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Education needs a reboot

Last week’s column about the ‘Education Express’ raised some questions – and some eyebrows. I made the case, obliquely, that our education system is in severe need of an overhaul. It functions like an old-fashioned train service: it runs the same way it has for decades on end; it runs on fixed tracks; and not everyone makes it to the final station.

It was thus when I was a student; and it remains similarly archaic when a new generation is in schools and universities. Many of you asked: so what is to be done? How can we fix this? Why isn’t someone doing it?

The answer is: the train keeps running in the same way because of entrenched interests. Those who benefit from this primitive way of running education are the ones who take over its running – and they have every interest in running it the same way. It produced them, after all. Everyone likes to be a winner, and everyone claps for the rules that made them win.

This system won’t change from within. It needs disruptors who break it by introducing something better. That opportunity now exists, with the advent of new technologies that can democratise education. But disruption only happens when someone wants it badly enough. It will take guts and determination, on the part of educators, parents and children, to try something different. Employers will also need to question what they really get when they ask for traditional certificates and grades.

To help inspire some of you, allow me to state some principles that could guide what the new education might look like.

The first principle is at the level of society: let everyone be entitled to a decent education. Everyone. Not an expensive education, not an elite education, just a good one. Give everyone the essential tools with which to make the most of their lives. Stop throwing people off the train because they don’t have the money to continue. Put enough trains on for everyone. And accept that this is an investment worth making, as a collective.

The second principle concerns the pedagogy. Why do we teach the way we do? Think about it: in classrooms and lecture halls, why are all students taught a subject as though they need to master all its intricacies, as though the point is to know it well enough to teach it? Professors teach as though to seek out future professors. Those who can’t hack it then suffer poor grades. But how much of what is being taught is of relevance to the many, not just the gifted few? Where are the life skills, the practical competencies, the know-how to actually apply to the average life?

A more enlightened way of teaching would be to understand the diversity of the classroom and create tailored experiences for everyone. We would understand the innate wiring of each individual, and create learning experiences accordingly. Everyone would be able to go deep on what interests them the most; and get enough from everything else to gain an essential rounding.

If we thought about education as being for all, we would provide options away from the standard university degree, and would give those options equal priority.

The final principle concerns measurement and grading. Having been graded all our lives, it seems obvious to us that this is necessary and inevitable. But is it? What do those numbers actually measure, and why do we allow them to mark out our lives? We have to stop the brutal categorisation of humans into ‘bright’ and ‘thick’ based on antiquated thinking from a century ago. The public examinations system is all about filtering, not about actual testing.

In short: let’s equip children for real life. And let real life be their test.

Picture this. Children not coming to school until later in life, so that they can enjoy their childhoods. No mandatory standardised testing. No Darwinian competition in the schoolroom. Shorter school days, and very little homework. An emphasis on learning rather than passing. Many professional paths and options. Lifelong learning.

It’s too utopian, right? It would fail, right? Think Finland (and a handful of other countries), and you will see that much of this is already being done, with great success.

There are excellent teachers in the system who’d love to change it – but are cornered by parents’ and employers’ demands for high grades.

To make it happen everywhere, more of those who rode the old train successfully need to see it for what it is: outmoded and cruel. And they need to look back and see all the talent left behind.

Then we will start innovating and reforming, piece by piece.

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