Thinking outside of the box is a life skill, and is something that every parent wishes to cultivate in their child. This is because thinking outside the box just means our being able to solve problems and overcome challenges that we haven’t seen before in ways that we haven’t been explicitly taught. Outside of the box thinking is the end product of having developed a general excellence in thinking. Since it is impossible to succeed in the 21st century without being able to think well, acquiring thinking skills is an absolutely non-negotiable part of childhood education. On the other hand, it is a fact of life that parents need their children to do well within an educational system that still emphasizes rote learning, drilling, and not asking questions.
How do we balance these two concerns?
As the philosopher Maurice Blondel put it, no problems are more insoluble than those which do not exist. This is not to say that balancing thinking skills against rote learning isn’t a problem. It is. But it’s an artificial problem, a problem we make for ourselves. With a small effort of will, we can unmake this problem. Even better, the balancing of thinking skills with traditional learning techniques is a problem whose dissolution is near.
To see why, we should first be clear on what we are talking about.
As parents, we send our children to school so that they become knowledgeable. Now, there are two distinct types of knowledge: know that and know how. By know that I mean knowledge of facts. For instance, we know that 2+2=4, that Singapore is an island, and that vitamin C is good for our health. By contrast, know how means possessing practical skills that emerge as excellence in performance. Thus, we know how to swim, how to ride a bike, and how to speak a language. When people say that Singapore schools emphasizes rote learning and drilling, what they are really saying is that the local school system places great importance on know that type learning.
In real life, we need both types of knowledge. Know how without know that is blind. A driver who doesn’t know that a red light means stop is a menace to everybody on the road. And know that without know how is stupid. I once met a perfectly normal and intelligent 10-year-old student who, having gone through the local school system was quite proficient at calculating the circumference of circles and squares in her math textbook. But when asked to compute the circumference of the table we were sitting at, she became utterly lost and confused. She couldn’t do it. Clearly she did not know how to calculate perimeter in general. And notice that we couldn’t fix this child’s lack of understanding simply by giving her more facts. For as soon as the fact of the table’s perimeter is mastered, there would be no guarantee that the student would know how to measure the perimeter of a desk, a window, or a soccer pitch.
Why all this is relevant is because how we should teach a subject depends crucially on whether the subject is mostly about know that or know how. Confusing the basic kind of knowing at issue can have disastrous consequences. Imagine what it would be like to teach a life skill such as swimming as if it were a know that subject. First, the teacher would have the students read a book on swimming. Then, there would be an MCQ exam on the book. Finally, students who pass the exam would be encouraged to jump into the deep end of the pool … I suppose the students who score a distinction would be those who manage to avoid drowning.
Know how can only be acquired by experience. Classes that teach life skills, and especially classes that teach thinking skills, must look different, feel different, and be conducted differently from ordinary know that content subjects. Out of the box thinking is not something that happens by forcing students to sit through what is essentially another tuition class. It just doesn’t work that way. And life skill classes must be assessed by using different methods than ordinary MCQ tests, whether we’re comfortable with that fact or not.
Experiential learning is the key. Students must be guided through a series of structured experiences that will help them come to know, from the inside, what it feels like to be engaged in successful practice. Take swimming. First, students are taught how to kick. Then they are taught how to perform the arm strokes. Put it all together, and we have transformed the student into somebody who knows what it feels like to be a successful swimmer.
The structure of experiential learning classes is very simple. At the beginning of class, the instructor briefly describes the concept or skill to be learnt. The students then engage in an activity—maybe a game—that embodies that concept or skill. After the activity, the instructor consolidates the lesson by discussing how the desired skill was experienced in the activity. Finally, the students extend what they have learnt to other areas of their life. Where else, the teacher asks, can we find and apply this new skill?
So much, then, for what life skills are and how they should be taught. The real question is: How do we help our children learn life skills while they are immersed in a school system that places perhaps undue emphasis on rote learning?
The situation is all very odd. For years now I have been listening to parents express their frustration with the schools. Parents say that the schools use antiquated methods, that their children are stressed out by having to learn a massive amount of facts. At the same time, I have been listening to the teachers, who tell me that they are being held back by the parents. The parents, teachers say, are so worried about how their children will perform on standardized tests that they complain if there is the least deviation from traditional teaching methods. And woe betides the teacher who chooses to play a game and employ experiential learning techniques instead of downloading more facts to the students!
What is needed here is less anxiety and more clear thinking. Study after study has shown that teaching thinking skills as a separate class in the schools leads to improved test scores across the board. Study after study has shown that using experiential learning techniques in the classroom results in better subject comprehension. The story really needs to get out that teaching thinking skills and other experiential learning subjects is not a waste of time.
Concretely, as parents, we should give the school teachers the space and time that they need to use experiential learning techniques. So, when we hear that our children are playing games in school, we should not react with shock and horror; rather, we should breathe a sigh of relief. And as teachers, we must find the courage to experiment in the classroom, and trust that the repeated successful experiences of thousands of our colleagues will be duplicated in our own case.
Do these two things and the artificial problem of balance goes away.