What I Talk About When I Talk About Education

A brief introduction explaining why what you think education is, might not at all be what it is.

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The category education itself is such an all-encompassing category that deals with early childhood to adult learning, formal and informal learning, policy, technology, funding, access and stereotype threat — just to name a very few. Is it learning? Is it schooling? So many never-ending questions! There are perpetual inquiries on education that anybody who has an interest in any of the educational categories wonder. We ask, how ethical is it for us to determine what is educationally “right?” We question, what is education for? Exasperatedly, we shout to the universe, what is education?

So there you go. You’ve tackled the first step about what I talk about when I talk about education: deconstruction. Ah-ha, isn’t that confounding to know that education isn’t just one thing but a mothership of things related to learning? You might be regretting dipping your toes into such a black hole of a topic, but fret not — it makes this entire journey into understanding education and how you can make a difference possible. It doesn’t make it easy, but it does make it easier. If we aren’t talking about everything that it encompasses, then we’ll just be circling around the giant elephant in the room — the elephant that is education. We need to look at the guts to see how we can make the elephant healthier.

I have frequently found myself in mini-crises on what education even is. My latest one occurred whilst in the company of Piaget, Vygotsky, Montessori, Dewey, Skinner and a slew of other educational theorists. On a chilly Friday night, I — grad student and budding Learning Technology designer, whose core purpose involves the wild beast that is education — lay in bed staring at the ceiling, questioning everything I had ever thought I knew about it. As undergraduates shouted “TGIF!” in passing, I came to the conclusion (for my own sanity): I must understand it through multiple lenses.

Why is it important to realize this? The fact of the matter is, understanding how people approach education differently statewide, nationwide and worldwide recognizes that education is a diverse category with a million subjective understandings of it. Education is a people business, and not one person is the same. Therefore, when someone says: “I want to change education!” I wonder what they mean by it. By saying so, I assume that they are trying to create a singular solution that will match every single human.

There is no singular solution, and that’s the hardest part. In fact, there never will be and that, my friends, is also also the beauty of living in a human society. The fact of the matter is, we live in chaos and we will always be born from different backgrounds, and that our neighbors will never be just like us, and our parents and children and twins will never be just like us; everything we experience as an individual is our own and solely ours. Oscar Wilde tells it like it is when he said: “Be yourself. Everybody else is already taken.”

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There are no singular solutions because there are educational issues everywhere with not just one source to blame. Culture could affect the quality, but so could poverty. There are some educationally progressive countries like Finland who have invested a lot of time, finance and energy into improving the education system; while you have some other countries who do not prioritize it as highly or cannot prioritize it because of internal conflict. Is it a behavioral issue? Is it a cognitive issue? It is crucial that we understand how diverse the scope of education is if we really want want to empower more learners and give every student access to learning, as well as the opportunity to be what they aspire. We need to know, what is it that makes Saya learn better? How do we help X become a better teacher? Equally, it is problematic to assess educational development in one way, especially in a standardized manner. Currently, the methods of assessment in schools are shifting (slowly) towards becoming more personalized.

Sometimes, it is important to focus on one part of the problem, even if it compromises some other learners — of course, this always depends on the problem at hand. That is why we need a strong community of educational thinkers who tackle different issues with the goal of bettering the future of learning for at least one group of learners, with the hope that a spectrum of learners will be accounted for. By zooming in on one learning need, we can build tools that are actually beneficial. Let’s take a group of students in rural Myanmar. They have never seen a computer nor do they have any internet. We want them to have a better understanding of science so that they are exposed to concepts that could inspire them. You might suggest, why don’t they use MOOCs? However, we cannot give computers to them and expect them to gain more knowledge through MOOCs when 1. they have never used computers; 2. they don’t understand the purpose of learning this; and 3. there aren’t any facilitators or teachers that can help them reflect on their knowledge. Of course, I am simplifying this problem but these learners have specific barriers to their learning that cannot be solved by just giving them access to the content. In this case, learning experience designers would need to come up with a new “technology” that will help them get from point A to point B. At the same time, we have to be conscientious of whether this is even a barrier to their learning or an assumption we have about what we feel they need to learn. By focusing on one, it is easier to see what the learners might actually need. This brings up a whole new conversation of what the purpose of education is — but we will leave that for next time.

For now, being aware of how broad the topic of education is takes us one step closer to understanding what we can work on. Recognizing that there is an inherent difference in education helps us become more responsible for making sure that learners across different societies have the chance to gain the same learning potential.

One might say I am naive to think that as long as our end goals are aligned — in an agreed upon way —for the improvement of society, each person’s efforts in one dimension of education makes a difference. However, if it means there continues to be people out there who are passionate about breaking boundaries, eliminating inequality and discrimination, equalizing the learning platform and providing every person the opportunity to be educated democratically (which I may be presumptuous in saying are more or less universal values); then I’d rather have some than none.

Education is like a never-ending journey on a train. It will never reach its destination as a perfect system, but that’s why it is so remarkable. We have to keep fixing and fueling the train so we keep moving forward and pick up those who have fallen off. We need to keep in touch with the changing times. The better we get at it, the better we get at working together for a better humanity and global climate.