Present day school education systems are largely based on testing and transmission of information rather than enquiry based learning. There is a need to reinvent these.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The haunting beginning of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, set in the aftermath of the French Revolution in France and the Industrial Revolution in England, uncannily also describes the predicament of systems of education ever since. Before the Industrial Revolution, education was accessible only to those who could afford it. However, recognizing the importance of basic literacy and numeracy, a number of nations passed legislation that made primary education both free and mandatory. Unfortunately, the optimism of the Enlightenment prevented legislators from recognizing that they were creating systems for the factory driven industries. And since these are the only systems of public education that we have known, reform in educational systems has proven to be difficult to envision and implement despite the fact that present day industries have little resemblance to the ones that defined the Industrial Revolution.

What the factories of the Industrial Revolution needed were workers who were able to follow instructions for repeatable tasks. Hence, the educational systems designed curricula that were more concerned about the transmission of information than creative thinking and more attuned to standardized testing than to individualized assessment. The advantages of such curricula and testing are that they are both easy to replicate and measure. 

However, over the past few decades educators have realized that genuine creative learning cannot happen with the industrial model of education. We have recognized that those who contributed most to the advancement of human knowledge were often those who remained inquisitive despite the system rather than because of it. 

Enter, what is known as enquiry based learning – the process of allowing students the space to generate their own questions and follow them through to satisfying answers. It has been widely recognized now that students are best able to take ownership of their learning when they ask and seek answers to questions that they deem relevant and not when a curriculum imposes both the questions and answers on them. However, this raises the question, “Are schools doing enough to cultivate a spirit of enquiry in students?”

While this is an important question, as an educator who focuses on high school, questions like this seem like cheap shots made to prove a point. It is quite evident that in most parts of the world enquiry in the high school is the exception rather than the rule. So, important though the question is, I would like to pose another one. “Why aren’t schools doing enough to cultivate a spirit of enquiry in students?”

The fact that universal public education is only a couple of centuries old indicates that systems of education do not have much of an inherent biological or cultural value except as agreed upon by societies. Hence, an undergraduate degree is often seen as just a stepping stone to the workplace. And a high school diploma is simply a stepping stone to college. The issue is that we, as societies, have not valued learning as an end in itself but have seen it as simply a means to an end. While it would be great if our societies begin to value learning for its own sake, this is an ideal I seriously doubt we will ever reach. Hence, we are stuck with a utilitarian view of learning whether we like it or not.

Hence, high schools do their best to prepare students for college. This means that the demands of colleges now bear heavily on what can and will be done in high school. If colleges expect entering students to have certain competencies in different subjects, the top ranked high schools will ensure that their graduates have those competencies in spades. What this means is content heavy curricula with assessments that are also content heavy. With this reality, teachers find themselves strapped for adequate class time within which to complete the now bloated syllabi, leaving little time for open ended enquiry that cannot be constrained by time limitations.

The truth that, given space, teachers are both willing and able to foster a spirit of enquiry in their students is evidenced in primary and middle school. There, without the pressure of external examinations that could decide the future prospects of the students, teachers are willing to allow the students to ask their own questions and seek answers in their own ways. What this means is that, given space, even teachers in high school will be both willing and able to encourage enquiry in their students. 

In order to create this space, we need to do two things. First, there needs to be a greater open acknowledgement of the drawbacks of standardized testing in particular and of scheduled testing in general. Creativity does not run by a clock! This means that colleges need to move away from evaluating student ability based on scores on tests like the SATs. Even boards like the International Baccalaureate and Cambridge Assessment International Education need to seriously look into moving away from examination based assessments. Second, parents often serve as a pressure group on schools, either intentionally or unwittingly. The well-intentioned desire to send their children to the ‘best colleges’ inevitably means that parents pressure schools to conform to unrealistic performance metrics set by these ‘best colleges’. Rather, parents need to support schools that encourage a spirit of enquiry in their students and should encourage their children to enrol in colleges that are not primarily driven by unrealistic metrics based on examinations.

We are now well poised to make this much needed transition. Information is readily available on the internet and teachers are already moving away from being disseminators of information.

They just need the space within which to implement a new model of learning. Once this space is created, I have no doubts that educators will wholeheartedly encourage enquiry in their students. And so, though it has truly, in many ways, been the worst of times, perhaps, if we dare to make the changes, it can become the best of times.

Deepak Babu is the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program and...