At a dinner focused on the future of education a couple of years ago, a businessman put forward a request as to what he would like to see from the education system. He wanted students emerging from school and university to have practical skills. In his words: ‘I wish they came out of the education system able to do something rather than just having had their head stuffed with information.’
In the same vein, a friend of mine once told me why he had chosen electronic engineering as his university subject: ‘I wanted to learn how to build a radio. After three years, I had learnt a lot about mathematical equations but still had no idea how to build a radio.’
Now we have a degree of hysteria about ‘grade inflation’ due to the pandemic-disrupted exam system. Many of a conservative bent are bemoaning the increased use of teacher assessments as opposed to strictly following exam results. Rather than seeing this as an opportunity to re-think our education system and hop onto the bandwagon of build back better, they are agitating for a return to the past as quickly as possible.
The reality is that our education system had become nothing more than a soul-destroying, anxiety-inducing exam factory. Those who ‘did well’ were those who had good memory skills, an ability to cram, and an aptitude for sitting exams. None of which says anything about their ability to function in the real world or be more useful in the job market.
It all embeds the snobbish attachment to didactic, academic education in contrast to the development of real world skills and capabilities. It penalises those kids who have much to offer, but happen to be poor at cramming and sitting exams. It also makes life much easier for some teachers who find it easier to parrot out facts than to help students develop real skills.
The pandemic has disrupted our education system. Thank heavens for that. It needed disrupting. It is an opportunity to re-think what education should be about in the 21st century. A time when there is an app for everything and where information about anything sits in our pocket ready to be accessed with one swipe or a spoken question. Where there is little value in memorising information that is changing daily and is therefore more usefully accessed when needed.
The stagnant stench of traditional education was brought home to me watching my nephews growing up.
They had been brought up in the British education system. They were great crammers and did exceptionally well. They then moved to the US and started their university education there. They were in for a culture shock. In their first classes they were told that the teachers had no interest in them regurgitating what they had read in the books. They were expected to absorb and interpret. What the teachers were interested in was their ability to come up with their own views and perspectives and how what they were learning was going to be useful in the real world.
Their skills at doing all that were poor. For the first year or so, they did badly – a new experience for them which they resented. Eventually they adapted and finished an education that was much more useful – and more enjoyable.
It is time to celebrate the disruption of our education system and use the opportunity to transform it from one that perpetuates a mindset that developed centuries ago into something fit for our contemporary world.
Many in the teaching profession would welcome such change. Let us give them the opportunity to explore new approaches and let us give new generations the opportunities for an education that is more useful, more enjoyable, more inclusive of kids with different types of capabilities, and prepares them better for a 21st century world.
We should move on from merely arguing about online as opposed to in-person teaching and think bigger. It’s not clear when another opportunity will arise to re-think education.