Re-inventing Education — Part 3 (From Teaching-centric to Learning-centric Education)

Our present education system is teacher-centric. It is easy to understand why it is so if you consider that it has historically been very expensive to gain and transmit knowledge. Information — the foundation upon which knowledge rests –was in limited supply. A teacher, together with a limited set of books, was the knowledge base which anchored the education process. The teacher was the active agent, communicating information to the students, the passive receptors of information. Learning by rote was the method most favored because the information was largely disjointed and the student was not really quite sure what the motivation behind knowing all those disparate facts was.

It was all very cut and dried, literally. It was all cut up and lacked a coherent structure. And the material was as dry as the pages of the prescribed books. You did not have a coherent story which connected all the bits that you had to learn. Learning took place occassionally but much of the material was so much baggage which was discarded once the examinations were over. On top of that, it was ass-backwards: the teacher gave out answers first, and then asked questions. The expected response was the answers given out earlier. Thus, the student had little to do with the questions as well as the answers.

The universe in which we live is not cut and dried, however. First, it is not cut-up at all. Every bit of the world is connected to every other bit of the world through links that are both material and conceptual. Education, for it to be meaningful, has to help us comprehend this connected world. For operational convenience, we had to compartmentalize the study of the universe into various areas and then devote separate text books to them. But the underlying reality that that we study is connected and inseparable into neat little disciplines.

The universe is also not dry. It is absolutely sopping wet with all sorts of marvelous juicy things that can supply to the natural thirst for knowledge that everyone has (but which the traditional teaching-centric educational system eventually kills in most of us).

Fortunately, we are no longer compelled to continue with this dysfunctional teacher-centric education system. Given advances in ICT, we can easily move to a learning-centric model of education.

So what is a learning-centric model? First, the active agent in this is the student. The student asks the questions and the student answers the questions. The questions come first, and then the answers, which in turn lead on to more questions, and so on. The motivation is therefore in-built. Second, while the destination could be set externally (you have to master this amount of material), the path that the student takes to get there and at which pace is entirely unique for every student.

Thus the learning-centric model recognizes these two basic truths: that the universe is connected, and that every student is unique. The model makes available to the student a very rich, deep, and connected set of content which the student navigates through a process which can only be called discovery. Although the basic material is accessible to students is common, the path that a specific student takes is unique to the student. Conceptually, the content is a fully-connected network which can be traversed in a potentially infinite set of ways. One can start from any one of a very large set of nodes, and then move from one node to another till entire structure has been visited. I will go into the details of operationalizing such a model later but for now allow me to illustrate it.

On the way to school, the student sees a beautiful rainbow painted by a passing rain shower. Upon arriving at the school, he looks up “rainbow” in the online School-in-a-Box (SiaB). The system responds with an image and some text explaining what a rainbow is. That explanation refers to a small set of concepts, from internal reflection of light to the physics of optics to refractive index of various media to rain to the hydrological cycle to weather to monsoons, and so on. The student can then choose to move on to the nature of light and watch a little video of how light passing through a prism separates the various frequencies. Or, related to rain, the student could hear a poem by Tagore read by a gifted actor, and read a critique of the poem and thus move through the content at a pace that suits him and as his spirit moves him. Starting at the rainbow, the student could end up learning a number of physics modules, or metereological modules, or a few literature modules. From time to time, the student could take “challenge” tests, which examine the understanding of the
student, following the browsing.

One can easily recognize the basic framework as that of a hyperlinked rich content the sort that you will find in, say, a Wikipedia. There are important distinctions, though. First, the content in an SiaB is not just a reference tool, but fundamentally geared for learning basic material. Second, there are tools for testing of the concepts and for tracking progress. Third, the content is very carefully delimited so that a student does not get lost in too much material.

In the next bit, I will go into more details of how the learning-centric model can be implemented using the School-in-a-Box idea, what the economics of this model is, and what changes are required to implement the model are.

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