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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

Structured environment

Thinking back on my education from school to undergraduate to postgraduate at university, there has been a gradual yet linear upward curve not only in the level of academic material but also in our mode of education, some parts of which appeal to some but not to others. The biggest difference between school education and higher education, as I recall, is that school education is formal and instructive, as kids are bound by law to attend classes and learn about the core subjects decreed by the government (mathematics, language, sciences etc), whereas higher educational institutions are not obligatory and adult learners who enrol in these places do so because they need/want to. As such, there is a significant difference in expectation between school and university, as most school kids probably do not want to attend classes but are only there because they have to whereas university students are assumed to be on a course because they genuinely want to be, so while there is usually a much bigger effort from schoolmasters to get their students motivated, my experience with university lecturers is that they do not ever try to convince their adult students to study but tacitly assume that they can take care of themselves both academically and privately. My recollection of my own educational experience is that at school students can be much more reliant on their teachers in getting things done, since motivating students is part of the teachers’ job description, whereas university students, undergraduate and postgraduate, are expected to be much more independent and interactive in sorting themselves out and relating what they do to how the broader system functions. The transition, at least in my personal experience, is gradual with clear junctures: junior school (GCSEs) and sixth form (A-levels) are sharply divided in that the latter system offers much more freedom and room for choices (subjects, modules, assignments etc), and universities are even more (and indeed much more) liberal in that undergraduate students are expected to do all the preparation themselves and inform the authorities of their academic choices (subject to revision/recommendation, of course, but never imposed by the institution like at school), and postgraduate level is almost completely structureless in that students are regarded as independent researchers and, in addition to doing their own work (and whatever side project that they decide to get involved in by their own choice), they are politely requested to take part in teaching and administrative matters. The transition from one educational stage to another is hence marked yet incremental, which attests to how well designed the European education system is.

It goes without saying that different people will have a different opinion on different learning environments, as some may prefer freedom and independence and hence flourish in higher education while others may prefer the structured institutional environment where even if they are not explicitly told what to do, they are still following a rigid routine (classes, timetable, activities, bedtime etc) and hence know exactly what to do when. This seems to me to be a matter of personal preference and I have no strong opinion on one system over the other. They are just different systems with different expectations, which naturally suit some people but not others. Speaking from personal experience, I have many fond memories of my time at school since I did rather enjoy the structure it offered me in getting things sorted and done. I liked and greatly miss the feeling of receiving my timetable, finding out how many and what lessons I have, which teachers I have for each period, which exams/assessments I have to complete etc. It is this sense of hurdle-jumping at the beginning of term that excites me and motivates me to plan my term and move forward. Also, the various junctures of the term always give me goosebumps: at the beginning of term, the initiation/introduction to all the new and old procedures gives me the excitement to look forward to what lies ahead of me; at half-term, there may be some administrative things to do before we can all set off for a break; the end of term is always the best for me, as this feeling of winding-down which is always climactic and anti-climactic makes me feel a sense of accomplishment in reaching the end of a long and hard term but also a tinge of sadness as I need to put the term behind me and look forward to the next stage of my life. This is a standard yet brilliant sequence of emotions that runs through my system every single term, and in many ways I prefer having this than the reinless environment in higher education. One could say that I prefer having someone organise my life/work for me than doing it myself (which probably does not apply to me alone), but it still gives me nostalgia thinking back to my time in full-time education where I knew exactly what I had to do rather than having to figure it all out myself. Nonetheless, one has to accept that those days of structured education are way behind me and the next level in my education requires me to be independent and make all decisions myself. This has led to some baloney decisions and disastrous outcomes on my part, but as one learns to make decisions for oneself, one also gains self-responsibility. Whatever happens in one’s life, one knows with certainty that it is one’s responsibility, whether it be self-credit in accomplishing an important mission or self-deprecation for having messed something up. This is what makes us adults rather than kids, and in many ways this is a prerequisite for being a modern citizen. Keep moving forward.

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