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Education through Imagination

A Closed Mind is a Beautiful Thing to Lose It is good and fitting that we pause to

reflect on the beauty and special needs of the young in Cambodia this June 1 for

International Children's Day. Children possess hope and potential, energy and vigor,

dreams and unlimited possibilities. We - parents, teachers, policymakers, society

generally - bear a sacred responsibility to foster and expand these dreams and possibilities

for our children through quality education.

Quality education means more than the four walls of a classroom and the memorization

of certain facts in order to obtain a certificate or an acronym to attach to one's

name. Education must be holistic, seeking to educate the "whole person"

whereby the "classroom" is the community of the school, situated within

the larger community of the village, of the town, of the city, and by extension,

within the larger community of humanity.

Quality education emphasizes creativity and imagination.

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Current State of Education

The Cambodian educational system, as with many other systems, had to be resurrected

from the ashes since Pol Pot had his say. Great improvements have been made, particularly

within the last several years. However, when we Khmers stop using the Year Zero as

a standard and begin to live in the 21st century world of emails, Skype and space

travel, we are then awakened to the crisis of our educational system and practices.

Brief statistics

The educational system can improve statistically. In 2005, only 749 of the 1621 communes

have lower secondary schools. Forty-five of 185 districts have no upper secondary

schools. Only 58.9% of students reach grade 5, and 20% of children have access to

pre-schools. The literacy rate of those 15 years and older stands at 67.3%. There

is overcrowding whereby students learn in double or triple shifts. The ratio of students

to a teacher in the primary level stands at 53 and secondary level at 25.

Although public education is supposed to be free, students bear the financial burden

of unofficial fees which must be paid to supplement the US$30 monthly salary of teachers

and administrators. In Phnom Penh, approximately 10-20,000 children living on the

streets and in dumpsites do not attend school.

Rote learning and blind obedience

Our history and culture place disproportionate, unhealthy importance on tradition

and the past, with little or no focus on imagination and creativity for balance.

This is reflected in the education in our schools and at home. I am the first to

agree, yes, 'do not move an ancient boundary stone' (Proverbs 23:10), for we need

this compass of the past to guide us into the future. In this regard, I am like C.S.

Lewis in preferring old classics, which have been tested by the passage of time,

over new books.

However, rote memorization and "stand and deliver" instruction whereby

children only repeat and chant data produce limited educational values and do nothing

to expand the hope and potential, dreams and possibilities of our children. This

method narrows the mind in that it reinforces blind obedience of authority. And we

have witnessed and experienced what blind obedience to authority has done to destroy

our culture throughout our ancient, recent and present history.

Pol Pot made blind obedience a hallmark of his reign of terror, but he was of a society

that was already conditioned to accept authority without much questioning.

To this day, blind obedience is consciously and unconsciously encouraged. I grew

up in a loving family but was constantly told 'no' by the older relatives: 'Why can't

I visit friends?' 'Because I said so'. 'Why can't I play basketball?' 'Because you're

a girl.' The conversation ends with status and not reason.

More invidiously, the reflexive negative response - where the answer is "no"

until you can convince others that it should be a "yes" - creates a society

of naysayers, and again impedes creativity, imagination and pioneering.

Holistic Education

There is space for rote learning in the building of the mind, but the goals of education

must include the whole person. A holistic way of thinking tries to encompass and

integrate multiple layers of meaning and experience rather than defining human possibilities

narrowly.

Rather than seeing education as a process of transmission and transaction, transformative

learning involves changing one's frame of reference. This change may include points

of view, habits of mind, and worldviews. Holistic education understands knowledge

as something that is constructed by the context in which a person lives. Therefore,

teaching students to reflect critically on how we come to know or understand information

is essential. As a result, students are asked to develop critical and reflective

thinking skills and encouraged to care about the world around them. Through this

contemplative process, they may decide that some degree of personal or social transformation

is required.

As Khmers, we must incorporate these concepts for the further development of our

mentality.

Goals of Holistic Education

Holistic education is important for its focus on self-actualization, relationships,

resilience and aesthetics.

Self-actualization seeks to engage students in the learning and teaching processes

and foster personal and collective responsibility. We can instill more of this sense

of responsibility in our Khmer society. It also aims to develop self-respect and

self-esteem. It fosters individuality and differences in thought processes.

Another goal of holistic education is social and emotional literacy, which aims to

encourage a love of learning and attention to experiential learning and the importance

of these qualities in developing personal relationships. It places significance on

human value systems, as well as spiritual values such as compassion and peace.

Resilience is the ability to overcome difficulties and face challenges for long-term

success. The next step in strengthening Khmer resilience is for us to focus on quality

and longevity.

Aesthetics is teaching children to see the beauty in what is around them and to have

awe and respect for life. This requires imagination and creativity.

Imagination

Why is imagination important? According to Albert Einstein, it is more important

than knowledge: knowledge is limited whereas 'imagination encircles the world'. Swiss

psychologist Jean Piaget noted the importance of imagination in education in order

to create 'men who are capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what

other generations have done.'

Imagination is important because every genius throughout the ages and across cultures

possessed it and every philosopher and thinker espoused it. Imagination works to

break the bondage of poverty of the mind, body and spirit. It creates opportunities

leading to societal betterment. According to Tuli Kupferberg, 'when patterns are

broken, new worlds emerge;' and 'through imagination, we can visualize the uncreated

worlds of potential that lie within us (Stephen Covey).'

Never Stop Questioning

Related to imagination is the idea of 'thinking outside the box', where 'the important

thing is never to stop questioning (Einstein).' When we give a student an answer,

they will accept it as a truth. If instead we teach a student to question, they will

find many truths. We Khmer should take to heart the words of Naguib Mahfouz. 'You

can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise

by his questions.' Or that of Decouvertes: 'It is not the answer that enlightens,

but the question.'

Read. Read. Read.

A critical component of the development of the imagination is reading. We Khmers

need to read, read, read and read some more. When we read, we prepare ourselves for

any and all opportunities which otherwise would pass us by. The Chinese have it right

in defining 'success' by combining the character for preparation (internal, individually

determined) with the character for opportunity (externally determined).

The majority of Khmer live in a harsh reality of abject poverty, crimes and abuse.

More than ever we need to keep in mind that reality can be 'beaten with enough imagination'.

Imagination, then, is the gateway to wisdom and change, and ultimately to personal

and social development.

Theary C. SENG

Executive Director

The Voice of Justice column is a regular feature of the Phnom Penh Post.  Both

the column and the logo are expressions of the Center for Social Development (CSD)

which bears full responsibility for the opinions expressed.

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