Education can, to the untrained eye seem more fraught and fractured than ever before. Employers and celebratory commentators routinely call for our outdated, ‘Victorian’ system to be reformed and for schools to focus on so-called ‘21st-century skills’. With the relentless increase of automation and the gig economy, traditional jobs will no longer be available and so the education system must somehow prepare children for jobs that haven’t yet been invented.
Twenty-one years ago, Tony Blair told the nation that his three priorities were education, education, education. In the intervening years almost twice as many people go to university, but with the increasing burden of tuition fees many feel higher education is beyond them. At the same time, teachers and teaching unions report being choked by meaningless paperwork, perverse accountability demands and dubious data. Added together, does this create a perfect storm in which the old must be scoured away to make room for a shiny new techno vison? Frankly, no.
Most school data collection efforts are based on the same baffling misconception pic.twitter.com/7kQyQWsW7z
— David Didau (@DavidDidau) August 29, 2018
Our system is far from perfect and there’s much that schools could do to improve the life chances of disadvantaged young people, but bold and bloody revolution is not the answer. Instead we need to unpick some of the web of popular misconceptions in which education seems so inextricably bound.
First, why do we think our school system is ‘outdated’? Various reformers would like to do away with classrooms, desks, books and even teachers talking to students. Understandably, these efforts have met with some resistance. Why, reformers wonder, are some teachers so resistant to change? In fact, teachers, like everyone else, tend to embrace change as long as it’s positive. What we tend to hate is loss. Consider a scenario in which a school informs its staff that they are all required to work one less day a week for the same pay. Will anyone resist the change? The truth is that most of these ill-conceived ideas add considerably to teachers’ workloads.
We also need to ask whether the internet really has changed everything. We still have essentially the same brains as our Palaeolithic ancestors and the need to be creative, solve problems and collaborate is so vital to the survival of the species that these things have become evolutionary adaptions. It was just as important for Socrates to think critically, Julius Caesar to solve problems, Shakespeare to communicate, Leonardo da Vinci to be creative and the builders of the Great Wall of China to collaborate as it is for young people today. But more importantly, these ‘skills’ should more properly be thought of as manifestations of knowledge. Anyone can collaborate on organising a night out to the pub or solve the problem of how to get dressed in the morning, the only thing that appears to make these things valuable today is the extent to which they depend on what people know. To think critically about, say, climate change or the energy crisisyou need to know a hell of a lot.