Sunday, February 27, 2005

"No!" to the Mechanization of Education

My nostalgia for my old school years runs very deep, reflected very poignantly by a weblog dedicated to that very topic: My Years In Choueifat. Very obvious from the contents of the weblog, my experiences there were rather traumatic. Despite this, our famous regional director, Mr. Germanos (who I renamed in that blog as Mr. Hollandos) insisted that once we went to university, we would be grateful for everything the school did for us.

I've had more than one friend who has done exactly that: they told me that everything the school did for us helped us a lot. Yes, it is true, actually, that I can recall the equation for power as a function of electric current and resistance at will, although I cannot recall to any considerable extent the fundamental concepts of the Michaelis-Menton equation from first-year Biochemistry. However, I still insist, I don't think I have the school to thank for that. No, I wouldn't thank the school at all.

There's something intrinsically learnable, if there is such a word, about a setting where a class of maximum 30 people who all know each other, sit together and put on freeze all social relations and for almost an hour, without talking to each other, sit and listen to someone draw on a blackboard and construct from scratch seminal theories of mathematics, science or whatever topic. Literally, from a blank green board, everything from Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity to allegorical analyses of Shakespeare's Macbeth comes to life.

The traditional blackboard method introduces information from a logical progression. It starts from a clean slate, and progresses as quickly as is needed to teach fundamental topics and advanced constructs in a very effective way. As such, after 2 years of university education, I am sick to death of endless powerpoint slides, ridiculously distracting speaker systems and class sizes of upwards of 350 people.

I say no to powerpoint slides, to microphones and lecture theatres with capacities of anything above 40. This impersonal and dessecated version of teaching and acquiring knowledge and information is destroying what passion there is to be had in such a pursuit. It is to downgrade ourselves from milk and meat, to the mundanity of bread and butter.

I am now moving well into the end of my second year at university, and not only do I not know any of my teachers, I know but a handful of my classmates, and I can barely remember anything I learnt in first year.

The mass-production of university graduates in my field (Life Sciences) at our university (National University of Singapore) is an unfortunate black hole into which I am now irreversibly committed. Increasingly, as time goes by, I find myself growing fonder and fonder of the thought of being under the nose of a cantankerous Chemistry teacher, ready to pounce on my illiterate self like a lioness upon her prey.

In conclusion, this reflects greatly the confusion between means and ends. These technologies are but means to serve the end of education, and there are but many means. To consign oneself without thought or hindsight to any mean is to make it an end. My school was such a one, forcing us to learn kinematics via webcast, from a teacher who was in Dubai, over the internet. I never liked it, and struggled through it, and here I find myself back in the same pit. All over again.

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I write essays in my spare time on things that are important to me. The ones that I feel are any good, or make any sense, I put them up here. :)