Are Schools Creating Independent Learners or Its Illusion?

By Hasnain Badami

What good is a lock if you don’t possess a key? Or a key if you don’t have a lock?

Ever wondered how meaningful answers are, which we are insistent upon to provide to students in our classrooms, if they don’t know where to place them in the overall scheme of affairs. We live in an intricate world, and it is more likely that the children we are nurturing will work in an even more complex world.

Without minimizing the significance of answers, we have the ‘followers’ been considered superior to the ones that ‘lead’ them. In one aspect, questions are far superior to answers as they lead the way to opening the doors of wisdom.

It was never the answer that amazed Newton, but the question why the apple fell. In fact, a more profound question followed it. “If an apple falls then does the moon also fall?” and this led to the invention of a magic called, “Calculus”. Therefore, the answer merely followed the simple yet astounding question that occurred to him.

Right questions are substantially important to learning.

The ability to ask the right questions is a supreme one and significance is far greater in the prevalent Google-age than in any of our predecessors’ time.

A question opens the door to numerous possibilities; an answer merely one. This is universally true for everyone, be it the most proliferate of thinkers or the contrary. All of the adults, including teachers, are laden with assumptions – which is true for our ideas, thoughts, or decisions – that we take on a daily basis, and so is our language.

True is that, but at the same time, it is inevitable. Because we cannot operate or speak without assumptions. Analogically, it is a grounding of sorts that you need to stand firm upon before you begin to walk or move. And it is as basic in our daily lives as asking, “what’s your name?” Even this basic sentence assumes a lot of things that a layman might not notice, for instance: I am assuming you could understand what I am asking; I am assuming you are able to reply to my question; I am assuming you are a creature that ought to have a name, etc.

No matter how inevitable it may seem or negative it may sound to the reader, assumptions are an important aspect of our lives. It is the manner in which we are all hardwired to operate. But what is wrong then? What if our assumptions are not based on reality or, maybe, incomplete vision of reality or, more likely, obsolete state of affairs that do not exist anymore. The dynamism in our environment almost perpetually requires the need to challenge our own assumptions of the world.

Small-sized adults, or children as society likes to call them, come to our planet without taking the slightest bit of assumptions that fixate our minds as adults. If a baby watches her father flying, it would not come to her as a surprise as anything extraordinary because she has not set any assumption on what humans can or cannot do.

To me it’s such a rudimentary idea because all the knowledge that humans have cumulated, so far, is in one way or the other, a consequence of a rightful challenge to a predecessor’s ‘unrealistic’ assumption of the world. You will notice the same trend with Newton and Einstein, Plato and Aristotle, Kant and Hume; and the list goes on.

Newton, for instance, assumed that space was flat (based on Euclidean conception of Geometry) and hence considered gravitational force as a universally constant phenomenon. Einstein challenged that very assumption stating that space is rather curved, and therefore gravitation force is instead relative. Astonishing, as it may sound to a layman, he concluded that we are not pulled by gravity but pushed by space all around us. And that single thought has profoundly impacted modern-day physics.

But how did he do that? Or how did the likes of him play the same role in the history of the evolution of knowledge?

Surprisingly, it was a marvelously simple tool, which we are all born with and which they used to destroy prevalent stagnation in thoughts. They all knew how to raise a pertinent question. It is the ability to ask the right question that made them experts in their own fields.

When we provide answers in our classrooms prior to raising questions, we are virtually manufacturing ‘who we are’ with whatever assumptions we have taken all our lives. In fact, there is no other act that I find more detrimental and killing to the essence of education.

We are somehow, consciously or unconsciously, attempting to transfer our limited conception of the world to our children. If there is one thing, we as educators should choose for our students to have, it is not the ability to prove that they ‘know’ the answers, rather it is the ability to ‘ask’ meaningful questions. This will make them independent thinkers – independent of teachers, text books, all kinds of media and propaganda, to successfully transcend the restrictions of our own thoughts.