An Effective Education System Fit for Purpose

Discussing education is always something of a hot topic; we all benefit from an effective education system, whether we have children or not. Not only were we once in that system ourselves, everything we do in the world now is reliant on the educational achievements of other people. We depend on peoples’ abilities in scientific research, innovation, business … everything. So it’s in our interests to support a system of education that is well-funded, ideologically free of bias, and able to inspire young people to be part of society in whatever way they choose.

A child born today could well live to see the 22nd century, where there will be technologies available that we can’t even begin to imagine now, and our children and grandchildren will the ones to use them.

But how can we educate children, however, for a time we can’t even imagine? First, we need to look at what schools shouldn’t be, and go from there. Saying that schools have always been a certain way doesn’t count as a legitimate justification to why they should stay that way. Teachers all over the world are doing amazing things, but they are caught in the quagmire of working in a system that doesn’t put them in control of the classroom. Instead, they are given diktats by governments, local authorities, and well-meaning funders who don’t always – often – have the benefit of expertise and skill behind them to know fully what they’re talking about.

I’m one of them, of course; I have no qualifications in education, but I have read the commentary of people who have, and they argue that – first and foremost – we should dispose of the following;

  • Computer Rooms

The idea of taking a whole class to a computer room with outdated equipment, once a week, to practice their typewriting skills and then sending them back to the classroom is obsolete. Technology shouldn’t just be a specific subject; it should be an integral part of all subjects and built into the curriculum.

  • Isolated classrooms

Classrooms can be isolated in two ways. One where parents, teachers or guests are not welcome because the door are always shut, which has the words “Don’t come in here” written all over it. The other way is being isolated to all the knowledge outside the four walls, by not having access to the internet, videos, blogs, websites, and so on.

  • Schools that don’t have WiFi

Schools that don’t have a robust WiFi network for staff and students are not only missing a big change for teaching and learning, but robbing the students of access to knowledge – and also limiting their chances to learn about the internet and using technology in a safe way.

  • Banning phones and tablets

Taking phones and tablets from students instead of using them to enhance learning is obsolete. We should celebrate the technology students bring and use them as learning tools.

Phones are no longer just devices to text and make phone calls. When they were, banning them was OK. Today, there is more processing power in the average mobile phone than NASA had access to when they sent a man to the moon in 1969. Yet most students only know how to use these devices for social media and playing games.

Today you can edit a film, make a radio show, take pictures, make posters, websites, blog, tweet as a character from a book, have class conversations, and Google most answers on a test with the device in your pocket. We should show our students the learning possibilities & turn these distractions into learning opportunities that will reach far outside the classroom.

  • Starting school too early for teenagers.

Research has shown over and over again that teenagers do and feel better in schools that start later. Research shows that delaying the school day by as little as 50 minutes, and making it longer by 30 minutes, has a positive effect both on learning and activities after school.

  • Traditional libraries

Libraries that only contain books and tables are obsolete. A 21st century library should be at the heart of the school, as well as being a place where both students and staff can come in to relax, read, get advice, access devices, edit videos, listen to music, print in 3D, and learn how to code.

  • All students are treated the same

Putting kids in the same class because they are born in the same year is obsolete. School systems were originally set up to meet the needs of industrialism. Back then, we needed people to work in factories, conformity was good, and nobody was meant to excel or be different.

We should increase choice, give children support to flourish in what interests them, and not only give them extra attention in the things they’re bad at. In most schools, if you are good in art but bad in German, you get German lessons to get to par with the other students – instead of excelling at art.

Education should be individualised, students should work in groups regardless of age, and their education should be built around their needs.

  • Standardised tests to measure the quality of education

Looking at standardised tests to evaluate whether or not children are educated is the stupidest thing we can do; it gives us a shallow view of learning; look up Alfie Kohn’s research on the subject. The outcomes, although moderately important, measure only a small part of what we want our children to learn, and by focusing on these exams, we are narrowing the curriculum.

One thing we need to be very directive about is the infamous safe space, used a worryingly amount on school and university campuses in liberal democracies. They are being used far too much now by educators and students – at all is still far too much – but if you’ve missed the on-going debate that rolls over the media from time to time, then you’ll (hopefully) quickly realise what a depressing and patronising demand a safe space is.

In the summer of 2016, the University of Chicago entered the news for a letter it sent out to its incoming students. The letter affirmed a “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression” where “members of the community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn, without fear of censorship.” To that end, the letter said, the school does not support “‘so-called’ trigger warnings” or “condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces”. Nor does the school cancel invited guests “because their topics might prove controversial.”

Back in the earlier days of the Internet, trigger warnings were used on blog posts to warn survivors of traumatic experiences, such as sexual violence, crime, or torture, of content that might upset or “trigger” them.

“We provide trigger warnings because they give survivors of various stripes the option to assess whether they’re in a state of mind to deal with triggering material before they stumble across it,” writer Melissa McEwan said in 2010.

Since then, the concept has meandered far from its intent as a warning to trauma survivors. The broader public caught on to the practice, ridiculing the notion that people would ever want to be shielded from disturbing ideas.

Meanwhile, some teachers and universities began to embrace trigger warnings in course syllabi and readings. The scope expanded to racism, classism, sexism, and other instances of privilege and oppression.

An anonymous writer – oh how I wish more people how the courage and the confidence to be named, but I also respect anonymity in the right circumstances – challenged the idea, stating that, “Something strange is happening in our colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.”

Safe spaces emerged from a similar intention dating back to the post-Civil Rights era, when racial minorities, women, and gays and lesbians became larger presences on campuses.

“Safe spaces are an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among students, that their schools should keep them from being ‘bombarded’ by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints,” Judith Shulevitz wrote in the New York Times. “But the notion that ticklish conversations must be scrubbed clean of controversy has a way of leaking out and spreading. Once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe. It follows that they should be made safer.”

In a Gallup survey, first in March 2016, a slight majority of university students said the climate on their campus prevented some people from speaking because others might find it offensive. Even some stand-up comedians have said they avoid university campuses. fearing that satire won’t go over in a “PC” environment, and some institutions have cancelled speakers ranging from Condoleeza Rice and Katie Hopkins through to Germaine Greer because of their arguments, based on pressure from staff or students. That’s shocking and offensive; you may not like what a someone has to say, but for heaven’s sake, don’t ban them – develop counter-arguments that you can use to challenge them.

The University of Chicago’s letter accompanied a book they sent to every student, entitled “Academic Freedom and the Modern University: The Experience of the University of Chicago.” Sentiments in the letter echoed the school’s Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression, which was issued last year and includes an oft-repeated quote from former President Hanna Holborn Gray: “Education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think. Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgement, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom.”

Theresa May, Prime Minister, agreed with. “Freedom of speech is a fundamental British value,” she said in September 2016, in response to a fellow MP at Prime Minister’s Questions, “which is undermined by so-called ‘safe spaces’ in our universities, where a sense of entitlement by a minority of students means that their wish not to be offended shuts down debate.

We want our universities not just to be places of learning, but places where there is open debate which is challenged, and people can get involved in that. I think everybody is finding this concept of safe spaces quite extraordinary. We want to see innovation of thought taking place in our universities. That’s how we develop as a country, as a society, and as an economy.”

Now that I have briefly (too briefly – I shall to return to this subject in a different essay) touched on safe spaces, let me move on now to something else; school premises. Schools have looked the same for over sixty years. There might be more technology in the classrooms now, but the principle is the same – rows of desks, teacher standing at the front.

Dave Townsend, a former business and law teacher, developed a virtual classroom while he was teaching. Students could log in and view his classroom, meaning that illness and other problems wouldn’t prevent them from learning.

One of my students developed an immune deficiency problem and couldn’t come to school for six months,” he says, explaining how it sparked an idea of how he could ensure they still got an education despite the illness. “Using a piece of software that a colleague had found for free, I would log on and get him to log in at home. We’d have registration time all together because he couldn’t even see his friends – they couldn’t go to his house in case he got ill. This was the first step in developing the virtual classroom.”

Townsend predicts a school where students aren’t always on site. Based on the success of The School of the Air in Alice Springs, Australia, where students live too remotely to be able to access a school building and instead receive their lesson material either via post, radio or internet where a connection is available, he thinks that students could achieve better results by attending a school building part time.

Build schools for the same number of pupils but half the size,” he suggests. “Build it to a high standard – think something like a Google Campus. Have students come into the school three days a week, and then the others they work from home. They’ll be registered online and seen to be doing the work set. They’ll be able to access a teacher when they need one but you won’t need such a big building because you’ll be dealing with fewer students on site at one time.

Would it work with 13-year-olds? Probably not. But why not try it with the gifted and talented learners? Students work well in their own environments, on their own or in groups.”

What shape the school of the future will take is amorphous, but most educators and observers agree that technology needs to be integral and at the heart of the education system.

Schools as we know them will no longer exist,” says a feature in The Age publication, based in Melbourne, Australia. “In their place will be community-style centres operating seven days a week, 24 hours a day.”

Students, The Age asserts, will see and hear teachers on computers, just as Townsend has predicted. Accessing “classrooms” on their home computers, students will learn at times most convenient for them. Yet some attendance at an actual school will be required to help students develop social skills.

The Australian Education Department have created an imaginary school – Seashore – to predict what the best type of school should look in in the future. At Seashore;

  • All teachers and students have laptop computers.

  • Teachers check voicemail and return students’ calls on a special telephone system.

  • Students use telephones to find information or speak to experts in subject areas they are studying.

  • All lessons are multidisciplinary.

  • All students have individual learning plans created by teachers.

As Australia has said, a laptop computer is the students’ “library, homework, data storage, and connection to the wider world. Technology has changed the emphasis to the learning of kids rather than the teaching of kids.”

The A.C.T. Academy in McKinney, Texas, was created as a “school of the future.” Originally funded by a $5.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the school is now supported by the McKinney Independent School District. At the school, knowledge is “actively constructed by the learner on a base of prior attitudes, and values.” Sophisticated technology is in place to support the students.

The 250 Academy students all have access to a computer. The 12- to 18-year-olds each have their own computer; 7- to 11-year-olds have one portable computer for every two students; and 5- and 6-year-olds use computers at fixed stations. In addition, the students use multimedia computers, printers, CD-ROMs, laserdiscs, VCRs, video editing machines, camcorders, cable television, online services, and telephones — simple but effective research tools.

A.C.T. Academy has formed community partnerships and business mentorships to foster students’ learning experiences. The school is also in partnerships with other schools, colleges, universities, and research centres. The goal: to learn through all the different resources that real life offers.

Sir Ken Robinson is a highly-respected education policy specialist; he was a professor at Warwick University, and is now emeritus professor at the same institution, as well as being an international speaker and education advisor; he’s worked in the field for his entire career, and he knows what he’s talking about.

Robinson has suggested that, to engage and succeed, education has to develop on three fronts;

  • It should foster diversity by offering a broad curriculum and encourage individualisation of the learning process.

  • It should foster curiosity through creative teaching, which depends on high quality teacher training and development

  • It should focus on awakening creativity through alternative processes that put less emphasis on standardised testing, thereby giving the responsibility for defining the course of education to individual schools and teachers.

Robinson believes that much of the present education system fosters conformity, compliance, and standardisation rather than creative approaches to learning. He emphasises that we can only succeed if we recognise that education is an organic system, not a mechanical one. Successful school administration is a matter of fostering a helpful climate rather than “command and control”.

“All children start their school careers with sparkling imaginations, fertile minds, and a willingness to take risks with what they think,” he says. “Most students never get to explore the full range of their abilities and interests. Education is the system that’s supposed to develop our natural abilities and enable us to make our way in the world. Instead, it is stifling the individual talents and abilities of too many students and killing their motivation to learn.”

Robinson, however, does not blame the teachers. “It’s the system – it’s too linear,” he said in a 2009 Guardian interview. Schools are obsessed with rigid timetables, for starters. “If you live in a world where every lesson is 40 minutes, you immediately interrupt the flow of creativity. We need to eliminate the existing hierarchy of subjects. Elevating some disciplines over others only reinforces outmoded assumptions of industrialism and offends the principle of diversity. The arts, sciences, humanities, physical education, languages and maths all have equal and central contributions to make to a student’s education.”

Education uses uniform curricula with identical textbooks to prepare kids for the same tests at the end of the year. Too busy with formalities, kids miss out on actual learning. If we want to transform the failing model, we need a new analogy for how that model is supposed to work, Robinson argues. We treat education like industrial manufacturing when, in reality, it’s closer to organic farming. In farming, crop has different needs at different times in order to produce the greatest yield. Why not apply the process to education?

Robinson distills his solution of so-called “organic education” into four key principles:

  1. Health: Promoting the development and well-being of the whole student, intellectually, physically, spiritually, and socially.

  2. Ecology: Recognizing the vital interdependence of all of these aspects of development, within each student and the community as a whole.

  3. Fairness: Cultivating the individual talents and potential of all students, whatever their circumstances and respects the roles and responsibilities of those who work with them.

  4. Care: Creating optimum conditions for students’ development, based on compassion, experience, and practical wisdom.

So what does the combination of those four factors look like? A learning environment in which kids’ passions and differences are celebrated, in spite of the strict demands to teach toward a standardised test.

In practice, that begins on the front lines, with teachers getting excited about what’s important to their students. Robinson offers the example of Smokey Road Middle School, located in Newnan, Georgia. The school saw a revolving door of principals before Dr. Laurie Barron showed up. In no time, Barron transformed the school’s entire approach by simply asking the teachers to connect with their students.

“I’ve got some teachers who couldn’t care less about football, but they’ll go to a football game and cheer on Bobby and then use Bobby in a science equation the next day,” Robinson quoted Barron as saying. “Bobby will do all the science in the world for that teacher.”

It’s a small gift of time and effort, but one that could end up making all the difference.

“If you design a system to do something specific, don’t be surprised if it does it,” Robinson writes. “If you run an education system based on standardisation and conformity that suppresses individuality, imagination, and creativity, don’t be surprised if that’s what it does.”

He argues the education system needs to be not just reformed, but transformed – and urgently. In times of economic crisis, we need to think more creatively than ever, he says. “Just about everywhere, the problems are getting worse.”

There are, of course, some fantastic examples of creativity in UK schools already. Grange primary school, in Long Eaton, Derbyshire, set up its own town, Grangeton, seven years ago. The then headteacher, Richard Gerver, said he wanted children to be learning to do things rather than learning simply for the sake of exams. The fictional town has its own craft shop, cafe, radio and TV stations, and newspaper. Students at Caol primary school near Fort William set up their own art studio, which they ran as a business. They raised funds to buy art materials and employed a professional artist to work with them.

But on the whole, despite all the money, initiatives and trendsetting, the concept of creativity is still not filtering down into the classroom, says Teresa Cremin, professor of education at the Open University and an expert on creativity in primary schools.

She believes many teachers still think being creative means they have to be flamboyant and extrovert. While many schools are creative, many others pay lip service to the creativity agenda. This might mean a day off the curriculum to do “the arts” after pupils have sat tests. It’s a myth to call this creative learning, she says. Creativity must be embedded into everyday teaching and learning. “Many schools haven’t got a handle on the language of creativity and are reticent about teaching more creatively,” she says. “They’re worried they won’t achieve standards in other things.”

She agrees with much of Robinson’s argument. “If you have a school system which rewards conformity and avoids risk-taking, then youngsters will be unable to cope with the world unfolding before them.”

Anna Craft, a professor of education at the University of Exeter and a government adviser on creativity, says: “There is an enormous willingness to embrace creativity in the classroom, but an increasing lethargy in the system too.” Robinson is right, she says; it’s not that we need to “tweak the recipe – we need a new recipe.”

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