The great Isaac Newton

When the Great Plague hit London in 1665, Isaac Newton was a student at Trinity College, Cambridge. Students were sent home on account of the scourge; they spent more than a year away from the classroom. Newton would, later on, call this year annus mirabilis, the year of wonders.

Newton education wasn’t stopped by the break. He kept his work on in various mathematics and sciences at home. One paper from this period was an early precursor to calculus. He worked with his prisms and formed the fundamentals of optics. Then there is the famous story of Newton and the apple. It happened during this period, too. When he returned to college, he had priceless ideas and they would go on to make Sir Newton a timeless giant among humans. In six months, he was made a fellow at Trinity and in 2 years, a professor.  

Covid-19’s brunt to the education system?

The conventional, classroom-centered education in Bhutan is under an assault. But not the education system as a whole. The virtual learning system that the ministry of education espouses may be a temporary measure, but this is not altogether a new thing. We are in Information Technology age. Continued learning is a feature of modern lives. Classroom education is important for a wholesome experience of education, but learning is no more confined to classrooms alone. It is about time students learned in a flexible environment and reflect on the fundamental things they learned in schools privately.

Schools have been closed for the last two months. The government worries parents are burdened and students aren’t getting adequate lessons.  Parents worry about their work, the virus, and the children at home. They worry, might mobile phones do more harm than benefit through online learning? They worry about their graduations and entry into the world of work.

Debates on social media are divided. Some think what the government is doing is the right thing, while others think prolonged closure of schools is not wise. The later believe it is safe to resume classes as long as we don’t have local transmission. Some worry that a prolonged lack of social experience might have a psychological impact on young people. Some are worried children are getting too much free time for roaming instead of studying. These worries are understandable, but they also expose the shortcomings of our approach to education. 

Worrying about mobile phones doing more harm than good to the students is rather misplaced. We cannot escape its influence. Children know the world of the internet; they are digital natives. It is us the digital immigrants who almost mindlessly associate IT with negative impacts and bad influences only. Of course, I am not suggesting the character of the IT age is sagacious and saintly. It has a negative side. And especially in this age of over information, safely navigating through the internet is quite like navigating across a river full of deadly aquatic beasts. My point here is, we have no alternative B. IT has become a part of our lives, from the breakfast table to the bed. It is a part of our culture, like it or not.

The worry, I believe, partly originates in our reluctance to accept IT as a part of a common good. Of course, we will have challenges initially, but we must learn to live with it. Educated parents can monitor their kids for now because city kids are more likely vulnerable to the negative influences of IT. But in time, all of us have to come to terms with IT. The educational establishment must consider teaching how to learn, that is, how to be responsible digital citizens. 

Information Technology is an indispensable tool for a 21st-century knowledge worker. Lessons from school only form foundations. Keeping up with innovation and discoveries is an individual responsibility.  So should we perhaps expect our education system to helps us make ourselves confident autodidacts? The nature of jobs is changing so much so that what we know today might perhaps slip into obsolescence in ten years.  A continuous process of unlearning and relearning will define a competent modern worker. Although it sounds alarming, we are not caught off guard, however. Learning and acquiring new skills was never easier than it is today. At a click of the mouse, we have access to an endless repository of knowledge. You no more have to go to Massachusetts Institute of Technology to attend Professor Gilbert Strang’s amazing classes on calculus, for example – you’re only a will away from it. Take your laptop or phone and you’re in his class!

Our notion of education should shift from reading books and passing examinations to facing unpredictable situations with tact and confidence, to becoming resilient.  The focus should be more on general life skills rather than the traditional system of summative assessment, which highlights a learner’s retention power and ignores the application aspect. In the face of the change, the best investment one can make is to teach oneself to learn outside the supervision of an inflexible system.

College students 

Hearing college students complain about too many assignments and unguided learning, I feel they are not prepared for a world of work that awaits them. Education, above all, must help students become independent. 

As college students are at home now, maybe they can explore the boundless opportunities free time offers. The old and clichéd adage says the future belongs to the young folks. Own it. Bring your knowledge from classrooms to your homes. To illustrate, agriculture students can apply theoretical knowledge on their parents’ farms. This will help you solidify your knowledge and skills.

Our societies are a great place for learning. We have traditional knowledge systems, folklores, folk wisdom, you name it, and these are sadly tending toward oblivion. Maybe you can record them and make them widely available. One of the negative effects of IT is that it limits human to human interactions – this is a time to talk. Talk to the community elderlies. 

Human values

The 21st century is an evolving reality. But there are steadfast aspects integral to life – human values. It is as simple a thing as preparing meals, sweeping floors, doing dishes, eating together with your family. These are fundamental things that convert a cold house into a home. You shouldn’t be told what to do every time. Just prepare a meal as a surprise.  You’ll learn to appreciate what is given to you. You’ll learn about love’s austere and lonely offices, to borrow from the poet Robert Hayden. 

Recently, during a High school commencement speech, former president of the US Barack Obama emphasized leadership crisis during the pandemic, but he also reminded the students about the values that last – honesty, hard work, responsibility, fairness, generosity, respects for others – because these are the values that make our world more habitable.  

His Majesty The King is the living epitome of efficiency, leadership, values, and honesty and an inspiration for us all. His Majesty emphasizes on Bhutanese values in most of His public addresses, because no matter at what point of time we live, what work we do, it is the values that define us as a human. 

The world has made so much progress since the DNA was first sequenced and the atom was split, but pandemic like this one reminds us of the persistent vulnerability. It has exposed shortcomings in the most advanced healthcare systems. Successful containment of the virus by Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore illustrates how they married science with honesty and integrity of the population. 

This pandemic, as bad as it seems, is not without its lessons. We have learned that some of our old ways are way too old and they must evolve. We have also learned there are fundamental and timeless values we must always proudly own. A good mix of what is unchangeable and timeless and what is evolving makes a good and meaningful modern life. We must strive for it.

Contributed by Monu Tamang

Physiotherapist with JDWNRH. 

He is also a RIGSS alumnus, FLP-4.