Schools kill curiosity: the regime of conformity and obedience

Most young children are naturally curious and highly imaginative… after children have attended school for a while, they become more cautious and less innovative….Unfortunately it is necessary to conclude from the investigations of many scholars that our schools are the major culprits. Teachers, peers, and the educational system as a whole all diminish children’s urge to express their creative possibilities.

~Dacey & Lennon, 1998

Singapore Educational Consultants BoredIt seems from the quote above, schools dull the minds of our children. To be sure, the demand for control is necessary in schools. Teachers cannot teach if the class is out of control. But then again I believe it is a problem only if we define control as conformity and obedience, which unfortunately, is all too often what is demanded in the classrooms.

Today, we prefer to call it “classroom management” or “class management”. It is not impossible to manage a class in a way that allows for students to show independence. I think one underutilized tool is to use reasoning. All too often that conformity and obedience is seen by students as just a disciplinary issue. Making an effort to reason with the students and coming to a common understanding with the students helps students to take responsibility for what happens in the class.

Taking responsibility implies a choice of options.  It involves decision-making practice. When students are given time and opportunities to make good decisions about their environment, there is less of a that feeling of having to always conform and be obedient to a higher authority, no matter how irrational the latter may seem to be. Besides getting them to discuss and come to a mutually agreeable decision, especially in a non-threatening environment, almost surely will bring about better compliance to whatever that has been agreed upon.

Teachers must be willing to engage their students in a dialog. A dialog would involve questions and answers. Such engagement will encourage students to speak and ask questions. It will not stifle their natural curiosity to question, probe, even test boundaries.

Another important reason why schools dull the minds of the young is the manner that teaching and learning is done. We know of studies which show that most of the questions asked in the classroom are asked by the teachers themselves. The teachers also answer most of their own questions. This too depends on whether the teachers give students enough time to think about asking questions. The demands of high stakes testing or examinations usually mean that the “coverage” of the syllabus is foremost on the teachers minds.This usually mean traditional teacher talk (and question).

Furthermore, in such systems, the only things that are worth teaching are what will be asked in the tests or examinations. How intellectually exciting and stimulating can this be? How do we fire up the neurons in the students brains so that they go whizzing at high speed if all they ever learn is what will appear in the examinations. Nothing explodes in their head. No “Aha! moment” except maybe “so that’s how you answer this question”. Exploration, experimenting, going off track are not encouraged. There is simply no time for all that. No time for meaningful questions. They are not measured anyway as required KPIs of schools. If they are not measured, then they are also deemed unimportant. Therefore, a move away from examinations or test oriented teaching will go a long way towards removing the clouds of dullness from the classrooms. Let curiosity be an important reason for learning again.

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  1. I think that it is important to learn how to effectively reason with students. Attempting to persuade students to follow the rules through reasoning is not effective management, but there is a place for teaching students through reasoning.

  2. Hey Amran,

    This is too good an article for anyone to pass up commenting; the phenomenon you described can really be understood through an existential lens.

    Existentialists believe that everyone has a particular life story which describes their Being-In-The-World. And what makes their life story intensely and personally theirs’ is the meaning they ascribe to things/events that happen in their lives.

    When anyone or any institution tries to impose a understanding of something or dictate the meaning of something, it becomes irrelevant to any of our life stories because it’s simply inapplicable and cannot be related to. But when we try to understand that something vis-a-vis our lives, the meaning of that thing becomes so individualized that the thing becomes a personal extension of us while we put a bit of ourselves into the thing.

    For example, a school tells us a pen is just a pen; merely a writing instrument which ink flows out from. To the child reading this definition, he/she would not understand this concept in its entirety, but merely accept that it is just a dry fact. But if a child creates his/her own meaning of a pen, the pen could suddenly have a very huge impact on his/her life. It could be more than just a writing instrument; it could be this magical stick that conjures wonderful imaginary worlds, laws, symbols of math and science, etc. It becomes something that is an extension for the child’s imagination to be transcribed into sheer reality. And all while using it, a bit of the child’s personality goes into that writing/drawing/whatever he does with the pen.

    And I guess here is where being responsible comes in: you are accountable for your meaning-making of the pen and what you ultimately choose to create/write/draw. When you’re not in control of any meaning you create, you don’t feel responsible for how you use the pen. Hence, you really don’t feel you own any part of the pen.

    Now, try substituing ‘pen’ with anything: a concept, a drawing, a mathematical symbol or a school lesson or session. Same results. If you don’t own it, it will always be just a ‘thing’ to you sitting around, wasting away, or a God-knows-what-will-happen-to-it.

    The only solution I can think of in all this philosophic rambling is that maybe education at any level (and especially at the higher levels) be as open and fluid as art sessions in kindergartens. Whenever I see children draw a sun or a moon or a tree, I always feel like I’m watching a scene out of a Harry Potter movie; when kids are experimenting with different kinds of magic and lore. In short, it’s wonderful! I really do hope that Singaporean policy makers can see that before creativity comes, it is necessary for students to have an environment in which they can create meaning in things and own them. Let them argue, debate, hash it out. Let them question and answer. But never impose a meaning and get them to compete to see who answers something the best.

    Like Marilyn Manson once said, “Art/Creativity is like a question mark. The more we try to appreciate the beauty in that rather than impose on everyone an answer, the nearer we will be to the truth.”

  3. Oh wow existentialism :) I don’t quite subscribe to that but still an interesting perspective. But I do agree that that students should be given opportunities to explore. For me it would be more akin to jazz sessions perhaps. There will be some structure to the music but explorations and improvisations going on all the time :) And I agree to that truth cannot be imposed on anyone. He has to make up his mind.

  4. Charlotte Christie De Leon June 15, 2010 at 9:06 pm

    Well, this particular article reminds me about my learning when I was in college. Let me point out key words such as:
    – classroom management
    – negotiated curriculum
    – authentic assessment
    With regards to classroom management, this I believe is very important since it involves discipline. Of course, we can never go away with this since students with discipline will make a good citizen someday and I think that is one of the goals of education. When we talk about discipline, it doesn’t mean being a Hitler type of teacher or being authoritative. One can still exercise discipline in a democratic way. I myself as a teacher practices discipline among my students, however, I make to a point that they are still able to express themselves since I am also following a Humanistic approach.
    on the other side, negotiated curriculum would mean being open to the students’ interests. As a teacher, we should be aware that we are inside a classroom of students with differences. In such a way, knowing then better like what they want would help us in motivating them so that we can really set an environment conducive for their learning. At times, there is really a need to know what they want to learn and what they are expecting from our class. They have the right to be involved and it is a must that we involve them. Let us make them active learners by letting them know their share and responsibility. Let us go away with the traditional approach of teaching. Let us go away with the paradigm on passive learners. If we’ll only give them the chance, then we will know that they can do more than what we expect them to do.
    Lastly, since I have already introduced the idea of possibilities among students, I think it would be best if I also include the idea on authentic assessment. In this way, we are actually going away with the paper-and-pencil test. This is more of considering the multiple intelligences of students — that even though they are not academically inclined, still they have this understanding which can be assessed in a different but creative way.

  5. josenia robeniol June 18, 2010 at 10:09 pm

    I like the article. It’s an eye opener particularly to the school admin., curriculum planners, and teachers. I agree with the article that students should really be given a chance to experiment, explore, and decide for themselves. But I think, the problem is we teachers are restricted by the curriculum imposed by the school and the many topics that need to be taught on a given time frame. Plus there is the required number of tests that we need to administer. Even the grading system and the kind of tests given to students all contribute to restricting students to be more creative, critical, and become independent thinkers.

  6. marilou c. chavez June 19, 2010 at 7:36 pm

    My opinion, one of the reason why the teacher dont know how to handle a classroom management, she or he doesnt how to discipline the pupils so there no conducive of learning. aAs teacher , she has to practice the decision -making in the classroom coz your the king in your own class. A teacher shouldnt show that she changing her mind in making a decision. She a point of view of what she going to do in the classroom. The discipline should be equally and reasonable why does the child had to be in discipline action. The first things to do you had to talked to the parent of the child who has behavior . Then investigate why the child behave differently. If one of the child makes naughty things in the classroom so the other will also imitate or the class will disturb . If this continues with kind of behavior of the children , problem of learning will not solve and they will fail in the test.

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