*Written by Claudia Uribe
“The best teacher is the one who knows who we are; the one who listens, who asks questions and cares about our interests and passions; the one whose enthusiasm about teaching is contagious and who will try again and again until his or her students have understood the material.” These were the words of a group of students who were asked about what their ideal teacher would look like by Mark Prensky, founder and executive director of the Global Future Education Institute as well as renown author of several books on education such as From Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom. The question was asked during the International Seminar on Integral Education organized by the SM Foundation on March 5th in Mexico City.
During his keynote speech, Prensky’s argument primarily focused on what should be the goals of a system that ensures quality education. He invited a group of five students between the ages of 11 and 15 to the conference so that they could share with him and an audience of approximately 1000 attendees made up of teachers, authorities, and academics, their thoughts about their respective schools, teachers, and overall educational experience. The central question was how we can foster a better education system that can turn education into a meaningful, life-changing experience for our youth. However, the novel elements of the conference was its inclusion of the first hand perspective of students themselves on education, something that is rarely discussed in a debate that has over time become obsolete and repetitive.
The discussion entailed several arguments that seemed obvious at first but were in fact very deep and thoughtful. For example, students were asked what they would change in their school curriculum. Their reply was that they would all like to have more time for “non-academic” subjects such as Arts, Sports, and Music. When the discussion turned to what activities motivated them, they insisted that they wished they could have a learning experience that was not just based on what seems relevant, but also on what is “real”. In this sense, these young students appeared enthusiastic about the possibility of getting involved in the problem-solving process of real life situations and not just hypotheticals.
As we are faced with the poor results the region’s educational system yields and the high drop-out rates that affect millions of young students in the region, it would be a terrible idea if we were to ignore the expectations these kids have about their own future as students, especially when several polls in various countries show that “lack of interest” could be one of the main causes of the problem. Are we measuring the teachers’ ability to relate to their students when we design teacher evaluation systems? Do they have the skills to identify the interests and strengths of each one of them? How enthusiastic are they about the material they teach? If we were to redesign the school curriculum, should we include subjects that teach about the real, everyday problems that we face as individuals and as a society? Should we support changes to the school calendar that leave room for students to explore and develop their skills on non-academic fields with the same level of dedication? Do we understand the fact that learning is just a means to an end, which is to become better people, each individual in their own field of choice?
After all, our main need and aspiration as people is to create a more just, sustainable and inclusive society that has the ability to evolve as well as benefit from the skills and unique contributions of each one of us. If our education systems fail to meet such goals; if they fail to tap into people´s talents and passions, and are unable to teach our youth about everyday problems we all are facing, our desire for a better society will remain far out of reach. This is our primary challenge.
*Claudia Uribe is the Lead Education Specialist for the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in Mexico. She is responsible for spearheading the technical and operational work in the lending activities and technical assistance that the Bank develops in Mexico.