…

…Primary education should aim to produce students that can
-listen and comprehend English and another language
-read in English and another language
-count and solve problems
-write with proper grammar
-communicate ideas verbally
while being imbued with the zest for life; free rein to explore music, drawing, nature; to take interest, inspire, and delight, without examinations for this last bit.

…Secondary and pre-university education should aim to produce students that can do these but using more complex ideas drawn from current affairs, sciences and the humanities. The first part of every subject teacher’s job is to build up their ability to listen, read, understand, write and communicate knowledge effectively, not just the English classes. In fact, there should be no English classes. Every teacher should be proficient in listening, reading, writing and speaking to be able to assess the student. The second part of the subject teacher’s job is to interest the student in the subject so that they will find out more on their own. And if the student has no interest, which is completely fine and should not be seen as the fault of the teacher, they can drop that subject but still get ample practice in the basic skills from classes in the other subjects that they are interested in. But there should be classes of another language that provides practice on using that language to discuss ideas from the other subjects. This builds proficiency in a second language.

…Tertiary education? It is sad that at university level we are still spending time to teach students to write and speak intelligibly. At least in the Sciences at university level, we should be showing students how to use all those five basic skills to synthesize or create new knowledge. We should be introducing them to resources to draw from, how the latest ideas had been formulated, interest them to read more on their own and find out. A Science undergraduate should be taught the scientific method, how experiments were designed and carried out, how information was analyzed and conclusions were drawn, how there is always the potential to do all these better.

Yet here we are despairing over things like grammar. How does one assess the quality of work if it was so badly written that it’s unintelligible? How do we move on to higher level skills when there is no basic competence? Meanwhile students wait expectantly in lecturers to be fed with “facts”, recoil with revulsion when presented with equations, and aim give it all back in the right permutations in assignments, tests and exams.

There can only be one possible conclusion: that throughout primary and secondary education, the system was more focused on content, not on the basic skills. So the student squeezes into university armed with the ability to answer content based questions, but is barely able to communicate it. They can work out ten-year series questions but have no idea that these are the same skills necessary to push knowledge frontiers of the workings of the world, swearing only to avoid having anything to do with math again.

I was once guilty. As an undergraduate, I didn’t care to read more than I have to. I whined when test and exam questions were weird, and were unexpected from what was covered in the lecture materials. But to be fair, if the lecturer had wanted us to push ourselves beyond just being a fact bin, I didn’t know there were such noble intentions. Then again, even if I did, I may have been cynical and may have just wanted the easy way out that I was used to.

It was only as a graduate student that I appreciated how these basic skills were keys, while “knowledge” was just a depository to draw from and contribute to.

It is a mentality that we have bred with our Primary and Secondary educational objectives and culture. We need to rethink those measures of success of an education system. We need to assess students based on their fluency to employ these skills, nothing more. We need to communicate these end-points to the students, so that they know what they need to become – and that’s certainly not to be an infinite sponge of information.


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