How Not To Teach

I am willing to bet you’d have something to say if I asked you, “What is wrong with our education system?” You might say something about class size, the lecture system, teacher wages, the curriculum…. I want to go right down to the roots of the problem and say, our terminology is wrong. The very vocabulary we use to describe “education”, “teachers” and “students” discourages independent thinking and the evolution of knowledge.

Most of what I’ll be talking about is from Paulo Freire, a radical educational thinker from Brazil. His book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, is a hopeful walk through the bleak system of oppression ubiquitous throughout the modern world. His experience is rooted in South America, but on reading the power dynamics between “Opressor” and “Oppressed”, it is easy to see the parallels in our own (Canadian, North American, Western) society. It is not as easy to see the lines between the two groups: who is on top? Who is doing the oppressing? What does it mean to be oppressed in middle-class America?

I won’t go into details about how we are oppressed in our every day lives (not yet…), but I will say this: what Freire highlights again and again is that while the Oppressed are dehumanised, the Oppressors, those who remove that humanity, remove their own humanity. No one who robs another of their humanity is fully human, but is functioning on ideas of greed and/or prejudice.

So what’s wrong with our education system? Things become quite flagrant when we look at what we expect our children to get out of school versus what they actually do. I would think any average person would expect their children to:

  1. become knowledgeable;
  2. become more social;
  3. and become better thinkers.

Even your five year old should get these things. He ought to learn to think about stuff, right? That’s what education is all about, training the brain, right?

Now, let’s look at the average day of a child. I’ll draw on my own experience, mostly. Perhaps there have been radical changes to the system since then, but I doubt it. I would arrive at school, sit down, be told how to conjugate a French verb, be told that if I multiply 5 by 2 I get 10, get beat up during recess, learn tidbits about Algonquin and Iroquois social structure and practices, go home, maybe look at the information I got during that day, and at some point, put the information back on a paper which goes back to the teacher.

How many of our expectations have we fulfilled?

First, I ought to have gained some knowledge. After all, I learned some facts. 2×5=10. Algonquin tribes were nomadic while Iroquois were sedentary. Je sais une verbe. But is any of this actually knowledge?

To have real knowledge, a person must be able to articulate that knowledge in their own way. They must have engaged with information entering their brain, processed it, and incorporated it with their broader worldview. If I learn all about Feudal England – all the titles from King to Peasant, the structures, the exchange of goods for protection – but I can’t tell you anything about how that structure permeates, how there is still echoes of it in modern England, and even in Canada – if it exists outside my reality, how can I call it knowledge? Consider this: someone asks you to memorise a ten-digit number. Turns out, it’s that person’s mother’s phone number. You now “know” this person’s mother’s phone number, but if someone asked you for this person’s mother’s phone number, you would say, “I don’t know it.” You have information with no context. It’s useless, except to the person who asked you to memorise it, so that later, when they found a pay phone, they could get you to say the ten digits so they could call their mother. In this case, you’re not a person in possession of knowledge, you’re a tool for another person.

What about becoming more social? It is necessary for people to develop social skills. But is school the best place to do that?

An environment in which I have no control frustrates me. It builds up the need to have agency. Our humanity, as defined by Freire, is equivalent to the amount of control we have over our own lives and situations. When I am sitting in a classroom I didn’t choose, with a teacher I didn’t choose, “teaching me things” I didn’t ask to learn, in a manner that doesn’t suit me, to do tests that seem to have no point, I feel a strong lack of control. I therefore look for another outlet to assert control. This, combined with the fact that everyone in the school is given a grade, making the whole experience an unofficial competition, gives way to all sorts of social nastiness. If I’m a larger kid than most, and I’m in this situation, and I don’t have any control at home, chances are pretty high I’ll become a bully. Or, maybe I got bullied, so now my sense of control is even more reduced, causing me to stay in the shadows, not wanting to talk to anyone.

If you go for a job interview, what do they want? Nine times out of ten, they want a team player. Someone who is able to recognise the needs and abilities of others and communicate their own. Did we learn this at school? Maybe you did. In elementary school, I learned how to do things on my own. In high school, I learned to be liked by people. I am now good at both of those things. But am I good at recognising the needs and abilities of others, and communicating my own? No. I’m bad at those things.

Okay, so it looks like 1) and 2) are a bust, so we must rely on 3). Surely with all those Maths and Englishes we will become the thinkers we always aspired to be. Except… what really happens in these classes? Book reports, where we are asked to read a book, then are given a passing grade for writing a summary. Math equations tell us how to find the angle of a right-angle triangle, but never once does the teacher give you actual practical applications to trigonometry (there are a lot!). In this way, we are never asked to think, but just to retrieve information*.

Freire describes what he calls the “Banking” system of education. The teachers, who know everything, deposit information in the minds of the students, who know nothing. The students are asked to file away those informations in their brain, to be withdrawn at test time. There are basic methods of memorisation being trained here. But the system also doesn’t give a shit if you forget all that you learned right after the test, so often that’s exactly what happens. This is the predominant system. Why, O God, why?

I said I had issue with our vocabulary. When we can start to think of Students as people with ideas and experience, rather than as names on a sheet, we will be able to create an actual learning experience with them. When Teachers are stripped of their authority as “person-who-knows-everything”, they will be forced to look at the Students as people, and encourage them to offer their own outlook on what’s being taught. When Education does not consist of a long monologue, but of a dialogue, we will begin shaping the future we need to shape.

In order for any of this to come to pass, we cannot amend the systems we have. We must destroy it, and build from the ground up a system that treats everyone present as Humans, hopeful and powerful. Teachers must constantly propose problems to their students, so they might exercise their reasoning and logic every day. Students must constantly challenge their teachers, so that they must reconsider their positions based on the valid new experience that student is bringing. To use Freire’s terms, we need a dynamic of teacher-students and student-teachers, actively crafting knowledge together.

In this way, we can learn to think critically from an early age. In this way, we will learn to work with our classmates during our formative years. In this way, we can learn about the world and see it with the wisdom of the great men and women of our history, instead of seeing that wisdom as separate from our reality. In this way, we can nourish a generation of people we can count on to save humanity from our self-imposed extinction.

Stay critical. I love you!




*Our Math education does teach us to use reason and logic. But, since it’s the only class we are asked to use that reason and logic, reason and logic become synonymous with Math, and people who hate Math are going to hate reason and logic. People who love reason and logic will follow Math without finding the reason and logic in other things.

Yes, it flexes that all-important brain-muscle, but no one tells you what you’re flexing it for. Imagine someone told you to do Kegel exercises every day, without ever telling you that it would make your sex life that much better. What the hell? No thanks. Put yourself in the shoes of a kid who is forced to go through the pain of doing algebra, when his whole life his teachers have told him he’s bad at Math. Just close your eyes and imagine it. That’s all.


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