The Argument That Escaped

Navigating the Mismatches of Education

Around ten years ago, during what had been a tedious morning in which my classmates and I were robotically listing countries in a middle school geography class exercise, I suggested including Georgia after we exhausted the list of better-known countries. My teacher, an American in her early thirties, interjected and contested my contribution, stating that Georgia was not a country but one of 50 states in the United States.

I was aware of that fact, but I insisted that Georgia was also a small country in Eurasia. I was confident of my assertion, for I occasionally skimmed encyclopedias as a pastime. That included an encyclopedia of geography, and with its intuitive, vivid briefs on each recognized country at the time, I could visualize the entry on Georgia: its five-cross flag and its bold color scheme of red and white were stuck in my mind.

In the end, I succumbed to my teacher’s unchallenged authority and revised my suggestion. I deemed it impolite to further engage in what could had escalated into a trivial argument. Looking back at that moment, though, it was anything but trivial.

That brief interaction with my teacher was a striking memory because it was the first time I became aware of the human limitations in education. I repeatedly wondered why my teacher did not inquire about my thought process, about why I suggested Georgia in the first place. That would have made her a more effective educator, I thought.

I ceased to falsely believe that my teachers had an authoritative monopoly over knowledge, as our education system and textbooks suggested directly and indirectly.

Over the years, I immersed myself in literature on web-based education, which largely argued that the internet would sooner or later replace the need for human teachers, let alone physical venues of learning. Arguments inspired by the rise of the internet were not limited to the realm of education; they also pertained the nature of work among other key facets of modern life.

Despite their lucrativeness in the heat of the moment, most predictions about the future of education are yet to be fulfilled because the human element remains critical. Innovations such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), artificial intelligence (AI)-based applications, and robotics did not, are not, and will likely not, at least in the near future, overhaul education as we know it. Instead, they will incrementally improve it by aiding teachers or only substituting them in certain tasks, not by replacing them altogether.

The Human Element

Optimism about the transformative role of technology is welcomed if it is cognizant of the importance of humans in what is, ultimately, a human affair. I regrettably placed my full faith on technology after that day in geography class and other incidents that followed — despite the fact that technology was also prone to human error. It took me years of positive experiences with excellent educators to reconsider that position, to not become dismissive of teachers and to consider them as role models. The ability of teachers to inspire students on an academic and personal level is a quality that renders them indispensable. No gamified app, interactive digital textbook, YouTube channel, or SMART Board can compensate for that. There is a social function to traditional schooling that we should not overlook in our quest to “modernize” education.

The Debasement of Education

Nonetheless, and unfortunately, education has become extremely commoditized, particularly in the private sector. The cost of sending students to private institutions in the UAE, extending from the primary level to university, is among the highest in the world. It drains if not risks the household’s finances to send children to a school of their choice. While I am not currently in a stage to suggest my solution to this growing phenomenon, I believe in the power of a market solution to disrupt the education sector as we know it. Such a solution would only tackle the symptoms, however, and not the root cause. Structural reform is required from a policy perspective, and that is taking place in our great country. On our part, we must adjust our mindset of education.

A Growth Mindset

The overreliance on formal education leads to misplaced hopes and laziness. In the realm of formal schooling, we need teachers to inspire and to challenge us, not to spoon-feed us information that we can otherwise Google or find in a bookstore. It is largely up to us to set these standards.

In class, we need to become self-motivated learners, going beyond the confines of what is asked of us in the syllabus. Outside class, we must engage in self-education, also known as autodidactism, as well as seek extra help if needed. In his research on the “achievement gap” in American elementary schools, Malcolm Gladwell observed that, contrary to popular belief, underprivileged students out-learned their privileged counterparts during the school year. It was during the summer vacation that their skills started lagging behind. The achievement gap was not due to differences in inherent ability, but on what privileged students, who had more free time and resources at their disposal, learned while they were not in school.

As the world evolves at an unprecedented rate, so will our need to learn new things faster and better. We cannot afford to surrender our future to a predominant paradigm of education that might just fail us because of, ironically, our dependence on it. We must take action, which will help us persist and thrive amid times of great adjustment.