Photo: HT
Photo: HT

Opinion | The magical thinking that must be resisted in school education

People realize the weirdness of the easy solutions they offer once they consider these for themselves

In the corner of a room or a hole in the wall, let us put a computer. And let children have free access to these. Or better, give a laptop to each child. All of these are rugged and loaded with excellent content. Unleashing the power of a child’s curiosity and self-learning, these enable dramatic improvement in education. They can reduce or eliminate our need of teachers, of other learning resources, and of practically everything else that makes for a school.

Many readers would call out the preceding paragraph for what it is—a piece of magical thinking. But such initiatives have been widely touted and embraced as solutions to all problems in school education by a vast number of seemingly smart people with otherwise sound judgement.

This piece is not focused on the very limited usefulness of information and communication technology (ICT) in education, enthusiasm for which continues, though it’s thankfully moving towards sanity , forced by overwhelming evidence from across the world. The global Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report Students, Computers And Learning: Making The Connection; 2015 , for example, concludes that “the results... show no appreciable improvements in student achievement in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that had invested heavily in ICT for education. And perhaps the most disappointing finding of the report is that technology is of little help in bridging the skills between advantaged and disadvantaged students" .

But let us return to other forms of magical thinking in education. Install a video camera in a classroom, so that everything that goes on can be recorded and monitored. This will drive teachers to teach better. Do not employ teachers, but hire them on short-term contracts. Since they are hanging by a thread to their jobs, it will motivate them to perform better.

In psychiatry, magical thinking is a disorder of thought content, specifically about some actions causing specific consequences in some way that defy commonly understood laws of causality. To cut through this disorder, let us request all perpetrators to apply these three magical thoughts to themselves:

1. Will they send their children to schools which have no teachers or very few teachers? These schools have good computers and very few other resources. The children are expected to self-guide and self-discover, and thus educate themselves. The few teachers are minimally present, intervening only occasionally. With this kind of a role, the capacity, motivation and attitudes of teachers are largely irrelevant.

2. Will they have a video camera installed in their own workplaces, so that they themselves can be recorded and monitored? Do the same for their whole office, studio or co-shared workspace. Everyone will perform better.

3. Will they have their employment contracts with generous retirement benefits at age 65 (or life tenures in a University)changed to short-term contracts that must be renewed every year? This too will motivate them to perform better. And, most certainly, this excellent and effective practice must then be deployed for all their colleagues, friends, children and spouses.

None of these people will ever do any of this to themselves. The weirdness of this kind of thinking is stark when it’s forced into our own lives. But then why is this kind of thinking there at all?

First, it is the appeal of easy and clear solutions. Improving education is the prototypical “wicked problem". Grappling mentally with it is difficult, putting anything to practice is even more so, and it is always highly frustrating. The easy and clear solution removes the frustrations and difficulties. It is ineffective in improving education, but is highly effective in helping people feel good; they feel sure, their cognitive load and anxiety are reduced, and they have a sense of satisfaction from having found a solution.

Second, such reductive and behaviourist methods, which is what most of these solutions are, can be expressed precisely and understood easily. “Evidence" can also be gathered easily. Eliminating the complexity of the world of education, such methods offer a clear-eyed view of the path forward. But these are paths to nowhere. Education is complexity defined, being the social-human process that it is, and this is exponentially more so at the system level.

Third, the egregious disregard for things that should be obvious is enabled by a crude mental diminishment of teachers and their roles, a deep sense of personal exceptionalism, and a sharply circumscribed circle of empathy and morality. In more direct words: they think that teachers are untrustworthy and their roles are trivial, while they themselves (and their kind) are paragons of virtue and wisdom, and that all such solutions can be implemented so long as it doesn’t affect them and their own .

Unfortunately for education and our children, many well-intentioned people with power and influence in this world are afflicted by such magical thinking. The already wicked problem of education becomes even more so with such influence. Like much else, this too has to be battled, and like all of education, this battle is not a grand set piece, but has to be fought every day, bit by bit.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd

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