Thursday, March 25, 2010

The original purpose of education

The Japanese education system is seen by many critics as fostering rote learning over creativity and critical thinking. Preparing for entrance exams is the main purpose of schooling in Japan, and that is simply a matter of technique. Students develop successful methods to retain required knowledge and regurgitate it during the test. There's almost no room for understanding and personal intellectual development.

"Can anyone explain Newton's third law?" I asked as I walked towards a group of high school students gathered for a math and science event in Fukuoka recently.

"For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction," they instantly answered in chorus. But unfortunately, none of them was able to explain this basic physics law because they didn't understand it.

"There is a big difference between reciting words and really understanding what they mean," I said. I then illustrated the principle with the following example: "Suppose you push against a wall while wearing roller skates, you will move backwards as a result of the force of your push. Whenever one body exerts force upon a second body, the second body exerts an equal and opposite force upon the first body."

I later asked a group of 10 junior high school students to multiply two numbers together. They all got the correct answer. But when I asked them with a multiple-choice question to most closely approximate the product of 4.05 x 6.2 — an exercise that tested their basic understanding rather than their grasp of the multiplication tables — only two students chose 25 (the correct answer); many guessed 2.5.

Principles of science and math need to be explained to students and learning by rote should be avoided. Even Albert Einstein, the renowned physicist who unlocked mysteries of the universe, detested rote learning. Japanese teachers and students should know that Einstein was not good at cramming for exams. At age 15, he was expelled from school for undistinguished performance. Later, at Zurich Polytechnic, he flunked a course in physics, scoring the lowest grade possible. He graduated, but near the bottom of his class. The reason for this mediocrity was that his teachers rewarded regurgitation, but Einstein's strength was imagination.

"Imagination is more important than knowledge," Einstein once said. "For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution." At an early age, Einstein visualized himself riding on a sunbeam to the end of the universe and again returning back to the sun. That's how he conceived his famous theory of relativity.

The original purpose of education does not lie in seeing how much knowledge one can accumulate, nor is it to achieve an impressive academic career. One may realize great scholarly achievements if he or she lacks imagination and problem-solving skills. But one eventually will be deluded by waves of daily challenges, swept away and finally drowned in the sea of life. What matters, after all, is establishing firm footing on the ground of one's own humanity.

By Joel Assogba Shukan ST: March 19, 2010 (Published in Japan Times ST)