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Don’t romanticise school

Posted on: May 22, 2021

To those who only see the positive side of returning to normal schooling post-pandemic I say: Don’t romanticise school. 

I reflected on what I wrote a few days ago by focusing on how someone opined that school was a place for teachers to “get to know their students, to put a hand on a shoulder, to ask the right question, to engage a disengaged learner”. I do not dispute that these happen. 

I also read and reflected on the opinion piece above. It bemoaned how home-based learning (HBL) “has its limitations”.

Those opinions dwell on just half the story. The other half is less rosy. Socialisation is school is not always friendly, affirming, or otherwise positive. There can be negative social pressure, physical bullying, and too-early starts of the day. HBL has its limitations, but so does school.

I am not saying that in-person schooling is pointless. It has critical societal functions like enculturating and nannying our young. I am saying that we do not romanticise it by ignoring its ills.

For example, the first argument against HBL in the op piece was that “not all students are equally self-motivated to direct their own learning and some require closer supervision that may not be available in their homes”. The same is true for in-person schooling.

The argument extended to how schools provide “a relatively safe and supportive environment for at least part of the day for students facing emotionally trying circumstances at home”. I agree. But schools can also be a place that creates emotionally trying circumstances — people are people after all.

The second and third arguments were that schools were better for conducting science experiments and co-curricular activities. Of course they are. By a similar token, home is better for learning about family/neighbour dynamics, tinkering with DIY projects, inventing new games at the void deck, participating in Chinese funeral or a Malay wedding in the heartlands, etc.

The fourth argument was that schools were better at preparing kids for tests and exams. Except tuition agencies. Or preparatory centres. Or self-help groups. Or tiger parents armed with assessment books from Popular bookstore.

Of course schools are good at tests and exams. There is almost nowhere else that relies exclusively on paper-based tests to determine a child’s worth and category. But just because schools are good at this does not mean that tests and exams are good.

The fifth argument seemed to be that parents and educators preferred that kids went to school. Schools provide a vital societal function of nannying kids while their parents work. Schools also enculturate children so that they fit into society.

If the adults can rationalise the need to shut down in-person school and replace it with HBL for public health, they should also be see how much informational and non-procedural work is necessarily mediated with technology, e.g., work from home (WFH). If WFH is to become more common or even the norm, should schools not inculcate that mindset by having more and better HBL?

We should not wish for school to be the normal. We can and must do better.

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