What to Teach Our Students?

Published On: February 24, 2020 10:29 AM NPT By: Tom Robertson

Tom Robertson

Tom Robertson

The author is an environmental historian and executive director of the Fulbright-Nepal office in Gyaneshwor. Views are his own and don’t reflect Fulbright program policy.

Too often in our schools, our unquestioning, teacher-centric teaching instils the passive habits of autocracy, not the practical free thinking needed by democracies. Our classrooms should highlight inclusion, transparency, civil debate of ideas and rule of law

At a recent meeting of Nepali high school and college educators, I was asked what we should be teaching our students. I was asked because I’ve taught in a government high school in Nepal and at a US engineering campus. As the director at Fulbright, I worked with top Nepali and American students.

Too often, I think, educators are guided by the wrong things—tradition, politics, fashion, or career marketability. We often let what is testable determine what is teachable. And, in general, in Nepal I think there’s way too much theory, not enough practical use.

Overall, I would argue that in Nepal we need to give our students not just subject knowledge but also skills. Today’s “knowledge” is tomorrow’s “useless facts.” But skills are eternal. “Children,” the celebrated anthropologist Margaret Mead once emphasized, “must be taught how to think, not what to think.”

My advice is to stress the following seven skills: five skills for lifelong learning, and two related to democracy. Knowledge is important, but skills more so.

1. Critical thinking: Get away from rote. Rote is for monarchies and authoritarian systems. Instead, encourage higher-level thinking—weighing evidence, developing questions, making comparisons, building arguments, solving real-life problems, exploring new applications. “Too often,” the author Roger Lewin once noted, “we give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve.”

We need to invite students to question and to think. Consider this powerful criticism from a Nepali studying in the US: “We [Nepali students] are spoon-fed our whole lives, and as long as we can regurgitate whatever is in the textbooks or whatever the teacher said during class, we are considered good students. We are never taught or even told that it is okay to (or we should) think for ourselves and/or to question and/or analyse anything.”

The biologist Richard Dawkins offered a related piece of advice: “Do not indoctrinate your children. Teach them how to think for themselves, how to evaluate evidence, and how to disagree with you.”     

Think about that as a mission for our teaching! How many of us teach our children or our students how to disagree with us?

2. Reading as a Daily Habit: Nepalis often conflate studying and reading. Reading should be a daily habit, not just prep for exams. Reading opens minds to new worlds. Students should read broadly—fiction, nonfiction, newspapers, even comics—not just course books. I love the “pocket” libraries that some schools have started placing in classrooms. Start students young and they will build language and storytelling skills for a lifetime. My nephew learned to be curious about words, and even science and history, from stories his mother started reading him as a three-year old. Today he excels because he is so hungry to learn.

3. How to Prevent Powerpoint from Stealing the Life from Presentations: Half of my 10th grade English course was devoted to public speaking. We took turns practicing different kinds of speeches. For this experience, I’ve thanked that teacher again and again. I was shy then, but now can speak in front of hundreds of people. In all my teaching now, I stress good public speaking.

In particular, students need to learn the danger of powerpoint. More often than not, powerpoint is a “presentation killer.” The most common problem is too many words on the screen, and not enough images. PP should be a guide for the audience, not a crutch for the speaker.

4. How to Write Clearly and Powerfully: To move up, even scientists and engineers need to write effectively. Nepali schools teach mostly grammar. Far more important writing skills get little attention—sound structure, clarity and conciseness. Teaching writing doesn’t have to kill teachers, either; a few tricks can save time, such as journal-writing and draft re-writing (“The first draft of anything,” Ernest Hemingway once stressed, “is rubbish.”) Also, use excellent online resources, such as the free Purdue Owl webpage (from Purdue University).

5. How to Fail: Yes, you read that correctly, we should teach not just success, but failure. Tell students, as a Nepali friend puts it, “it is okay to make mistakes” instead of punishing them. “Many of us Nepalis,” she says, “will never know our true potential because we are too scared of failing.” What a sad commentary!

6. Democratic Skills: Following John Dewey, I believe that democracy should be a complete “way of life”—a philosophy not just for parliaments but also for families, streets and businesses, and especially schools.

Too often in our schools, our rote, unquestioning, teacher-centric teaching instils the passive habits of autocracy, not the practical free thinking needed by democracies. Our classrooms should highlight the values we want to see in the political world—inclusion, transparency, civil debate of ideas, rule of law. We need to invite students to ask questions, to form their own opinions, and to make decisions. We should give marks for this, not just for English, math and science.

7. How to “Walk on Other People’s Legs”: Nepal’s vast and wonderful social diversity poses special challenges. In the past, hierarchy governed social interactions; today we need more respect and knowledge. Creating an accepting, equal society won’t happen automatically. Those skills need to be taught. Students need to learn not to make generalizations about caste or other groups, not to make moral judgments about social difference. Above all, they need to learn the skills of listening and empathy—”how to walk on other person’s legs.”

Students should learn these and other skills, instead of cramming facts into their heads. Learning how to learn will be far more useful in a quickly changing world than memorizing information easily found on the internet.

Those educators who bring these skills to their students will be the real change-makers in Nepal. And their students will thank them the rest of their lives.

The author is former director of Fulbright Nepal

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