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Reimagining Education: Why Needs to Come Before What

What might happen if students learned the Why before the What? The Dalai Lama urges that one should never take things at face value, and that it is through investigation and application that knowledge can then be useful for the betterment of humanity.

©2020 Belinda Chiu
©2020 Belinda Chiu

Why is the sky blue? Why do I have to go to bed? Why, why, why?

Harvard psychologist Paul Harris found that on average, a child will ask 40,000 questions between the ages of two and five. If you have ever been around a youngster, this may seem like 40,000 per hour. While it can be completely infuriating – not to mention, humiliating at how little we actually know (“google it” sadly is not a viable answer for most 3-year olds), this insatiable curiosity is natural and necessary for trying to make sense of an often senseless world. While sometimes, young children are incessant “why” askers because they are trying to seek attention, Michigan researchers found that they usually keep asking because the initial response is unsatisfactory. Turns out “because I said so” only invites more “whys.”

Our natural curiosity often gets stamped out with the increasing pressures of testing and performing to an external criterion of achievement. When college admissions officers are asked what they look for in successful applicants, most often the answers include curiosity. Not surprisingly, researchers at the University of Edinburgh found in a meta-study of 50,000 students that curiosity has the same effect on academic performance as conscientiousness. Put together, the two have the same impact as intelligence.

As curiosity is far more difficult to assess and compare than a GPA, many education systems have substituted a properly answered test as inquisitiveness. Most education systems stress the content first. Learn World History before asking why things happened. Memorize Physics before wondering why things happen. From primary through secondary schools, we cram our students with knowledge. Memorize, dictate, regurgitate. Learn to  take the exam.

If you are lucky, once you get to university (for some, maybe even earlier), you get to debate, question, dialogue. The Socratic method of learning becomes more common in the hallowed halls of higher education. Sadly, even this pedagogical approach seems to be disappearing in favor of “practical” teaching methods. Study Accounting to be an Accountant. Study Economics to be an Economist. An education that celebrates inquiry over imitation doesn’t seem to fit a consumer-driven world.

Grounded in Western philosophy, the Liberal Arts pedagogy, so often misunderstood (“what kind of a job can an English major get?”), celebrates learning through inquiry and discussion. Yet even then, the modern approach is usually, cram the content first, discuss later.

The good news is that we don’t have to look too far to find possible alternative approaches to learning. Last month, I had the opportunity to have an audience with the Dalai Lama with the Reimagining Doeguling team. The Dalai Lama spoke passionately about the preservation of the Nalanda approach, which is grounded in reasoning, questioning, and debating. This approach began at the original Nalanda University, founded in the 5th Century and renowned as the most advanced institution for higher learning in philosophy, logic, theology, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and the like, attracting scholars from around the world. While there is a part grounded in religion (it is used in monasteries today) – as did St. Thomas Aquinas for Catholicism, the actual pedagogy is secular – as is the Socratic method. The philosophy is that one should never take things at face value, and that it is through investigation and application that knowledge can then be useful for the betterment of humanity.

Today, students from the modern Nalanda University learn with a similar approach: the Why before the What. Students first learn the methodology of investigation and inquiry before the facts and figures. In fact, monks preparing for their Geshe degrees (PhD equivalent) learn the keys to listening and philosophical inquiry and logic before the fundamentals of science and psychology. They spend countless hours honing their skills in debating and discussing, thriving in the “Why.” Rather than take things at face value, they can approach knowledge with curiosity and integrate it for greater understanding and applicability.

What does this mean for learning?

  • Start with the Why

Learn to ask, learn to investigate, and do not settle for the first, immediate response. Rather than seeking the answer first, ask the whys behind the why to gain a deeper understanding for yourself.

  • Seek diverging thinking

Look for others who think differently than you, come from differing backgrounds than you, and approach things differently than you. It can be extremely uncomfortable and unsettling – perhaps infuriating – and it can elevate your understanding to an entirely differently level.

  • Always question

Never take things at face value. It might take you longer to get to an answer, but ask. Your curiosity is a key differentiator to your ability to learn, perform, and grow.

The Dalai Lama noted, the casualty of this line of questioning is real – even his own understanding that the world is not flat. As Willard Dix noted, an education that requires one to see multiple viewpoints “opens doors, enabling the mind to go wherever it wants in pursuit of knowledge and understanding. It bends towards openness instead of containment.” In a divided world, we need the capacity to question, inquire, and appreciate differences even more.

Why, why, why?

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