Change the single story of education

In 2009, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie gave a rousing TED talk titled ‘The Dangers of a Single Story’. She posited that there’s a great risk in reducing complex human beings to a single narrative. While she spoke of narratives in a cultural context, I believe her central idea, has broader application. 

Around the world, education systems are clinging to the single story of academic capability assessed on test scores. It’s a story as old as time, but with a very high stakes ending. If children score well in tests, they will succeed in college and careers and live happily ever after. If not, the entire voyage of their lives will be spent in shallows and misery. This story is the reason why the testing culture has become overwhelmingly predominant in schools worldwide. Rather than using testing as a diagnostic tool for instructional support, test scores are used to rank children’s academic capability on a very narrow spectrum. 

Through their school years, children shuffle from one test to the other, driven by the singular goal of increasing their scores rather than improving the quality of learning. In the US, children who attend public (i.e, government) schools take an average of 112 state-mandated tests between pre-kindergarten and grade 12, excluding other school-developed, teacher-designed or diagnostic tests. The number of tests is so high that teachers, quite literally “teach to the test” and spend over a month preparing students for each state-mandated exam. In China, the test culture is so stressful that students who write the gaokao matriculation examination, resort to extreme measures such as attaching themselves to intravenous drips for energy boosts. And recently in India, scores of anxious parents in the state of Bihar scaled school walls during an examination to provide their children with answers to test papers, resulting in a mass expulsion of aided students.

When teachers reduce students’ diverse intellectual capabilities to a single number or grade, we overlook the diversity of talents, strengths and intelligences they inherently possess. This is mostly because most education systems assess only one intelligence, excluding others. Howard Gardner, professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the originator of the theory of multiple intelligences warned: “We must proceed cautiously before we place students’ minds and hearts at risk with tests whose meaning can be over-interpreted and whose consequences can be devastating.” 

Regrettably contemporary education systems make a very narrow definition of what constitutes intelligence and ability. The great scientist Albert Einstein said, “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it’s stupid.” Modern education systems worldwide are designed to suit a small minority of students who conform to narrow definitions of intelligence and capability, while the vast majority are disenfranchised by testing metrics. 

According to a recent Unesco report, 47 million children are dropping out of public schools across India before reaching class X. This huge number dropping out of the school system demonstrates that the system is failing our children.

The solution is to change the narrative. First, there needs to be broad unanimity among educators that the purpose of education is beyond the culture of relentless testing. The educationist-seer Jiddu Krishnamurti said that education must reveal two worlds to young people: one that is within them and the one that exists around them. Unfortunately, our education system focuses on the external world. It fails to address the inner world of children — their strengths, talents, special intelligences and dreams. Second, to bring our children’s strengths and talents to the surface, we must broaden our understanding of the wide range of human diversity. According to creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson, “human communities depend upon diversity of talent, not a singular conception of ability.” 

Children prosper when offered a broad curriculum that draws out their multiple intelligences, not just one of them. Co-curricular and extra-curricular — music, dance, theatre and sports — education needs to be given equal status and weightage with traditional academic education such as  maths and science. As teachers, we need to help children learn and thrive by enabling them to discover their several and special intelligences while reducing our fixation on their learning deficits. A deficiency based approach to learning through test scores focuses heavily on what children don’t know or can’t do. If we don’t offset this with a strengths-based approach, children may be at risk of becoming demoralised and disengaged from learning altogether. 

As educators, we need to shift the goal of education to drawing out the strengths and intelligences of our children and acknowledge there are different stories, paths and destinations for our students. While nations around the world are grappling with how best to educate children, it would be advisable for all of us to pay heed to the wisdom of Chimamanda Adichie, and reconsider the dangers of a single story.

(Kiran Pai is director of the Vidyashilp Academy and Vidyasagar Preschools, Bangalore)