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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Piled Higher and Deeper

I'll get to that later... much later  
    On my desk there is a little cartoon which I have drawn. It is a mock newspaper headline, and under it the head of a “grey” alien. The headline reads:
  Aliens deliver first vital message to Earth
    There is a speech bubble emerging from the appropriately tiny mouth of the alien, and the following words are uttered as the first inter-galactic wisdom from our interstellar friends.
    “Doing something unimportant well does not make it important.”
    It’s actually a quote from Timothy Ferris’ book, The 4-Hour Work Week (which I reviewed on 22c+ a few weeks back).
    This statement has particular significance in education systems in many countries. Policy makers and educators set curricula that are often meaningless and irrelevant. They then set about rewarding students who “succeed” in them.
     And they love to pile it on. Take a look at the photo above. I took it at a certain school where I used to work in Hong Kong. This is an actual teacher’s desk; not his second desk, nor the desk in the corner where a teacher might pile all the stuff he never uses. At one time there used to be a teacher at this desk. Then one day he just disappeared under all the crap, and no one ever saw him again.
Sadly, metaphorically speaking, this is what happens to many teachers in today’s education systems, right across the world. They get lost in crap. Endless marking an administrative nonsense. And the kids get piled higher and higher, and deeper and deeper in the same crap.
Much of what you see on the desk above is actually test papers, waiting to be marked. The entire system in Hong Kong is characterised by an obsession with testing. In fact it’s pretty much that way right across east Asia. I know it’s a real problem in the USA too, from what I have read.
Children are precious. Teachers are precious. They are the future, and those whohelp build the future, respectively. Yet we bury them under piles of meaningless garbage. We have lost connection with what is really important, and we have created curricula which misses the essence of what it means to be human. Then we give endless tests to confirm to ourselves that we are going the right way.
Back in the early 90s, in my first teaching job, I had a great department head(let’s call him Ian). Ian was a fantastic teacher, but he was rather cluttered, and his desk looked rather like the one you see above, only piled higher and deeper - and a lot less organised. One day the kids set fire to the school, and it burnt to the ground. Administrators agreed that the kids were trying to tell us something, but they couldn’t figure out what it was. Ian’s desk went down with the rest of the ship. I suspect that Ian sent a silent pray of thanks to the Creator for that one.
We need to start a few more fires around here. We need to clean out the trash. And we need a few sparks of passion. Education is not filling a vessel, but lighting a fire. So wrote William Butler Yates many years ago. We need to teach for passion and wisdom, not just for the acquisition of data, for technical skills, or because it is in the test at the end of the term.
You may have heard of Ken Robinson. He has an organisation called TED. He is also the author of a very good little book called The Element: How Finding Your Passion Change s Everything. For years Ken Robinon has been teaching about this straightforward wisdom. A wisdom that many of us (including you) realised long ago.  (I'll be reviewing that book soon on 22C+) Yet in many instances education systems are becoming more mechanistic.
We do not need more rituals, more tests, and more drills. We need to develop wise and passionate human beings who understand who they are, and how to relate to others, and to the world they live in. For that to happen we need teachers who understand this at a deep level, and who can inspire.
One way the Asian systems are superior to western education systems is that in Asia students still retain a reasonable degree of respect for authority. In the West we have taken the ideas of individualism and “I got rights” to extremes. This has created a kind of cultural narcissism, and all but destroyed the respect for authority. Somehow, we have to teach the young that they are not the centre of the universe, and that listening is as important as asserting individuality. It’s great giving people a voice, but they also require the wisdom to know the limits of their own wisdom and knowledge. 
There’s too much crap, and not enough stuff of value.  And no matter how well we polish it off, it's still crap. Pretty much like the teacher’s desk at the beginning of this photo.


  1. Exactly why I no longer teach! Love that photo.

  2. Yep, it's one of my favourites. Sums up HK education to a "T". Still, I love the kids, and will definitely miss them when I leave here (which probably won't be too far off).