Thursday, December 16, 2004

Learning in the 21st Century

Perhaps what differentiates this century from the last one is how new methods of learning are available. In the past, "education" meant either apprenticing yourself to a master of a craft, or formal schooling. And in the long run, perhaps the biggest flaw in that kind of education is that we depended too much on the latter. Did you ever wonder why in most classroom setups, there will be always be a gap between those who got good grades and those who got low (or even failing) marks? My biggest mistake as a kid was thinking that those who got low grades were either stupid, lazy, or incompetent. I honestly think that students who got low grades are either not motivated to learn (for one reason or another), or the teaching method is simply not compatible with their own learning methods. Let's face it, we all learn differently. Some people are more suited to schools and universities, while others are better off learning via other methods. That doesn't make them any less smarter, but simply different when it comes to thought processes.

I'm been entrenched in the school system for so long that when I first heard about home schooling, I didn't believe in its effectiveness. I mean the first question that came to mind is "what about classmates and friends?" or "what about grades?". I failed to see that those questions were my own concerns. As an insecure child, I was shy and lacked self-confidence, especially when it came to meeting people. The school system we know made it easier for me to know other people since everyone in a class had classmates. There's really nothing you can do about that. And so friendships would inevitably occur, especially in the face of a common adversity (i.e. the teacher, a difficult subject, etc.). But is every child like that? I'm sure a lot of us have their own fear of rejection, but some kids are able to conquer their shyness at an early age. Home schooling does not eliminate the possibility of friendship, it just places the initiative on you rather than on the school. As for grades, well, that's my competitive spirit talking. The beauty of home schooling is that you learn at your own pace. You don't need to compare scores with someone else (at least immediately), and you learn at a rate that's comfortable for you. I mean some students learn fast and they're the type that gets accelerated to higher levels (but this can come at the expense of losing your ties and friendships from the previous level). There are also those who take longer to learn a particular subject, and they unfortunately get labeled as failures, when a little more patience and effort would have done the trick. I'm not saying that the school system is bad, but rather home schooling has its own advantages that a regular school (whether it be public or private) is unable to provide.

Books are usually associated with literacy. If you read books, you're smart. If not, you're stupid. Again, this is a big misconception. Being able to read books is just one sign of being learned. If a person is a reader, then it only shows that the person is adept when it comes to processing words. There are other kinds of intelligences involved and various factors can affect how much one can learn from reading. For example, someone with dyslexia will find it more difficult, or perhaps slower, to process what they're reading than the average person, not because they're less intelligent but simply because they perceive the text in a different way. There are other alternatives to learning aside from reading. What makes this era great is the rise of portable media players. Audio books are great alternatives to people who don't like to read. They can also be listened to while on the go, such as while driving your car or jogging (of course while I'm in the bathroom, a book or magazine is still the thing for me). And while perhaps a 1-hour CD doesn't contain as much information as a 1000-page novel, it does convey the lesson using sound and speech, a faculty neglected when it comes to reading. And what's good about books and audio books (or even speeches of talented educators) is that they're products of self-study. Unlike the classroom setup where you have to be there at a specific time and place to learn the lesson, books and audio books can be brought anywhere, anytime, and be repeated over and over again.

Perhaps the biggest weakness of conventional schooling is the interactivity. There's nothing lacking in the interaction between student and teacher but there often is a lack of interaction between the student and the lesson. For example, if I give a student a calculus problem, the student might solve it, but fail to see its application in real life. What's good about the old practice of apprenticeship is that there's interaction between the lesson and the student. An apprentice to a blacksmith works in the forge, hammering metal to form them into tools. There's a lesson being taught there, and while perhaps it's not as formal as say, school, the apprentice learns it as he practices his craft. For most of us, any lesson we learn is held in the theoretical state, and the only time we get to apply it is when we're in our profession (assuming we get hired in a job we were actually training for). At that point, everyone expects us to be experts in our field, when that's far from true considering we lack practical experience. Thankfully, that's been partially solved in the present. We have valuable learning tools that enable us to act on our knowledge and skills. They're called games. Games, after all, involve action. We don't depend on sheer memorization but get involved in the activity. Take the game Tetris for example. It might baffle the beginner but as we continue to play, we begin to familiarize ourselves with the rules and how the laws of physics affect spatial matter. Chess on the other hand involves anticipating your opponent assuming both of you start out with the same resources. Monopoly incorporates a lot of concepts, from planning to financing (to buy, to mortgage, or to get out of jail right now) to trading (should I trade one of my railroads for Boardwalk?). It might seem simple, but we're actually practicing a number of principles when playing games. There's interaction between us and the subject matter, although we're not always conscious of it. Or perhaps playing a game is simply more fun than listening to a boring lecturer. Where in the World is Carmen San Diego falls under one of those edutainment video games where playing and interaction is mixed with knowledge and trivia. I'm sure you'll all agree when I say playing Text Twist is more fun that browsing through the dictionary systematically to learn new words. Best of all, it involves a lot of our senses, from sight to hearing to touch. And the more senses we utilize, the better we remember something.

The past few decades has also seen the rise of what I call miniature libraries. That's basically what computers and the Internet are. You don't need a huge hall to store a lot of information. Sometimes, a computer the size of your bag will do. Some even do with less (such as PDAs, cellphones, etc.). Information has never been so accessible, thanks to globalization. Perhaps the only weakness of computers and Internet is the fact that anyone can disseminate information. It's bad enough that we can't trust 100% of everything we read from books, newspapers, or what we see on TV, and these are mediums that are already controlled by a few people. The biggest challenge is not about finding information, but rather verifying whether they're true or not. And as helpful as search engines are, researching can still be difficult (although perhaps not as difficult as navigating through the Dewey Decimal System of your local library). But the beauty of the computers is the fact that incorporates most (if not all) of what I've listed above. Computers enable us to home school ourselves as well as our children, and with the Internet, we have access to pictures, audio, and even video of interesting subject matter. Games are also made available, and so learning becomes easier and much more enjoyable. But for me, the greatest asset of the Internet is that we can communicate. There is dialogue between one person from one side of the world to another. We can discuss ideas, post on bulletin boards, mailing lists, chatrooms, blogs, etc. Like-minded individuals can find common group and learn through methods that are optimized for them. There's enough room for everyone in cyberspace.

But as much as all of these options are available to us, it only really matters if they are actually utilized. As much as a I thrive in the archaic education system that we call school, I've come to realize that school is not necessarily for everyone, nor does it give us the tools for optimum education. Learning, in the end, comes down to the individual.


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