Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Every Student is Different

Written by johnleemk on 12:32:22 pm May 16, 2007.
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One of the most obvious things about people is that we're different. We think differently, act differently, and yes, learn differently. Yet, the traditional approach to education has always behaved as if students are the same.

The most common form of education is government-funded public education. This is true wherever you go in the world — I cannot think of a single country where private schools are the norm, although I imagine this may be true in some impoverished countries.

The problem with public education, though, is the way it assumes students are homogenous. The system is meant to teach students of mean intelligence, mean aptitude — and as many have noted, most education systems are particularly biased towards those who learn in certain ways, often visual ones.

This is not a problem that can be fixed by simply allocating more funds, building more schools, or training more teachers. What this calls for is the development of different streams of education, to accomodate different people.

At the moment, public schools in most countries make many assumptions which may be true for a slight majority of students, but not for all. They assume that students should be geared towards academic training (as opposed to vocational education).

They assume that students are of a particular intelligence level, and that students advance at the same rate in all subjects. They assume that all students learn in the same way, are familiar with the same language(s), and so forth.

When students who do not fit this particular mould are thrown at public schools, they find it difficult to handle the situation. It is difficult to change everything to suit students with special needs or atypical backgrounds.

Some remedial ameliorative efforts can be made. For instance, some schools would have programmes to push academically bright students into higher grades. Others would have programmes for the less gifted.

But these programmes are not long-term fixes for the problem of an education system which pigeonholes its students. At best, they shave off the edges of a round peg so it can fit into the square hole provided by the education system.

So how can we solve this problem? The answer seems to be obvious; we need multiple streams of education. But developing such a project calls for resources far exceeding those of most governments in the world today — such a project calls for a market.

The main problem with education systems in most countries is that they have inadequate private education systems, and they often excessively regulate these systems to mandate what is to be taught. In Sweden, for example, the government sets a particular curriculum that everyone — even homeschoolers — must follow.

The whole point of a market system is to allow innovation and competition to flourish. A monopoly, be it private or public, means that everyone gets the same product, the same service. A competitive market, where the government pays for the education, but the actual education is conducted by private firms, would have room for all niches.

Thus, those with learning disabilities need not be dragged along by the normal school system, and those whose learning styles are wildly out of the norm can still get a decent education.

There are some problems that do come to mind. One is the possibility of the segregation of those out of the norm into one school system, which does not accurately reflect the reality of the society that education is meant to prepare us for.

However, I would argue that this already happens on a limited scale — those who don't fit in in the normal school system are ostracised and sometimes drop out, while many bright students gravitate to schools with reputations for nurturing intelligence (whether these schools are public or private).

Furthermore, the magic of the market is that it allows for innovation. Someone may be able to develop a school system where students of varying capabilities and intelligence can still mix.

We wouldn't expect people to buy one kind of computer with the same hardware, nor would we expect people to buy the exact same car. So why do we expect people to buy the exact same kind of education?


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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