Filip Sivák: Critical thinking is the greatest benefit of an education
On 9 December, the ROMEA organization handed out its traditional Romano Suno awards for the Literary Competition for Romani Students at the American Center in Prague. The contest was announced on the occasion of International Romani Language Day.
This was the first year that the competition has been open to Romani college students, including those enrolled in correspondence courses. Next year students attending higher vocational schools and high schools will also be able to participate.
News server Romea.cz will gradually be publishing all of the works that were awarded. The piece below is by Filip Sivák, a Romani student at Czech Technical University in the department of open information and software programming, who shared the third-place award with Romani student Iveta Kokyová.
What Education Means to Me
I consider the ability to think critically to be the biggest benefit of an education. Many people imagine a diploma when they think of education, a piece of paper you should during job interviews to get a better salary from your employers. Education, however, will give you a valuable skill, that of producing knowledge.
How does one figure out the very best recipe for a cake? How do you choose the recipe that is actually the best one? In order for you find the one that is genuinely the best, you must attempt using them all and taste the results. How many such recipes even exist? What if I add five grams of sugar more - is that enough to consider it a whole new recipe? It would be necessary to test hundreds and thousands of various combinations.
Getting to the truth is a complex procedure. One must repeatedly be surprised that one's "common sense" alone will not deliver the truth before one stops using it. One must see the examples of what kinds of mistakes other scientists have committed in order to understand how to correctly produce knowledge.
Does there exist a chance for most people, Romani people included, to be educated, or does an even broader gulf between those who are the poorest of the poor and those who are rich await us? I will attempt, by using critical thinking, to convince you that this gulf can be bridged and explain how to achieve that outcome.
Imagine you are going somewhere to be trained in something. You are given homework to do in the beginning and you will be graded on it, like at school. You work on it with enthusiasm, but despite your efforts, you are given the lowest possible grade. Would you want to continue taking that course? That is exactly the way the Czech school system works with motivation, though. What if you were to have the option of re-doing your homework? What if you were to have the option of re-doing your homework until you got the top grade?
That is precisely what many of the courses that I am taking at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering in Prague make possible. We record our creations into a system that automatically assesses our work and within minutes we get our results, including our scores. Our instructors do not have to manually correct our work and can therefore dedicate themselves to us in other ways. A student can be certain that if he or she does not correctly comprehend the task, he or she will immediately learn what the error is and get the opportunity to correct it. In cases where it is not technically possible to automatically arrange for assessment, it is a good habit to at least publish the correct results or find some other way to verify one's results. I believe that pupils and students should always get the opportunity to achieve 100 % of what they are asked to do. Have you ever seen what a building looks like when it has only somehow been half-constructed? An education must be constructed as you would a building - using honesty.
When we are young, they teach us that each of us as some talent given to us from above and that all we have to do is discover it. After getting their first failing grade, many pupils judge that they have no talent for that area and look elsewhere. Their family and friends then assure them that mathematics, for example, is something that only a couple of weirdos understand anyway. It's difficult to find the motivation to study something when we believe we will never master it. Primarily, it is necessary to teach young pupils to overcome the boundaries of their own abilities, not to let themselves be stopped, for example, by somebody who believes that Romani people exclusively have talent for dancing, playing music, and singing.
Besides the motivation to study, it is necessary to also get the opportunity to do so. It is difficult to find motivation to study when the student cannot afford it. The brilliant scholarships that today cover high school attendance costs are aiding with that. These measures, as well as schools that do not charge tuition, contribute to what is called "upward mobility": The chance that a child from an impoverished family will live a better life as an adult.
Pupils also assess their chances of even completing school in the first place. Those assessments reflect the belief that exists in the school system per se, the faith that instruction will meet a basic standard that will not alter depending on who is teaching. That trust is frequently violated.
Any course of study should be perfectly designed. What is crucial to any design is the human experience, and it should count on the fact that people are flawed. For example, if you want to use a coffee maker, it is necessary to fill it with coffee and water. From time to time it happens that somebody pours water into the part of the coffee maker that is for the coffee and ends up breaking an expensive machine. One firm even decided to connect its coffee makers directly to the plumbing so as to eliminate room for error - but somebody poured water in the wrong place all the same. That person did not do this because he was stupid - he did it because people just make mistakes. A good design counts on that and will make sure that even if water is poured into the machine in the wrong place, it will be able to flow out. Not only is there less of a chance that somebody will pour water into something that is obviously not designed to hold it, but even if the person persists in the error the water will simply flow downward without getting the opportunity to harm the device. It is high time we sought approaches that will aid pupils with getting an education by counting on the fact that they, too, will make errors.
Any good design also includes predicatability. We all have a clear idea of what to anticipate from any autombile, for example, but do we know what awaits us when we enroll in a course? Will each instructor lead his or her course in an absolutely different way? Which methods are bad and which are good? Will all the other instructors learn from the consequences of the work of another? What sense does it make to look for the best recipe for cake if we don't tell anybody else about it, or worse, that we constantly tell everybody else about it, only to be ignored?
Any complex activity must be performed with regard for the basic, minimal requirements that must be fulfilled. For example, prior to a surgical intervention, antibiotics should be used, if possible. Similar rules are appropriate to follow during instruction. In my opinion, one of those rules should be what I have mentioned above, namely, making it possible for students to achieve 100 % of any task. A student should never work on a task blindly and only learn whether he or she is correct or not after receiving a negative outcome. The "right answer" can be known in advance, but the student should have to find his or her own way there. The student should always have available a large amount of materials to draw from, not just a blank slate to work on. The instructor can be as creative he or she likes, but these rules and others like them should be honored.
It is appropriate to systematically create automatic assessments for the most frequently performed tasks, as these make it possible for studets to do their homework in a standard, unified way and relieve teachers of monotonous work such as correcting dictation or tasks that lead to other clear, concrete outcomes. Did you know that today it is possible to even have writing exercises automatically assessed, including for the stylistics of narrative?
Have you ever noticed that the Wikipedia website is the same no matter what city you access it from? Are we yearning at all for each city to have its own particular YouTube access with its own particular conventions? No we are not - and yet, each school has its won website, and those websites are of a wide range of quality. Each one of them cost the instructors money or time to put together. The websites are not the only problems that are addressed differently by each school. Standardization and unification is a way to solve these problems that costs much less money.
It is necessary to count on instructors making errors. It would be appropriate to have anonymous, regular surveys where pupils get the opportunity to comment on what they (dis)like about a particular course. How else can a school work on improving that by repeatedly measuring its achievements? Inspections, naturally, measure nothing at all, because it is clear to everybody present for them that a measurement is underway. If the Education Ministry wanted to introduce this kind of survey, though, it would be appropriate for an application to be created for that and delivered to the schools as a fait accompli so they are not forced to create their own solutions. One such application is all we need - just like we only need one YouTube.
The education of the nation is the only way to prevent the "Brexits" and the "Trumps". The worst side of democracy is the attempt by politicians to endear themselves to the electorate with the aid of untruths. Those who are less educated have less of the experience necessary to separate false promises from good plans. That is precisely why in my opinion (and not just mine) education is very important, as is the way we aid children, pupils and students with exceeding the boundaries of their own abilities.
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