Last lesson of the afternoon

We strive to introduce newer forms of technology in our methodology. We must continue to do so without forgetting that ultimately education is there to serve students and their preparedness for the real life in employability and in their contribution to society as a whole

Schooling is essentially a mechanical nightingale, which sets to reap benefits from recreating the natural context for learning to occur but in detaching itself from life
Schooling is essentially a mechanical nightingale, which sets to reap benefits from recreating the natural context for learning to occur but in detaching itself from life

When will the bell ring, and end this weariness?

How long have they tugged the leash, and strained apart

My pack of unruly hounds: I cannot start

Them again on a quarry of knowledge they hate to hunt,

I can haul them and urge them no more.

No more can I endure to bear the brunt

Of the books that lie out on the desks: a full three score

Of several insults of blotted pages and scrawl
Of slovenly work that they have offered me.

- DH Lawrence

This is an excerpt from a poem about a bored teacher facing a class on uninspired students who like him want the bell to ring and be liberated from this situation. They do not want to learn. He does not want to teach. Why does this happen? Is it because we have killed the joy of life and learning in school?

Recently I came across an article in The Times Higher Education Supplement entitled “Universities are becoming like mechanical nightingales”, by Sir Keith Burnett, Vice Chancellor of the University of Sheffield. For those who are not familiar with Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Nightingale’, the tale narrates the story of an Emperor in China who replaces his special interest in a real nightingale and its beautiful songs with a bejewelled mechanical bird – only to have the real nightingale return to the Emperor’s palace at the time of need.

The classic Chinese allegory portrayed in ‘The Nightingale’, dramatises this human expression, epitomising its excellence in artificial recreations whilst alienating from the unequivocal superior meaningfulness inherent in its natural state which seems to remain visible and credible to none but a few.

And so it is with education. Sadly, we often miss out on the natural state of education, including schooling and other formal education. We risk looking too closely at mechanical and automated versions of providing education whilst in a natural state the subject and aim of education come together beautifully through relevance as well as cognitive and affective stimuli leading to deep learning in an almost effortless fashion.

Nature’s accomplishments emerge as inspirational to mankind, who invariably attempt to emulate and contestably supersede it, but in artificially recreating it, perhaps inevitably, misses out on those critical elements, which characterise its simple yet sophisticated beauty and effectiveness.

Schooling is essentially a mechanical nightingale, which sets to reap benefits from recreating the natural context for learning to occur but in detaching itself from life, therefore from what constitutes its source, context and aim, it is distilled from the salts that give it its flavour and purpose.

The skill and perseverance of all those involved in relentlessly refining schooling is laudable. However, in this process, schooling may be emerging as an end in itself and excellence within it is being often defined by the result of examinations.

We strive to introduce newer forms of technology in our methodology. We must continue to do so without forgetting that ultimately education is there to serve students and their preparedness for the real life in employability and in their contribution to society as a whole. In the story, the nightingale asks the emperor to go back to its natural habitat; and with the conversion to a more mechanical education, we are limiting our students with the result that they are less able to fly into the real world.

This article is not meant to devalue schooling, which may lend itself as the social structure for the collective contribution in the formation of its younger generations, but is intended to touch deep into the soul of the different stakeholders and sensitise in favour of a need to bring more life back into school. We must keep in mind what students need to flourish. It not as simple as it might seem, but we should not be afraid to be more unconventional in our approach to education and to provide our students with methods and different skills that today’s society badly needs.

Evarist Bartolo is minister for education and employment

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