Literacy Vs Education – a perspective by a teacher, Jenn

I hope to get more writers into this education blog. People who care about education in Singapore schools or education. For it is in reflecting, questioning and clarifying that educators can do our small bit to shape the future of education. So if you are an educator and will like to contribute an article or two, do email me.

The article below is written by an English language Sec School teacher, Jenn who has taught in Singapore Schools for some 10 years. I got to know Jenn through being involved in Kampung Temasek, or the School of Doing, an NGO involved in education. Jenn is planning to take one year off to travel on her own and her destination is first to South America. Here’s wishing her a great journey ahead 🙂


I’d like to share with you the story of the Barefoot College. I was so amazed and inspired after listening to Bunker Roy’s TED Talk that I read more about the Barefoot College from its website. Can you imagine a college set up specifically for the rural poor and you’re not accepted if you’ve straight As but only if you’re poor and illiterate, and better still, old grandmothers?

This special college is the brainchild of a group of urban professionals who went to elite schools in India and the West but they wanted to help poor rural communities to raise their standard of living by teaching them skills like how to make solar panels, solar cookers etc. They are different from the other NGOs because they believe the poor have the knowledge and wisdom to lift themselves out of poverty and hardship but they need people to organise them, kickstart them and believe in them. Even though they gave birth to the idea of the college, they got the villagers to build it themselves and run it on their own, so they’ll have full ownership, responsibility and dignity. They’re not dependent on NGOs. This is my understanding.

I am also impressed by the Gandhian philosophy they put into practice in the college, specifically

Gandhi once said that there is a difference between Literacy and Education. The Barefoot College believes that ‘literacy’ is what one acquires in school, but ‘education’ is what one gains from family, traditions, culture, environment and personal experiences. Both are important for individual growth.

I want to relate this idea back to our setting.

What then is the difference between literacy and education in my case, in our highly educated society where literacy rate is 95.9%, where 91.7% of our population has secondary and higher qualifications?

In schools, I’m taught how to read, write, do maths, etc. do well in exams and then get a job.

In life, I’m learning to become aware of what I want to learn and unlearn.

I want to learn to

  • reconnect with Nature
  • make and keep friends
  • seek a life-partner
  • forgive and accept my parents
  • live life with a purpose and passion
  • use appropriate technology to improve the quality of my life
  • use my abilities and talents to benefit more people
  • manage my finance etc.

What I want to unlearn

  • my bank account is my main security (Providence is)
  • I’m not good enough.
  • I’m too old to do this..too old to try that.
  • so many

Which school can impart me this type of education? Which school would let me learn the things I’m interested, things I regard as important & plan the curriculum around my needs?

Broadly speaking, I’d say

Literacy is a set of skills imposed by schools basically for our employability/ economy.

Education is the learning of the world, about ourselves principally by ourselves.

Therefore, I agree with Ernest Dimnet

“Children have to be educated, but they have also to be left to educate themselves.”  

We have to give them the space to discover themselves, pursue their interests, read, contemplate, incubate, trial and error rather than cramp and pack their time with tuition & enrichment classes & put them off school.

Can we nurture in them the joy of reading, the joy of learning & discovery, under appropriate guidance and ignite their passion and let their curiosity and determination take over instead of structuring everything for them, spoon-feeding them and moulding them according to some grand ideals from top-down and in the end judge our effectiveness as a teacher or student based primarily on the number of As in exams?

As it is, the students are looking upon the teachers and the tried-and-tested system to wave their magic wands and turn them into A stars fit for elite universities rather than own and take charge of their education. ‘Education’ ends when they get the hard-earned scroll and throw off their mortar boards.

Life will show them otherwise.

Now, I understand why Mark Twain said, ‘I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.’

Useful links: 

1) TED Talk by Bunker Roy

2) Barefoot College (Tilonia, Rajasthan)


5 replies to “Literacy Vs Education – a perspective by a teacher, Jenn

  1. I did badly in school. But that was good because I did not learn to conform, to be a good boy, to correct all the time and to play it safe. Our current schools actually teach us to follow and not to lead, to be safe and not to innovate, to score marks and not to be educated, to become a academic robot machine and not a natural child.
    To live a balance life, we need to learn from everything outside the school system. What are important in later life are:
    -The ability to get along with others.
    -The ability to mobilize others to act.
    -The ability to accept others, love them, care for strangers, have strong sense of purpose.
    -The ability to forget about yourself and thing about larger things beyond your person. To know how you can contribute in your own way.
    -The ability to be humble, adaptive, honest, forgiving others
    -The ability to forgive, admit, accept and laugh at yourself
    -The ability to learn from unrelated things and think of their association

    Later in life, feeling inadequate about not having a degree and having the terrible urge to take that photograph with my mother in that stupid-looking graduation gown and square hat.

    1. Continue from above …square hat.

      I was already doing business successfully when I enrolled for a Distant learning Master of Science in International Marketing course. I realized what they taught were so academic that no businessman in the right sense will act like the book says. Anyway, after completing 10 modules, I need to write a dissertation. My professor reject my topic: Why the world needs a World Toilet Organization. He said it was too frivolous. I took a year off the course to started WTO. It was an overnight media success and I compiled and submitted all the newspapers and web reports to my prof. He was unimpressed. He said it doesn’t mean a thing academically. I still need to prove sceintifically that I can repeat that act again by bringing him all the literature research and arguments.
      Basically, academia is about talking and not doing. That’s why professors actually kills innovative students. We must never aspire to live in the unreal world of professors. We should want to be a real natural human being.
      To do that is simple: just continue to be a child. Never grow up no matter how old you are. Don’t become an adult. Because adults are deteriorated children.

  2. It is important is to have a child in you, always. Stay curious, never cease to be amazed by things, and do not lose our will to try new things. In School of Doing, we believe it is through doing that we can connect with our head and heart.

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