Educational Institutions … Instruction or Destruction?

Afan lecturing students Nina-iraq

Afnan lecturing teachers

By Afnan Al-Allak

Every person is a pillar of society – in other words, all individuals share equal responsibility for being positive contributors to society.

If the pillar is strong, society will be strong. Put enough weakened individuals together though, and we all suffer.

As an educator it is part of my job is to train teachers and students on life skills. I have noticed that the psychological needs of individuals are typically overlooked by the majority of educational institutions. Finding it easier to lump students together, key considerations of individual learning processes are forgotten. In the following piece I would like to highlight the importance of individual learning paths. By understanding that our feelings and emotions, individual circumstances and way of life often dictate the way we process information, I am hoping to throw light on how effective learning on an individual level can shape direction for our entire society.

Schools, especially in Iraq, have fixed curricula. These unified teaching methods ensure everyone follows and receives information in the same way. This might have been beneficial pre the technology revolution; but in a 21st century world that demands flexibility and innovation, they are completely outdated. Indeed, the way schools understand and apply different types of teaching will determine future success for their entire student body, not just in terms of an academic career, but also an applied vocation.

We have seen time and again how an inflexible curriculum creates barriers. Traditional methods suit certain students, particularly those with the more traditional academic skills set. These ‘star’ students then turn into the future hope of the school and the country; the ‘apple of everyone’s eyes’. However, the flip side of this is those who aren’t able to work within fixed curriculum teaching (and very often these are most entrepreneurial and innovative children!), who find the rigid, hierarchical type of learning completely unsuited to their individual needs. This, of course, results in much lower achievement levels than those of their more ‘traditional’ peers.

A young person might have significant potential, but instead of embracing this will go through life with a label defining him as “unintelligent”, not just to others, but a belief that will worm its way into his or her very soul. Negativity of course breeds more negativity. In an increasingly vicious circle, the low expectations the student has of himself will feed directly in to those the community, teachers, parents and peers have of the young person. The result? Stunted creativity linked to lack of determination and loss of motivation. As low self-esteem heightens and lack of confidence increases, the ability to be a useful member of his community decreases in turn.

In 1983 the social/ psychological researcher Howard Gardner published his theory of multiple intelligences, Frames of Mind. Gardner explained that the human brain functions like a group of computers with different capacities and one section for eight different types of  intelligences;

Logical intelligence, linguistic intelligence, motor intelligence, individual intelligence, social intelligence, musical intelligence, spatial intelligence and natural intelligence.

Every human being is born with one or more than one of these types encrypted in their genes.  However, whether they develop or fade and disappear is entirely up to how they are used.

Take for example a person who might be born with a logical intelligence. Let’s say their biological parents die and the child is brought up by foster parents. They may happen to have linguistic intelligence. Because of this they start to surround the child with literature and poetry and developing his speaking and listening skills; these in turn allow the child to more easily acquire knowledge. Eventually they will grow to love everything related to language.

The ‘nurture versus nature’ debate will not ever be fully resolved. However, one thing is clear, genes alone do not a human being make. The surrounding environment is at least as important, as it is able to directly impact individuals, adjusting the way they develop intelligence and abilities.

What does this mean to our young people? Well, the way it stands currently, those with logical and linguistic intelligences will thrive in our school systems. This is because the majority of the materials and teaching methods are directed to nurture these two types of intelligences.

However, the needs of students who were born with musical, motor, social, and other types of intelligences are virtually ignored. The reason? Quite simply, they do not fit in with the educational curriculum superimposed onto them at schools, so they must be at fault. This kind of discriminatory thinking is very wrong and also very damaging, leading to children being exposed to a ‘double-whammy’ of discrimination at school and in the family (not to mention within the wider community). In the meantime we lose the great gifts of creative, influential, individual thinkers… visions, inventions and scientific theories with the potential to serve mankind, lost forever.

A Japanese school headmaster was asked once; “What do you do with your intelligent students? How do you honour them?”

He replied with astonishment; “What do you mean by ‘intelligent students’?”

The inquirer went on to explain; “Those students who are excellent – for example much more advanced in mathematics, physics, and chemistry when compared to others in the class? …”

The Headmaster answered; “We do not have ‘intelligent’ students or ‘dim-witted’ students. All our students are intelligent. The one who does not excel in mathematics and arithmetic excels in painting, music or sports.”

That takes me back to my fifth grade at high school in Iraq, when our teacher told us that the only thing worth studying was medicine or maybe pharmacy – everything else was useless. This of course implied that if we were to pursue other interests, we would be failures.

I call upon the educational institutions everywhere to acknowledge that we are all different, and then to create a system that embraces – indeed celebrates – those differences. I would also like parents who may be concerned about the progress or talents of their offspring, to recognise that every person has the potential to achieve great things, albeit in a variety of fields. It is up to all of us to create a suitable environment and nurture the potential of our next generation. In this way amazing things will be achieved.  By aiming for institutionalized excellence we create mediocrity for most and failure for many.

Thomas Edison, American inventor and businessman, responsible for great innovations such as the use of direct current electricity; was expelled from school at a young age by teachers who found him odd and disruptive. He attributes his success to his mother.

“She is the one who made me and she was the one who believed I had something to live for. I thought that I should not disappoint her.”

All of us need someone to look up to, someone who believes we are capable of greatness. We also need to know we are worthy of support and understanding. If our young people experience none of this and indeed, often suffer the opposite, how can we expect them to contribute anything positive to our wider community?

I would like to finish by quoting George Bernard Shaw:

“How beautiful is cleanliness, but it would be great if it was in our minds.”

We need to cleanse our minds of old traditional ideas and reflect upon those who have achieved great things in life, we need to learn the lessons their biographies teach us.

History teaches us that despite negative circumstances, or genes that may not fit the mold, it is in human nature to step up to opportunity and success. Indeed everybody can reach a pinnacle of success in any field they want. God-willing, I do hope you will share YOUR pinnacle of success with me and Nina Magazine!

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