Unfortunately, most curricula classify subjects into silos where skills and techniques peculiar to each subject is taught in a class. Hence, a Maths class focuses on numeric proficiency and English on grammar, fluency, comprehension and writing skills. Science classes aim to develop an understanding of the “scientific world” and the more progressive ones inculcate observation, experimentation and analysis. Social science, probably the most moribund of the subjects as it is taught today, is left with having students rote memorize a wealth of information deemed important by curricula makers. The interdisciplinary skills are often relegated to “extra” classes or workshops. Students struggle hard to connect the relevance and applicability of these skills with the “regular’ subjects they are taught. Furthermore, students adopt the mainstream thinking about learning as divided into subject silos - which is how they are taught in schools. In reality, subjects are deeply interconnected. Maths requires language, history provides a context for science, written expression improves with an exposure to logical thinking and sequencing.
At Al Qamar Academy, we are making an attempt to use a multidisciplinary approach to teaching and learning. One approach is through the use of the What is Going On with This Graph, a weekly feature from the New York Times Learning Network, a collection of resources to help educators.
This week the English class discussion was focussed on what constitutes educational attainment in different countries as represented in these two graphs. The first graph is a segmented bar chart representing the percentage of children with more (upwardly mobile), equal (status quo) or less (downwardly mobile) educational levels as compared to their parents. The second graph was a data chart with the percentage of people who attained more education after High School classified by gender. We are joined by Dr. Jayashree Ramadas, ex Professor of Science Education, TIFR, Mumbai.
The children were asked to spend 10 minutes studying both graphs and jotting down what they observed in the graphs, what questions the graphs raised in their minds and to come up with a catchy title for the graphs. We started with the first graph which compared children’s education to their parents’.
Afwan started off with the observation that the US was surprisingly low in the ranks with only 24% of the people classified as upwardly mobile. He noticed that the percentage of downwardly mobile was similar to upwardly mobile and that the US was amongst the highest in the downwardly mobile group.
I asked the students to think about how the attainment levels were calculated. Abdul Aziz guessed that the average of the parents’ educational levels was taken. “So what would be the average of a Masters and a PhD?” I queried. This was an important interjection - children need to question the hidden assumptions in statistics. I explained that the survey benchmarked the children against the parent with the highest educational attainment. Interestingly, most of the students thought that the entire population of a country was surveyed to come up with these statistics. I clarified that most surveys only use a limited sample representative of the overall population and that surveying everyone is an impossibility. I reminded them that these numbers were comparative percentages and we were not comparing absolute values. Hence, we could not conclude that S. Koreans are better educated than Americans. Only that a greater percentage of S. Koreans exceeded their parental levels of education. Another “Math” learning in the “English” class!
Abdul Aziz also noticed that most countries on the graph were European. I explained how this data was from the OECD - hence the inordinate focus on European countries. Izzy wondered why the USA was highlighted in both the graphs.
Then Sana noticed that the UK and Belgium were starred. She figured that the sub segments in both countries added up to exactly 100. Jayashree interjected “Can you find any country where the sub segments add up to less than 99 or more than 101?”. Rapid calculations began - as children started identifying countries whose totals added up to 99 or 101? But none seemed to exceed 101 or fall below 99. Izzy was puzzled “How can you have 101% of a country’s population with education?” she wondered. Afwan guessed that this must be due to rounding. Jayashree confirmed his guess and introduced a subtle point - “Try this. Add any 3 percentage numbers with up to one decimal point. You’ll see that the total will lie between 99 and 101.”
I then asked them to identify the most upwardly mobile country. That was easy - South Korea. Next was the country with the most status quo - Czech. The children were surprised to note that the country with the most downwardly mobile population in educational attainment was Sweden.
I asked them what could explain the results.
“Asian genes!” exclaimed Izzy to explain S. Korea’s result, “but Japan is pretty low.” she petered off. She thought Korea’s performance may be an impact of technology but Ibrahim countered that if technology had an impact on educational attainment, then why was Germany so low down? Hasna guessed it was the educational system in Korea which led to their success.
Izzy wondered if countries like S. Korea financed education for their citizens leading to greater attainments across generations. I argued that Scandinavian countries and Germany invest heavily in higher education through scholarships and financial aid, but these countries were low on upwardly mobile attainments. Sana added that Norway is quite a wealthy country, but again low on the upwardly mobile scale. She guessed that it may have something to with the development of the country over the years. Jayashree asked her to think more along the same lines “When Korea developed, what happened to its education system?” Afwan responded, “Maybe these countries with downward mobility have already developed so much, they can’t develop more. Maybe everyone has attained the maximum amount of education” “Does everyone in the US have PhDs?” asked Jayashree.
Jayashree bought the discussion back to Sana’s point - what happened to the Korean education system as it developed? She asked the children to think about India as a proxy - were there the same opportunities in terms of number of colleges and universities available to their own parents as there are nowadays?
Abdul Aziz hypothesized that parental pressure may be the reason for children’s higher levels of education.” This guess was quite interesting - is the parental ambition a factor across Asian countries? How did that explain the downward mobility amongst the “wealthier’ countries? “Maybe culture has something to do with it,” mused Izzy, “too much parental pressure made these kids hate education.” Ibrahim also wondered whether the character of the people made them place a lesser value on the importance of higher education. Jayashree asked “Why do people get educated?” “To become an adult!” came a response. Chuckling, we responded that maybe Ibrahim was right - countries which are well off and people have already attained a high standard of living do not view higher education as an aspiration, whereas developing countries may place a high premium on it.
To conclude the discussion I asked children whether they thought this graph was a good measure of educational success. Some agreed, some disagreed. Sana said the graph didn’t give much other information about other possible measures. This led us to a discussion on what defines development in a country. GDP is one measure, but this graph gives another. The Human Development Index and sustainability also evaluate a country’s development. The discussion of the second graph got postponed to next week as we ran out of time.