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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Learning versus Anti-learning(शिक्षा र सिकाई: चुनौतीहरु )

Learning includes education but formal education is not all that is required for proper learning. The decadent educational system of Nepal faces multiple constraints and many components of it are literally in chaos. What is more ominous is, however, the utter failure of our society and family to teach the children the values of life that no textbook can teach. The TV channels and digital games pose further challenge to the proper learning as they hijack the valuable time and attention of the children. Let’s gather some thought amid the chaos with this (?new) concept of Anti-learning.

There is a popular cliché among student folks: Neither the elephant grew enormously by studying nor the ant shrank to tiny size by not studying, so why to bother about inability to study hard? Put plainly, this is humor and repetition of this line by a student does not preclude him from studying. Looked more subtly, however, the psyche of the student who repeats this line in the exam time shows some inherent reluctance to view studying as something gratifying instead of burdensome. Indeed, with changing trends of gaining knowledge and entertainment in the new generation, concentration on study is becoming increasingly burdensome among the students.

Reading as the mode of entertainment is being relentlessly challenged by the new instantly gratifying audio-visual aids like the television. Even for those who have loved reading for decades and adopted reading certain type of materials for entertainment, watching a brilliantly entertaining movie can prove far more tempting, even though for a moment. For those who are provided with the facility of watching the favorite cartoon or a movie or a serial or any other show from their childhood are, in the first place, far less likely to develop any meaningful reading habit early enough. The A-V materials that care about the psychological urge of the audience in terms of components of the shows like the emotions, the conflicts, the porn; the glamour, etc. can literally hypnotize them almost addicting them for their lifetime. Not only the reading habits, this new trend is going to change the way of life itself in the new generation.

This may be a problem far less conspicuous than the many others that we tackle in the daily life, however. The assertion that the new generation is increasingly distracted from seriously studying by the 'steroids'* in the market , may be a hasty generalization with little in substance. Indeed, because of the growing competition the students these days are compelled to study harder than earlier and the scores of the top students are consistently growing in all the competitive exams. Furthermore, the availability of the new magical resources like the online ones may have aided the process of learning of the student in the new generation.

The arbitrary proposition that I made in the opening of this article can thus be argued both for and against. To sum up: the new trends in the society may be both encouraging and discouraging to the students depending upon on what way the individual chooses to utilize the facilities.

My argument in this article would be that despite the apparent facilitation of learning by the tools of technical innovation, study in its true meaning is increasingly suffering as the relative advantage of the availability of multiple learning tools is more than neutralized by the change in perception of and attitude towards study in the young minds. Indeed I will go to the extent of labeling some of the modern practice as being frankly anti-learning. And to avoid excessive generalization of my argument, I will have to trim the meaning of 'learning' down to gaining knowledge, acquiring skills and developing attitudes that help the individual to adapt positively in the social world.

A child needs entertainment, no doubt. But there is a huge difference in the overall impact of different modes of entertainment in the development of the child, both physical and mental. Few examples will suffice to justify this point. A child of a peasant in the countryside goes to the field to graze the cattle after school hours and there he either plays volleyball with friends or reads a novel or a short story book for which he gets no opportunity back home due to other chores. Another child of a typical middle-class urban parents goes to the park or nearby field to play football with friends. A third child from similar family plays computer games as soon as he comes home back from school. A fourth one from middle or upper class comes and sits in the couch to surf the cartoon shows in numerous channels and watches them for hours. A fifth teenager gets glued to the serial TV shows that run 24 hours a day in various channels. A sixth one is similarly addicted to movies. And a seventh teenager can not resist visiting the porn-sites in the net and visits the cyber homes regularly.

Each of these children has enjoyed the feat and has learnt various things in the process. And definitely the routine of these children impacts the formation of their attitude towards the social world. An over-worked peasant kid may be, for example, dissatisfied with the daily life because that prevents him from spending more time playing with friends or reading interesting books. His frustration might have been compounded by the persistent annoyance that the family debt causes in every member. Whatever moment he gets to play, he plays forgetting everything and that is something akin to what the knowledgeable people call salvation. The little time he gets for playing means a discrete component of his life, complete in itself. It should not imply, however, that every child of the poor peasants utilizes the leisure time to play healthy games or to read good books. They may well land into trouble early due to substance abuse or sexual malpractice and the process is only accelerating with the increasing semi-urbanization of the villages.

The second child who plays football with his friends may just enjoy the game while remaining a good child of his parents and that may form a part of planned extracurricular activities that his parents want him to involve. Under close supervision of the vigilant parents, playing games with friends may not form as great a part of life of this child as that of the first child. The case will be altogether different with the third child who is glued to the mouse and keyboard of the computer as he increasingly looses direct contact with the real world with his deepening interest in the omnipotent games that the innovative human beings have created in the computer. The attention and concentration that the child develops with the games may have little use when the same are needed for other deeds in real life. In the long run even the way in which he communicates with the social world may be impacted negatively.

The fourth child glued to the TV need no longer belong to a well-off family with increasing penetration of the Cable and Satellite TVs. Particularly in the urban population, the addiction to the absurdly irrelevant TV shows already forms a intractable problem. Most of these children would never in their life realize reading books can have any purpose other than helping to pass the burdensome exams, many of them developing phobia towards the books and reading materials. A portion of them from lower economic strata may not be introduced to the potentially useful world of internet while some others may find the active surfing of websites less ingratiating than the passive surfing of the TV channels. This section of TV-philic children will turn up to be the least adaptable to the hi-tech world where the TV channels show them everything while teaching nothing. The collateral damage of this disastrous TV-mania is the addiction of the child to the commodities, particularly the most unwholesome fast-foods capable of ruining the physical health of the child. In the process the child gradually looses his ability to differentiate between the good and bad instead opting for the one to which he is brainwashed through advertisements.

The seventh teenager in the example represents the most acute problem in the modern society where the collusion of substance abuse and sexual malpractice nurture the crimes that eventually progress to large scale ones from the petty crimes. The problem may not be measured or even thought about seriously by the responsible agencies leading to underestimation but that only exacerbates the situation. In the societies in the under-developed world where the institutions are obsessed with political issues and afford little to think about such issues, such problems are eating away the core of the societies.

With all this discussion, I intend to introduce a concept of ‘anti-learning’ to be abbreviated as AL now onwards. To begin with, AL is also a kind of learning, but that has the effect opposite to what learning causes in a child, i.e. gaining knowledge, acquiring skills and developing attitudes that help the individual to adapt positively in the social world. Just to exemplify, telling a lie is supposed to be a bad thing which should not develop in a child. Even though lying is fairly common among the adult population, a remorseless liar child is something the parents try to avoid at any cost in the ordinary circumstances. Acquiring the tendency of remorselessly lying can be thus termed as an example of AL in which the child fails to learn the dangers of telling wrong things for short term gains or to avoid ordinary problems while inviting potentially huge losses or problems in the future. Instead the child learns to avert the potential crises resulting from telling the truth with a series of lies until the uncovering of one lie leads to the exposure of the whole fiasco. Once the child loses remorse to the deed of lying, he becomes able to dismiss the realization that the short term gains of telling a lie are eventually outweighed by the longer term troubles. This learning in which the child develops the maladaptation of refusing to see the obvious can be taken as the typical example of anti-learning.

In another article about the decadent educational system under capitalist monopoly in Nepal I have given an example of a child who reverse-cheats his friends by telling them the wrong answer of the questions inside the exam hall. This goes one step further than the plain ‘telling a lie’ anti-learning in which the child adopts and institutionalizes lying to more complex process of getting higher rank than the friends.

The development of the moral faculty of a child involves much more than the singular component explained above. Just to name a few:
~to help others, particularly the needy;
~respecting the elders regardless of social position;
~ never to steal a thing of others;
~to live within the means of the family;
~never to use the slang and unacceptable words;
~facing the adverse circumstances with courage;
~refusing to yield to some force coercing to make the child do some ‘immoral’ or ‘unacceptable’deed;
~ always opting for ‘logical’ choice instead of the ‘pleasant’ one;
~adapting to the changed circumstances whenever they do so; etc. and the list continues.

Every child learns more or less in each of these components of learning from the parents as well as the teachers and the environment. The more the parents and the teachers attempt to help the child learn life skills pertaining to each of these points, the better the learning. Of course not merely the tally of marks obtained by the students in exams can measure what they have actually learned during the period. Here comes the relevance of the concept of Anti-learning.

In the formal exams a child may score a zero but it can not be negative and no child can be told to have ‘reverse-scored’. The formal read-understand-memorize-write and the particularly common rote-memorize-write patterns of teaching-learning activities in our educational institutions can never afford to think about these issues related to learning but not directly related to reading the books. In the context of Nepal the further perverse pattern of insincere study and teacher-assisted cheating has plagued almost all of the formal exams from internal assessments to the University board exams. The increasing frequency of blatantly immoral deals involving selling-purchasing of the question papers threaten to further weaken the already moribund educational institutions. How do we relate the issue of anti-learning in such a scenario as the term ‘learning’ here means a lot more than passing the exams by reading hard the books?

Majority of the parents of the students in today’s Nepal, most of them in private schools in the urban or semi-urban areas have a consistently common complaint: despite their utmost efforts and more than reasonable expenses in the education of their children, the outlook is quite disappointing. The other common complaint of parents, particularly the mothers is that the children do learn the most offensive habits like speaking the slang words without restraint or chewing or smoking tobacco despite their persistent attempt to avoid them from learning those things. They rarely place the blame for this into the schools or their own family environment but the common scapegoat is the company with some ‘bad children’ in the neighborhood or the class. They usually dissociate this development of unfavorable behavior with the formal process of ‘learning’ and passing the exams and are worried scores more by the lower ranks of their children than the development of such behaviors. As they keep scolding their child for ‘bad habits’ while praying for better scores and ranks in the classes, the child eventually grows into an adult with all those bad virtues and resistant to any criticism or scolding.

It is in this background that it is relevant to introduce the concept of learning as the all-inclusive process in which the interaction of the child with the teachers in the class is only one component of the process of learning. Eventually the parents come next if not at similar role as the teachers. Now that learning is not all about scoring in the exams, there comes the possibility of achieving opposite of something that was supposed to be achieved. To take one example, let’s take ‘never steal anything’ as one thing expected to be learnt by a child at a particular age. One who does not steal and discourages his friends who so steal and refuses to share the spoils of theft has successfully learned that lesson in his life and he is very unlikely to indulge in any significant act of stealing in the future. The other who is afraid of stealing himself but is eager to share the spoils of theft of his friends can be termed to have incompletely learned or not meaningfully learned that virtue. The third who steals repeatedly and is not discouraged by scolding or punishment has learned something but that is the exact opposite of what was originally intended: he learns how to hoodwink people to steal things; how to avoid being caught and most importantly how to cope with the punishment in case of eventual disclosure of the theft. That is indeed the very active form of learning that is perverse and here I term this phenomenon as ‘Anti-learning’.

This is how as the narrow attention of the parents is focused on the scores of their children in the exam; they are condoning a range of processes through which the children keep doing the opposite of what is expected of them. While learning is a difficult process guided by the teachers, parents and other family members and the social environment, Anti-learning is the process that comes to compensate for the lack of learning of certain things at certain age. This is guided by the instincts, not by the logic as in case of learning. The utter selfishness that the nature has given an infant or a small child as a tool of survival persists in a distorted and dangerous form in a child who grows failing to learn the moral values of the society. The attitudes that develop in the process of this Anti-learning mature reasonably fast and till the time the child can read in the books what to do and what not to, usually it is too late. The misguided scolding of the parents at the late stage does often have an opposite impact and the child feels increasingly alienated from the family and the society.

The second factor, the children who get accustomed to TV channels and Computer games before reading the books are very unlikely to take reading books with due seriousness and they never learn anything meaningful from the books other than swallowing the probable questions for the exams. This precludes from the very beginning the possibilities of these grown-up children developing adaptability in the rapidly changing world in their adult life. That means the childhood addiction to movies, TV serials or the digital games may turn to be dangerous to the extent of preventing the necessary learning in the future of the person that inevitably involves reading the books.

This is how teaching a child is no mean job: for the teachers as well as the parents. The orientation of the educational institutions is thus of crucial importance: do they aim help their students to help better to the world or score better in the exams? With everyone from the shareholders to teachers aiming at money and only money, what is sold best in the market is what they intend to provide. Obviously in the omnipotent market it is the scores and loyalty that matter. In the process what is ignored or marginalized is the true process of learning in which conscience and logic matter more than the ability to score higher and earn higher.

The tunnel to which we are traveling with the bulk of young minds grossly neglecting what they should learn at that age looks very dark. But very few of us are genuinely anxious about the scenario with our own compulsions of indulging ourselves in activities that pay us the money. Whenever we do think and see those dark clouds in the horizon, we lack the willpower to talk to our neighbors about the approaching debacle. When we dare to talk to them in such unusual subjects, they frown at us and we are demoralized; indeed who works for charity when he is hungry himself? But most of the times, we think so little about the issues other than our daily routine that we fail to see any anomaly in the ongoing process. This time I have spotted this unusually subtle and dangerous anomaly of Anti-learning creeping extensively in the new generation and I am really worried. I wish I were an educationist or at least a teacher. But I do not have this privilege and have written this piece to express my frustration. A collaborating group of the educationists and the teachers can make a difference in this case and I look forward to furthering of this discussion so that we can check this process of Anti-learning before it is too late, i.e. our society is full of adults who failed to learn what conscience and virtue are; when they were children.


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