Jose Antonio Cangco

When I read that the Philippines lagged behind Tanzania and Zambia in terms of education (Manila Bulletin, 1/24/2010), I became alarmed. I immediately thought about the possible factors for this suppurative situation as: 1) insufficient financial resources, 2) shortage of adequately trained teachers, and 3) too many children including unskilled adults (overpopulation) sapping out the first two.

These factors are deeply interrelated and have been the cause of many a nightmare for countrywide development planners and strategists. The incumbent leaders of the country can focus on these causes by cutting down on graft and corruption, allocate more funds for the educational sector, and to stand firm and implement population control to curb wayward ills brought by a very fertile growth rate.

Personally, I am in favor of all these steps but since we are now dealing with the issue of education, being aware of the limitations of money and skills and a population short of everything except steam, a proposal to improve the quality of learning at very minimal or no substantial cost with benefits lasting for many years, decades, and generations should be taken into consideration.

The fruits of a tree can be sweet, sour, bland, or bitter and pupils are definitely the fruit of whatever kind of system the teachers are following. If the lessons the teachers are imparting to them are way too easy, they will become indolent; on the other hand, if these are so advanced and difficult, they will understand nothing. It is not my purpose to change the school curriculum, rather to raise the standard of education by one notch, not through more funding but by improving the types of questions asked of the students to make them think creatively and deeply. In other words, there should be more challenges thrown to the students in the way of asking questions that will make them think “out of the box.”

“Thinking outside the box” means going out of traditional and accepted ways and methods to find the solution to a problem. It involves openness, creativity, originality, analysis, and some degree of risk. This can be explained better by the following example: traditional rice farming has always been a tedious work involving propagating and transplanting the seedlings by hand, but if the process can be successfully speeded up by quick-sowing a new variety of rice grain on the prepared soil without the intermediary steps, then this is thinking outside the box.

Definitely, there are some subjects where questions cannot be phrased to elicit originality and creativity from the students. Math, trigonometry, chemistry, and other related subjects require a specific and accurate answer, however, most elementary, high school, and college subjects such as social studies, English, history, literature, economics, and others can be a ground for innovation.

Traditional learning is based on asking questions about the day’s or week’s lesson where the answers can be found from the teacher’s lectures, textbooks or from a bit of research work. So, teachers ought to ask questions going beyond conventional structures to challenge students. Basically, the teachers should prepare questions to: 1) challenge the students to come up with creative answers, 2) entertain and make the students interested and enjoy the whole exercise, and 3) phrase these as open-ended having no right or wrong answers.

The questions will require depth of thinking, imagination and creativity on the part of the student, hence, these will not be simple multiple choice or true/false categories. These will be very suitable for essay type quizzes and oral recitations where the pupil will be “forced” to think on his or her feet. For example, one easy question can be: “If you have the ability to fly, where will you go and with whom? Why?” This question may strike the reader as silly but for the pupil, it will allow him to write or talk about his favorite town or city and closest relative or friend he will be bringing along with him. Instead of writing about “My Dog, Bantay” teachers can ask “Which do you like more, dogs or cats? Compare them.” This is to develop the observation, memory, and writing skills of the student, and it has many variations like comparing apples and oranges, mangoes and guavas, etc.

If the teacher is imaginative, he or she can ask the student to write or talk about an imaginary journey wherein he is traveling with a friend who keeps falling sleep. Other questions the teacher can ask the students are:

  • “If you have superpowers, name three things you will want to change in your school/community/country? Explain.”

  • “If your cat/dog/goldfish can talk, what do you think will it say to you?”

  • “What do think a space trip to Pluto will feel like?”

  • “If a lightweight, super strength material was discovered do you think it is possible to build a bridge from the earth to the moon?”

  • “In Romeo and Juliet, we read that Romeo was in love with Rosaline before he met Juliet. What do you think would have happened if Juliet did not profess her love for him?” Or, “What do you think happened to Rosaline at the end of the story? Explain.”

  • “Do you think books will become obsolete? Why or why not?”

The number of questions the teacher can ask to stimulate the minds and imaginations of the students is endless. These questions should not require any research to be done from encyclopedias, the internet, and other sources because the aim here is to compel the students to think on their own and use the store of knowledge they already have. Nonetheless, their research and comprehension skills may be developed through other means.

Some people may think these questions are silly, crazy, and pure fantasy giving no immediate and practical value but similar questions are actually being asked of students in other countries.

I admire Koreans. I worked as an English teacher for Koreans and they ask the most absurd questions for Korean English students to practice on. The benefit, of course, is not only is the student compelled to learn to express himself spontaneously, but he is also being trained at a young age to exercise his creativity and imagination. Knowledge acquired from books becomes useful only when it can be transformed into action. When a person is creative, he will always find many ways to put thoughts and words into actions.

Where are our college graduates heading? One time I administered a test to applicants for a writing position. I told them to write an essay about what they think is the greatest problem of our country from a list of possible causes like overpopulation, corruption, peace and order, education, or other/s not mentioned above. There were so many mouths gaping and eyes rolling upwards that I finally acquiesced with their favorite topic “Why I like to work in a call center.” I wish their learning will not have stopped with their education.

If we are going to use a new approach of framing additional questions in tests, quizzes, and exercises handed out to the students, it should be imbedded in our teaching practices. This is not different from raising a child in a stimulating environment to open up his eyes in wonder of the world around him. Because the education budget does not prioritize the acquisition of learning materials to stimulate minds, facilities and equipment to practice skills on, nor the construction of an environment conducive to peaceful studying and learning, asking these kinds of questions is an inexpensive way of coping with these shortcomings.

How will this approach prove to be cheap? For one thing, no further trainings and seminars are needed for the teachers because they are already trained in teaching skills and methods of imparting learning and knowledge. A workable program may simply be taken up and discussed during a faculty meeting. The school superintendent, principal, head teacher and the teachers can frame in a meeting or two the types or examples of questions they can ask their students. If the Department of Education and Culture is willing to spend a trifle, it can form a committee to write and form guidelines or manuals for teachers to follow across the country for the sake of uniformity or it can train principals and selected staffs to pass this new approach to other teachers. In fact, a simple memorandum issued from the top and disseminated to the teachers on the field might do. Once the idea will catch on with the teachers, there will be no stopping them from adapting and modifying these to suit their own situation and the students’ needs.

The benefits of this new approach are expected to be far reaching. This is because once a child learns to think creatively and constructively, he or she will not forget it for even as an adult he will always find situations, conditions, and problems where he can use it. Perhaps, the farmer will no longer indiscriminately use artificial fertilizers and pesticides; he will have found out there is a lucrative market for organically grown products. Or, maybe the small transport operator will want to have a fleet of flat-nose jeepneys to carry more passengers at the same cost instead of the WW II era design we see chug-chugging on the streets.

This new approach in learning will last for decades because when these students shall have developed such mental prowess, they will pass it on to their families and friends. A simple step for teachers, a better grade for our students.

Copyright by the Author
(Published in the Philippine Panorama, March 21, 2010)

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