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Education must escape the tyranny of the clock

It has taken me decades to learn how to eat slowly.

I tend to gobble down my meal and finish in just a few minutes. This is not a good thing. Modern nutritionists advise that we eat and drink slowly and carefully. So why am I like this?

The genesis of the problem is high school, where we were given exactly 15 minutes flat to finish our lunch in the dining hall. The teacher in charge would stand up when time was up, ring a bell, and that was it. We all stood to pray, no more eating. If you hadn’t finished – tough. So we all learned not to dawdle.

It’s taken me a long time to unlearn this bad habit. You have probably had to do the same.

Working against the clock wasn’t just an issue in the dining hall. In the examination hall, too, the same wisdom prevailed. You will be timed strictly, to the second. You must complete the paper in the allotted time and not a moment longer. Memorize a whole load of facts or equations or methods, and then cogitate and regurgitate efficiently, with the clock ticking.

Survive both the dining hall and the examination hall, and you are equipped for life. But what exactly are you equipped for, and why are schools run like this? 

The abiding ethos is about discipline and time-keeping. Bells must ring, and children must bow to them. Everything is time-bound. If you were just about to understand a key point in your lesson – too bad, the bell has rung. Put away those books and move on to the next thing. If you were caught with the forkful of food halfway to your mouth, too bad, put it down, lunchtime is over. If you had not quite finished writing your answer on that important test – stop, pens down, that’s it.

Oh, you couldn’t complete the paper? Your brain failed to engage in those crucial final minutes? The pressure of time running out befuddled your recollection? Tough, kid. It’s a cruel world – and you won’t get many second chances.

What does this system teach? The tyranny of the clock and the bell. Why? So that we go out into the world ready to abide by new clocks and new bells, new timekeepers and new bell-ringers.

There was a world in which that made sense, when we were to “report” to work at a designated place, to “clock in and out,” to be obedient and do as we were told. When markets were predictable and business models were stable and surprises were rare – sure, you got yourself a workforce that followed orders in the time designated.

Here’s the problem: decades on, your child (and mine) is being prepared as though that is still the world that awaits. As though the world in which they will work will value rote tasks done at speed. The world has moved on; our education norms, by and large, have not.

Predictable, repetitive work? Remembering a large number of facts? Assembling and examining those facts very quickly? If that is the primary training, do you realise what the children are being trained to become? Humans masquerading as automatons. They will do this in competition with a new array of bots and robots, machines and programs. And they will lose.

What do we actually need our children to be good at doing these days? To reflect deeply. To think nimbly. To be creative and imaginative. To connect with others and develop solutions collectively. In other words, to make themselves more human, not less. If your school is busy winding clocks and ringing bells and issuing punishments, then I fear your children will only get a useful education once they have left the institution.

Don’t misunderstand. Personal discipline and respect for time, especially other people’s time, are admirable traits. Our time is scarce, and we must use it judiciously. Working to deadlines is an important part of being effective. But it is just as important to prepare youngsters for a world in which their imaginations, their critical thinking and their inventiveness are developed. Many a time, that can only be done away from the tyranny of the clock.

If traditional educational institutions – schools and colleges, teachers, examiners, certification bodies – keep failing to offer that kind of education, then parents and students will simply have to find it elsewhere. Some educationists are evolving and adjusting, and we must give them a generous “B” for effort. The “A” will only come if they can rethink, from first principles, not merely repeat and recycle. Who will offer lifelong learning, with a menu of options, conducted at the learner’s pace?

Education itself faces a severe public examination now, and time is running out. Tick, tock.

(Sunday Nation, 16 May 2021)

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