Monday, December 16, 2013

December 16th, 2013

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

I must admit that I have been amazed at the interest in 'knowledge with understanding' of the last couple of editions of FAM. Such interest in this column comes not just from Ghana, but also from the 'more developed nations' too. It appears, based on anecdotal evidence and discussions, that those who were educated in the 1950 to 1985 bracket, had a far more 'sustainable' education than those who come after, especially in Europe and the USA. In West Africa, of course, we have other issues within those time frames, issues related to independence, coup d'├ętats, political, economic and civil unrest, which have created holes in the overall education of those at school during those troubled years - and consequently teachers who were 'at school' during those times. 

It seems that 'post-war' Europe/America, had an amazing push towards 'functional education'. It was education with, meaning, discipline, order, a passion to rebuild nations that had suffered extreme challenges - the 'Dunkirk spirit' of education and subsequently, production of workers. (Dunkirk is a coastal town in France where a massive evacuation/rescue for over 300,000 troops took place; against incredible odds, troops and civilians worked together to save and change lives. The 'Dunkirk spirit' is a term used for when a group of people pull together to beat a problem that seems almost impossible to overcome.) 

Many of those post-war teachers had been working in the armed forces or in industry during the war. They knew the struggle - but they also had a skills set that was appreciated. They knew how to make 'something positive out of nothing'. Many passed on their personal stories of struggle and conflict in the classroom - telling their own stories of overcoming challenges to their students. I remember one particular teacher, from when I was about eight years old - Mr Bendall - he inspired me so much. Mr Bendall would start almost every day with 'Good Morning Class. This morning we will begin with a story.' Then, as the class echoed his trademark 'opener' under their breath, he would start...'When I was in the army....', we laughed about it, but the stories were wild - and we listened. Travel, engineering, helping people - changing lives, and his life being touched. I cannot remember each and every story today, but I remember the man; the inspiration! His spirit of inspiration, hard work, determination and discipline has stuck with me to this day. He was an older teacher, and was labelled as 'strict'. He scared us a little bit too! It did us no harm. He never hit us, he had perfect control of his classroom, because he knew his subject matter and made it come to life! Although we were only eight, we were doing maths for fourteen year olds in his class - and we loved it! We covered history and geography in the Technicolor of first hand experiences of our mentor. He had us making things, telling stories - he used books, a chalkboard, a globe, an atlas - and bucket loads of inspiration. We did not have wonderful resources in our school - but we had the most important of all of them - a large dose of inspired imagination, and we were allowed - actually encouraged - to use it!.

What happened after 1985 then? Well, it appears that politics took a much bigger interest in education. Computers. Mobile phones. Media explosion. Colour TV. Consumerism. Need I go on?

Imagination and inspiration were taken out of the equation. It all became about 'ticking the boxes'. Teachers had to stick to strict subject delivery matter, with no deviation, in line with the 'progressive governments ideas of the day'. Pass rates became more important than people skills. Passing the exam became more important than understanding the subject matter. Earning money, to be able to enter the world of consumerism, became more important than enjoying ones life as a socially contributing citizen of a nation. National Pride was eroded. Visiting, and chatting face-to-face, became replaced by the telephone. Chats about life skills, employment and making up stories to entertain, became overtaken by the discussions about the latest soaps on television. Morals became eroded by the media 'white-washing' of standards. Parents had to now both work to meet the needs of the day - they needed two (colour) televisions and a second car... own a house and go on holiday twice a year. Latchkey kids became the norm. TV became the baby sitter. Computers and consoles were places to hide, instead of tree houses or the 'camp in the back garden'. Our real values and lives were snatched away, replaced with electronics and hype - and with it, our humanity has been eroded. Does that sound familiar?

Sadly, we are now in a cycle where the 'new teachers' did not know a teacher who really inspired them - told them stories and lit a flame of ambition to change the world. So, they are less likely to find the inspiration to bring about change. The modern teacher is caught in a world of 'exams and pass marks' - the quality of the inspired human being has been lost.

With it, the apparent need to understand what we learn, to think about how we apply that knowledge has been diluted. Our ambition in life is focused on 'certificates' and not on 'life experiences, hands-on knowledge and ability'. We have deluded our youth into thinking that a certificate is a measure of success. It is not, it is simply a piece of paper. Success is something you obtain in the real world, ability to do - something not on offer in the classroom.

Much as I use computers in my daily work - whether writing, doing spreadsheets, drawing, controlling robots, or in flight, I still know how to do each and every task manually. I am not 'only able to use a computer'. I have the skills to do the job without the computer too. Yes, I feel like a dinosaur. A Tyrannosaurus Rex, waiting for extinction of my kind to befall us unless something changes in the educational climate. 

What I can see, is that more and more people (generally the better educated ones) are resorting to home schooling - and with fantastic results. Of course, it is the 'dinosaurs' who are working at preserving the last of their kind - real human beings with a real desire to ensure that working ethic and deep understanding of knowledge, coupled with being a decent human being, is preserved.  

It was with a big smile that I read about the young man admitted to Oxford University at the age of six (yes, six years old!). He started reading at the age of two, and had the reading age of a sixteen year old by his fourth birthday. Who, by the age of eight is knowledgeable in many aspects of the human body, and makes presentations to adult groups. He wants to be surgeon, but is currently studying philosophy and mathematics... He was raised in the UK - and he is of black African origin. His parents just gave him the opportunities to learn, without the pressure of exams - and with lots of playing and being a normal kid as well. It worked - he learned because he a) wanted to, and b) was given the opportunity.

We need a change... we need inspiration... we need real, applicable knowledge... and, we need it sooner rather than later.

Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and lead Pilot with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics (www.waasps.com www.medicineonthemove.org e-mail capt.yaw@waasps.com)

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