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Book and Film Reviews, Leadership and Activism

While US waits for Superman, kids in the world are drafted as failures

I posted this 3 months ago on my personal blog — My bin of thoughts. In a discussion with this group it came up that while quite a few posts have been written on the Cooperative Catalyst for Waiting for Superman, no one have yet posted anything about Schooling the World. I believe that this is a film that is equally, if not more important that Waiting for Superman — at least Sir Ken Robinson seemed to agree with me when replying back on Twitter after I brought it to his attention that it is “An important and fascinating movie.

I hope posting it here will help bring the required attention among the educators and learning enthusiasts following our group!

Today, I watched a profoundly disturbing film! It completely shattered my view of education as a progressive force in the world — even if the system in place is seriously outdated, I never really questioned the intrinsic value of education as a way out of poverty, as a way to move humanity into their future. Director Carol Black and the Lost People Films crew disillusioned me in the first 10 minutes of their fantastic film — Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden — and I had trouble dealing with all of the mixed thoughts and emotions throughout the rest of the film!

Before this film, my understanding of the state of the education could be related to a story I heard long time ago from my parents.

A man was visiting a long time friend quite often for dinner and often his friend’s wife would cook fish for the occasion. Initially, he didn’t give much thought to the fact that the fish had its head and tail cut off. After a while, though, he noticed that the family never served a whole fish, so he decided to inquire the wife. “I never really gave too much thought to it — this is how my mom always cooked fish, so I continued to do the same,” she said.

This troubled the man so he asked if they can ask the wife’s mom? “This is how my mom taught me when I was a young girl,” she said “I always thought she must have had some reason for that!” Surprisingly, the old grandma was still alive, so the man, still troubled with the question why this family never ate the fish’s head and tail asked if he can be brought to the old lady.

“Honestly, I didn’t have any bigger pan in the house, so I would cut the tail and head to fit the fish inside for frying,” the granny said!

The current education system was devised during the start of the industrialization, more than 200 years ago. Its purpose was to create skilled workers that could take specialized jobs and work in the factories. Just like in the story, though, I thought what happened to the education system in more recent years was that a bigger frying pan is now available, but no one thought about stopping the practice of cutting the fish’s head and tail!

In the developed countries, most of the factories are gone, more people than ever work in services and a great level of innovation and creativity is required by most modern companies. However, the education system still produces people that can do specialized jobs — or worse, tries to generalize their knowledge to such a level that it is useless at that point. As Sir Ken Robinson has been pointing for some time now, schools kill creativity — and creativity is the very resource we need more to ensure a bright future of our kids!

Schooling the World has shown me that this view is limited in itself! In the developing countries — and even certain communities in developed countries like US — industrialization is still lagging or simply the way of life in the community doesn’t mesh well with the ideas brought by it. But the same aging education system is brought there by well-intentioned missionaries, aid workers and volunteers thinking they’re doing a great service to the indigenous people in those areas. No one questions the common sense that education is the way out of poverty. No one, that is, except Carol Black and the thinkers featured in Schooling the World!

If I would try to use the fish story as a metaphor to the eye-opening view this film has brought to me, it would go something like this:

Disturbed by what he learned from the old lady, the man was about to leave his friend’s house when the daughter just arrived. She was all excited about a great deed she just did as part of her school project. Her class was assigned to visit the slums in the poverty-stricken part of their city and find a way to help a family there for one day. Remembering the dinner recipes from her mom, the girl decided to buy a fish on the way there and offer it for dinner to a family with four kids. She was so happy for coming up with the idea, she also tried to explain to the wife there how to cut the head and tail before cooking it, as that is how her mom always does it!

The man felt a bit better, feeling silly about his questioning of the family around the fish, so he thanked them all for the great dinner and headed out to his car. On the way home, one of the streets was closed due to an accident, so he ended up driving trough the slums. He was quite surprised to see a pack of cats gathering around a big fish on the street. Looking closely, he noticed the fish was missing its head and tail! It was all great that the family was brought a fish to cook for dinner, but what they needed was a pan and a working oven to prepare it!

As Carol said in the introduction to the screening of Schooling the World at the Vancouver International Film Festival, the goal of the film is not to provide answers — in this case there are probably no right or wrong answers, just different ones — but rather to inspire questions. Sir Ken seemed to agree with that, when he tweeted to his followers “Take a quiet look at this movie and think about the questions it asks” after I brought it to his attention. (digression: I learned about the film by accident after a friend whom I met over the weekend during a child birthday party thought I would be interested in it — she had no idea how much I would indeed!)

Indeed, the film raises a lot of important questions. Just to give you an idea of some, take a look at this short clip about imposing English as the language of the world to kids in Ladakh, India, the main location where this film is shot. This is very disturbing to me — especially as I personally struggle around the questions how much should I help my own kids keep a bit of their own language and culture (Macedonian) as we’re trying to build our life in Canada!

I was lucky enough to be able to film the Q&A after the screening. I invite you to check the discussion at http://www.youtube.com/user/World4Children#p/c/8561575F4F78F9F4 — it is very engaging! Apologies in advance for the low quality of the audio and he moving camera from time to time! ;-)

I want to end this article with a thought on my own:

Waiting for Superman is raising important questions around the public school system in the US — which can easily be extrapolated to many other countries in the developed world. This is stirring lots of debate among teachers, unions, policy makers, the media, etc., which is great! Unfortunately, Schooling the World teaches us that an education system imposed on a community is still a broken system that is drafting kids as failures. Carol has a personal story to share on this topic as part of the Q&A (you can jump to minute 4:15 below)!

My question, then, is: Why everyone is still blind to the truth that no policy or system can be successful if the people it is intended for — those that are supposed to benefit from it! — are excluded from the discussion how to shape it?

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About kima

Organizer: http://tedxkidsbc.com. Father. Agent of change. I learn for a living. Curiosity is my passion. Writing is my dream. I believe in the value of social media as a way to meet new people and love double espresso as a way to feel warm with old friends ;-)

Discussion

14 thoughts on “While US waits for Superman, kids in the world are drafted as failures

  1. Hi kima, your posts are quite interesting, and I’ve been meaning to read them all. If I wait until then before posting, it may be a long wait, so i’ll just post now.

    I haven’t watched your clips yet…but I will soon. While I agree that creativity is undervalued in our education system, I think what our structured learning gives us tools with which we can deal with the world.

    There is somewhat of a self-professing prophesy in education-that those who did well in maths will be the ones who were grateful for their structured learning in the future as they will typically using those skills in their professions, while those who shunned math word problems are likely doing just fine in their adult years without it as they choose careers that don’t require those skills. As someone who did reasonably well in the former environment, and married to someone who did well in the latter, I can appreciate that each of us had different learning styles (much of which is derived from cultural and family upbringing)

    While the example with the fish does point out a common problem where a solution offered by one well-meaning party does not solve a problem, I’d contest that it is only through the process of mistakes that anyone will learn. Being well educated (whatever you want that to mean ) has little to do with it. Being experienced and empathetic will go further. (one could argue, i suppose, for an education system based more on experiences)

    That’s it for now; apologies in advance if my points have been addressed before.

    Posted by tim | January 19, 2011, 3:59 am
    • Thanks so much for your thoughts Tim! I am quite curious, after you check the clips and the STW web site, if you can relate the questions the film is asking to some of your experiences from your trip to Africa two years ago?

      I have to admit I find your comment interesting in two ways! ;-) The first is how common the view over the value of the education system as we know it is — I was guilty of the same thoughts (“structured learning gives us tools with which we can deal with the world”) until recently and I can attest that I got very similar response from many people. The problem with this is that for us that came through that education system and chose a profession in which we felt comfortable applying the tools we got from the education it feels like we got our money’s worth. But did we?

      That question brings me to my second observation as you seem to realize the potential fallacy of the first observation based on your comment towards the end “I’d contest that it is only through the process of mistakes that anyone will learn. Being well educated (whatever you want that to mean ) has little to do with it. Being experienced and empathetic will go further.” How true! Life is full of surprises and ever changing — acquiring one tool to deal with it early in life doesn’t guarantee you will successfully deal with anything it throws at you! Having increasing experiences, learning from mistakes and altogether leading a life full with compassion and empathy will go a long way compared to any tool you may keep in your “life-handling” toolbox! ;-)

      The downside of peeking outside The Matrix is that it can be confusing as our learned response is struggling to deal with our new experiences. The question is, should we settle for the false taste of steak and wine or the potentially blunt taste of the stew on Nebuchadnezzar ;-)

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment! Much appreciated!!

      Posted by kima | January 20, 2011, 3:20 am
  2. schooling the world is amazing.
    made me think of Ethan Zuckerman’s global voices.

    but global voices on many realms. not only in the sense that we are intoxicating other countries with our standardization fixation and surefire definition of success, but global voices within our own communities, and within ourselves even.

    a great focus on deep listening. to every voice.

    Posted by monika hardy | January 19, 2011, 12:15 pm
    • I can’t agree more Monika! Attending the screening in Vancouver was a turning point in my view over the education as an unquestioning positive force in the world and the only way out of poverty and into happiness.

      I watched Ethan’s 2010 TED Global talk on the day it was posted at http://www.ted.com/talks/ethan_zuckerman.html He opened my eyes to the limitation of my view over the world as he was presenting statistics about the segregation occurring on the Internet, a place that I thought of as the epitome of global interconnectedness.

      This is when I realized I ought to always look if there are any people not included in the conversation as by letting them out, I and the group I am involved with will make sweeping assumptions that will likely lead to wrong decisions. Schooling the World shows examples of such broad generalizations about the application of education as a powerful and proven force to get people out of poverty and to give them a leg up to complete in the global world — despite the fact that the global world is not so global after all, as Ethan points out, — nor is building a mono-culture that is deemed to be somehow above all other cultures of indigenous and other people leading to a state of wealth and happiness for everyone, as Wade Davis, who speaks in STW, so vividly points out in his 2003 TED talk http://www.ted.com/talks/wade_davis_on_endangered_cultures.html

      “…When these myriad cultures of the world are asked the meaning of being human, they respond with 10,000 different voices. And it’s within that song that we will all rediscover the possibility of being what we are: a fully conscious species, fully aware of ensuring that all peoples and all gardens find a way to flourish. “

      Posted by kima | January 20, 2011, 4:04 am
  3. Thank you for writing about this film; I’d not heard of it before.

    The clips stopped me right in my tracks. Profound and moving.

    Posted by Jay Collier | January 20, 2011, 12:06 pm
    • Thanks for posting it on your web site Jay! I think as many people as possible should see the film and take the time to think about the questions it raises. I stumbled upon it by accident and I am ever so grateful for that! ;-)

      Posted by kima | January 20, 2011, 3:09 pm
  4. Ivan Illich said, in 1970, “we go to school to learn to be stupid.”

    A lot of my work is about: stupid–how? (Naming how school makes us stupid.) Stupid for whom? (Who’s getting dumbed down? Why?) Who is served by our stupidity? (Who is privileged by this system?)

    Thanks for this post.

    Kirsten

    Posted by Kirsten | January 21, 2011, 12:13 pm
    • Thanks Kirsten. I haven’t had a chance to read Illich yet, but what amazes me is that he asked those questions in 1970 and I feel as if nothing changed since, or it changed for the worst in some cases.

      Tonight, I got introduced to Alfie Kohn, who despite being controversial by some, seems to be trying to answer the questions you listed. I watched a short film in which he’s filmed speaking at a high school in North Vancouver http://www.planetcuriosity.com/amsixproductions/curiosity_lab.html The film also features two interesting speakers voicing their opinion on the destructiveness of the current education system. I must say that I am personally quite disturbed by the film and though it is 3am on my side I still can’t get myself to go to bed because of the buzzing voices in my head asking the same question again and again:

      What are we doing to our kids?

      Posted by kima | January 23, 2011, 7:11 am
  5. Thank you, Kima, for highlighting this film. I think about this topic a lot. I worked as a teacher on a reservation school in New Mexico for a few months while I was in college and saw the effects of Western education first hand. Very few of the students spoke Navajo (it was taught as a separate class like a foreign language), they listened to metal and ‘radio’ music rather than traditional Navajo music and look down on their elders because they are ‘old fashioned.’ Obviously, this is not true of everyone, but it was disheartening to know that I was more interested in their history than they were.

    I will definitely be checking out the film. Thanks.

    Posted by Mary Beth Hertz | January 22, 2011, 10:46 pm
    • The question that started bugging me a while ago is “What kind of independence we’re trying to inspire in our kids?” It seems we’re all convinced that independence is a good thing for our kids. I sure believe in that when I say we should trust them more and protect them less at http://mybin.wordpress.com/2010/12/30/i-invite-you-to-my-learning/ But we seem to mix the trust I was referring to with the idea that if we push them into school and isolate them from their families’ influence, they’ll surely become independent and by extension happier and more successful as they’re dealing with the scary world out there. This is exactly what we do when we don’t send their blanket with them https://coopcatalyst.wordpress.com/2011/01/11/please-dont-take-my-blanket-away/

      I think what you identify when you say “I was more interested in their history than they were” is one of the symptoms of such misguided independence! By not keeping tight bonds with the family and the community as they attend school, the kids open themselves up for influence by other groups, and not all of them may be driven by the desire to help as teachers like yourself may be!

      I just ran into a book by Dr. Gabor Mate, named Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents Need To Matter More Than Peers http://www.drgabormate.com/holdon.php In my current state of mind, questioning the basis of the independence we all seem to value so much, I would be sure to get and read this book asap! ;-)

      Posted by kima | January 23, 2011, 7:24 am

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  3. Pingback: The future of big box schooling « Cooperative Catalyst - January 24, 2011

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