What is wrong with the status quo in education?

All of our human systems (the way our society is organised) have evolved as a result of a starting assumption (or founding philosophy, idea or way of thinking) that was predominant at a specific time, which in turn defined a pattern of acceptable behaviours and actions from that time forward, and ultimately resulted in habitual ways of doing things that became more durable than the people who operated within the system (even when the people within the system changed, the operation of the system persisted). A human-created system or model, by its very nature, is never neutral – it is influenced by factors such as culture, politics, economics, as well as environmental, spiritual and social factors.

We talk about ‘the education system’ as if it is a permanent and largely unchangeable entity, when it is actually just a collectively agreed structure and set of roles, methods, procedures and routines that are used to educate children that has become entrenched over a period of time.

I have read various people’s perspectives on when and how our current model for educating children was developed and why. There are slight variances in many of these perspectives, but what they all tend to agree on is that this model was developed mainly to meet the human resource needs of 19th century industrialisation, and the founding philosophy was therefore coloured by the cultural, political and economic issues and demands of the industrial revolution. This philosophy resulted in the creation of an education system that defines who children are, what they need to know, and how this should be taught to them, entirely mechanically, as units of production, with resource efficiency and profit as the biggest drivers. Thus the education model chosen was one centred on standardisation, conformity, the transfer of basic skills and knowledge from ‘experts’ to ‘novices’, and underlying it all a huge level of respect for the authority of the system.

It is interesting to see how this starting assumption of society as a machine striving for efficiency (the cause) has played out in our education system today (the effect).

Our current education model may have evolved over the last several hundred years but the principles under which it functions are still largely unchanged from its initial conception – we still treat children like standardised machines and educate them accordingly.

Some of the key features of our current education system include:

1. It is a highly centralised, hierarchical, bureaucratic system.

Administrators are the primary decision-makers in the system ahead of schools, teachers and children. Government education departments design, implement and legislate the education system from a centralised organisational structure. Government authorities decide what should be taught and how, and measure performance centrally through national examinations.

2. Schools are designed as “one size-fits-all” and the school, rather than the child, is the central agent in the system of learning.

The institution of school was designed and is operated as a one-size-fits-all model. The institution of school is prioritised above the children that are taught there. Children are expected to fit into the institution’s system of learning and obey its rules, regardless of their different needs, interests or abilities.

3. Schools are run like factories

Most schools are organised on factory-type lines – ‘with ringing bells, separate facilities, uniforms, and teaching conducted like a production line, complete with efficiency testing at the end’ as Sir Ken Robinson, a world-renowned British education and creativity expert (now living in the USA) described in a very amusing talk entitled ”Changing Education Paradigms” at the RSA in 2010. In this talk Robinson also comments on the factory-like system of grades: ‘We still educate children by batches – we put them through the system by age group. There is this assumption that the most important thing kids have in common is how old they are? That the most important thing about them is their date of manufacture?’

These features only make sense if one’s starting assumption is that children operate as predictably as machines. Then a factory-style environment would undoubtedly be the most efficient way to educate them.

4. It is an authoritarian system

Our education system is premised on the authoritarian philosophy that children must do as they are told and follow the rules as set out by the school authorities, or else risk being punished. Using this model, children’s own opinions are not valued very highly at all. The system uses force to get children to obey the rules. In the past this force was corporal punishment – now it is more likely to be something like detention or de-merits – but it is still fundamentally an authoritarian force.

5. It is built on the assumption that children are ‘empty vessels’ until school ‘fills them up’ with knowledge

Our education system is premised on the view that children have almost no knowledge or learning until they come to school and acquire it. Thus education is something that needs to be done TO young people in order for them to be made ready for adult life – like empty tanks they need to be “filled up” with knowledge.

6. It assumes that ‘expert’ teachers are required to impart knowledge to children

Leading on from the assumption that children are empty vessels that need to be filled up with knowledge is the assumption that children require ‘experts’ to teach them this knowledge, which they are unable to acquire in any other way. Our education system breeds intellectual dependency – it teaches children that they must wait for people better trained than them to make meaning of their life. As ‘the expert’ teachers make all the important choices on behalf of the child and, as the only repository of knowledge, teachers are given complete authority over the children in their classes.

7. It assumes all children think and learn in the same way (and at approximately the same speed), or at least that they should ideally be made to do so.

Our education system is premised on the assumption that a class of children should all be taught the same subjects in exactly the same way at exactly the same speed and that each member of the class should grasp it to approximately the same level of understanding in the same timeframe – anyone who does not keep up with the class is “less intelligent” than those who do.

8. It assumes that the process of learning is always linear and predictable

This builds on the previous point that our current schooling assumes all children learn and think in the same way. School curricula are created from the perspective that all learning goes from step A to step B to step C to step D in a linear, consistent and predictable order for each and every child. They assume that children should all follow the same steps in the same order in the process of learning as this is the best way for every child to grasp a concept.

9. It is based on content standards

Our education system assumes that there is a body of knowledge (content) that all children need to know on a grade-by-grade basis in order to be ready for life, and it assumes that this body of required knowledge is the same for everybody, regardless of their interests or their plans for their future. Knowing this body of content (as assessed by tests) is prioritised more highly than the process of learning by most schools.

10. It relies on standardised testing to measure children’s performance

Our education system has a set of standardised tests that is used to measure how much students know. If students do well in the tests then they are considered intelligent. If they do not do well in these tests it is assumed that they are failures, regardless of how much they might know about subjects that are not included in the standardised tests.

The obsession with standardised testing, and the number of standardised tests that children now have to complete as part of their school career, has resulted in a lot of teachers teaching what children need to know in order to do well in these tests, and not teaching what it is important for children to know to do well in life. My mother, who spent many years involved in administering school examinations, often quotes: ‘you don’t make a pig any fatter by weighing it all the time’.

In theory the tracking and assessment of performance relative to children at other schools, or from other countries, makes sense because it ensures that ‘No Child is Left Behind’, as the famous American education policy is now called. One problem with standardised testing is that it is mostly completely one-dimensional – it is testing one aspect of what children have learned at school and is usually a multiple choice test with only one right answer. This sort of test doesn’t give any insight into how children really think (the process that they follow), or what they are really capable of.

11. It punishes divergent thinking

Our education system, and particular standardised testing, is premised on an assumption that there is only one right answer and that every other answer is ‘wrong’. Children do not get marks for ‘wrong’ answers, and as a result they have no incentive to ‘think out of the box’ (think creatively).

In addition to the academic punishment of divergent thinking, even the other children in the current system punish children who do not fit into their collectively defined and extremely narrow range of socially acceptable behaviour (dress, language, interests, etc) with isolation and bullying. This may be because they have not been encouraged to develop a strong sense of self – to know who they are regardless of who the group wants them to be.

12. It breaks knowledge down into un-connected silos

This system of education breaks knowledge down into separate, specialised silos of content (subjects) which is logical from a scientific reductionist (mechanical) perspective because it allows teachers to specialise in different subjects and not have to be ‘experts’ on everything. The system prioritises specialised knowledge in isolation rather than the ability to make connections across subjects.

The problem with breaking knowledge down into un-connected silos called subjects is that it discourages multi-disciplinary thinking. Children start to see life vertically as a series of subjects, rather than horizontally as a series of multi-faceted ideas that can include information or skills from a wide range of specialised fields.

13. It runs itself on a tight and busy schedule called a timetable

Our education system assumes that children need a strict schedule to manage their time efficiently, and that ‘down time’ is not really necessary or important (in fact, it is inefficient). Each day children swap from one activity to the next according to their timetable. This too is a factory-approach to educating children – it assumes that the greatest efficiency can be achieved if time is highly structured. Extending from this logic is the temptation to keep adding more to children’s schedules in the quest for greater efficiency.

14. It prioritises abstract intellectual concepts above practical life skills and ranks academic intelligence (the ability to get good marks) as the highest priority, above all other abilities and interests.

Our education system prioritises academic intelligence, as measured by a student’s ability to get good marks for the so-called “academic subjects” (maths and science, literature, etcetera). These subjects are taught as intellectual abstractions (the pedagogical version of the material) rather than as part of real life. The system fails to value many other skills that will help children do well in their lives. Simple life skills such as cooking or sewing or woodwork or mechanics are positioned as “non-academic” subjects and so the so-called ‘brightest’ children are steered away from these subjects, which are left to the students who score lower marks at the academic subjects.

15. It motivates extrinsically, not intrinsically

Our education system assumes that children are motivated more by extrinsic factors like getting good marks (measured by someone other than oneself) than by intrinsic factors such as the desire to know something (defined and measured by oneself). This has resulted in a system that does not try to spark children’s curiosity and desire for self-knowledge as much as it tells them what they need to do in order to do well in the system.

16. It prioritises individual achievement and punishes collaboration

In our current education system the individual and his achievements are all important. All children are graded individually and are expected to work alone. As Sir Ken Robinson says in his RSA Animates presentation ‘Don’t ask your friends if you don’t know the answer. That is cheating. In the real world this is called ‘collaboration’, but at school it is called cheating’.

17. It prioritises competition and winning over cooperation.

Continuing on from the previous point, most traditional schools prioritise competition (and particularly winning) above all other endeavours. The obsession with coming first both academically and at sports at most schools is a result of the focus on individual achievement above everything and winning is valued more highly than collaborating or cooperating with others.

18. It lags behind technology and other innovation

The existing school system, owing to the way it has been conceived and how it is managed, prioritises experts over learners. However, most experts tend to be resistant to trying new approaches because they have succeeded so well at being experts with the old approaches.

Many teachers in our current education system have been teaching in the same way for decades, and have little incentive to upgrade how they teach. In business it is said that successful incumbents always find it hardest to adapt to innovation, and this is certainly true of our current schooling system. It has been so successful at using its authority to keep children coming to school regardless of their interest that it has not needed to innovate to keep children interested.

As a result schools have been very slow to respond to the evolution of the use of technology and other innovations in our society. Until very recently computer studies were taught separately from other subjects, and computers were not used in the classroom at all.

Although schools are starting to try to incorporate technology more effectively, most teachers are not equipped to keep pace with innovation (technological or other), so what gets used in the classroom is a far cry from what is cutting edge.

The status quo of ‘the way schools have always been’ still continues to exert a powerful inertia on the system and prevents innovations from flowing as thick and fast at school as they do ‘in the real world’. Many experts agree that both the content and processes used in conventional schooling lag behind society by the modern equivalent of generations – this is not serving children well and explains why children are bored by school – they are in tune with cutting edge technology and many see school as a technological and intellectual dinosaur.

19. It isolates children from their communities

Our modern schools increasingly assume that the world outside of school is dangerous and children need to be kept ‘safe’ from it. This has resulted in school campuses turning into the equivalent of prisons with locked gates to keep children in and ‘outsiders’ (including the rest of the community) out. Children have very little interaction with their wider communities and vice versa.

20. It isolates children from ‘real life’

Related to my previous point, but not exactly the same, is the fact that schools have become parallel systems of reality that are entirely disconnected from ‘real life’ (what is happening beyond the school walls) and thus instead of preparing children for the ‘real life’ outside of the school gates, they are separating children from the rest of life outside of school and keeping them in an artificially created parallel version of reality. Many children leave school having no concept of how the “real world” actually works.

In the past children copied adults to learn the skills that they needed for adult life. Everything that children did was relevant to them becoming skilled and capable adults. Now children rarely get to see adults doing what adults do, other than their schoolteachers. Some schools do now encourage older children to go and shadow an adult at work, but this is generally for a short period and completely isolated from the rest of what school is about. On the whole children are totally sheltered from the day-to-day reality of how the world works.

Systems Failure in our current education system

Logic dictates that if our current model of education really is the best possible education model we can conceive of, then most learners should be thriving within the system and, as a result of having passed through this system, they should be well-equipped and prepared both intellectually and emotionally for life beyond school.

Many excellent researchers have undertaken extensive research to identify and analyse what is actually emerging in our current education system, and much research is focused on identifying a wide range of problems finding solutions to these problems on a case-by-case basis. I do not want to spend a huge amount of time re-creating this research because what I am more interested in here is the pattern of system failure in education that these problems serve to highlight. The following is a list of some of these problems that researchers have identified:

  • High and growing levels of stress and depression amongst schoolchildren.

  • High and growing levels of performance anxiety in response to high levels of performance pressure amongst schoolchildren.

  • High and growing levels of addictive and destructive behaviours like drug and alcohol abuse, anorexia and self-harm amongst schoolchildren.

  • Widespread evidence of a poor sense of self and low self-esteem and depression amongst schoolchildren.

  • Adoption of uniform fashion, language and behaviour amongst children so that they “fit in” with the group. Diversity is generally seen as a failure to fit in, and hence often punished by social ostracism.

  • High and growing levels of bullying and intimidation at schools, often attributed to the fear of diversity that standardisation in education brings.

  • Huge increases in the diagnosis of attention deficit disorder (ADD) and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) amongst schoolchildren.

  • Increasing use of prescription medication including Ritalin and anti-depressants used to moderate ‘behavioural problems’ amongst schoolchildren.

  • Obsession with easily measurable achievement like high test scores and winning at sports matches rather than qualitative measures like the happiness levels of schoolchildren.

  • Lack of sportsmanship as a result of this obsession with winning and high scores at schools.

  • High levels of steroid abuse by children playing school sport, also often as a result of too much focus on winning.

  • A widespread lack of passion and enthusiasm for learning amongst schoolchildren.

  • Lack of self-direction and high levels of passivity (waiting to be told what to do) amongst schoolchildren.

  • Poor literacy levels amongst school leavers.

  • Lack of life skills amongst school leavers.

  • Lack of career direction post school as well as lack of non-academic career-related skills.

And this is just to name a few of the many problems that are being described and analysed by education researchers and commentators around the world.

In general educational research highlights common features of high levels of stress and unhappiness amongst schoolchildren everywhere, and indicates an avalanche of calls from a wide variety of people from all areas of life (politicians, medical professionals, teachers, parents, social workers, etcetera) calling for some sort of school reform in response to what is perceived to be a growing educational crisis in the Western world.

Some people argue that ‘the children of today’ are the problem – ‘they are just spoilt and lazy and don’t appreciate the opportunities being offered to them’. However, I know that when I was at school 25+ years ago, I had the same experience – I too was bored and uninspired by school, and felt stressed and lost through most of it. I thought it was quite pointless. School was not relevant to ‘who I really was’, or even helping me to figure out who I was, for that matter. It was an arbitrary system outside of myself that I had no choice but to fit into because that is what was expected of me. I spent most of my education perfecting the art of figuring out what the teacher was expecting me to say, and I became quite good at it. If you were to ask most of my teachers they would have said that I was a good student and (mostly) a pleasure to teach. They would almost certainly not have realised that I had no idea who I really was, or what I loved to do, or what contribution I wanted to make to society. The criteria for educational success in those days boiled down to one thing only - good marks (with only sporting or acting success really considered an acceptable substitute for good marks at my school). When I got into the “real world” I found I had no skills to cope with what I found there – I felt like I didn’t understand the rules in the real world and I kept waiting for them to be explained to me by somebody.

What saddened me enormously when I started exploring what is happening in education in the second decade of the twenty first century was the discovery that very little about it has changed. Whilst there have certainly been some innovations over the years, mostly ‘school’ looks much the same as it did when I was a child, and ultimately success is still defined predominantly by good marks or sporting prowess.

If I sensed that ‘the education system’ was not meeting my needs 25 years ago, I can only imagine how children might feel in that same system today in the face of exponential social and technological change. To me there is no wonder that statistics are indicating that a large and increasing number of children are stressed, depressed and uninspired by school and we cannot blame the children for this problem.

I believe their lack of interest and the manifestation of all of the problems described above points to a shortcoming with the system and not in themselves. It is an effect of how the system is functioning, and not the cause of the system failing.

When you look at these problems from a systems perspective, rather than each being a separate problem that we need to analyse and solve individually, they are symptomatic of a generalised failure in the system. Our society’s children are sending us a profound message with the fact that so many of them are not inspired, not happy, not feeling fulfilled, and not coping with their lives the way that they are. The system is trying to fix these problems one at a time with things like Ritalin and anti-bullying campaigns. This way of ‘fixing’ these problems continues to spawn a whole new series of problems to be fixed as unintended consequences of fixing the first set of problems. This is not because nobody is working hard enough to fix the problems, but rather because most of the interventions being tried are focusing on treating the symptoms of a larger problem, and not trying to identify or shift their underlying cause. Trying to fix symptoms without getting to the bottom of why they are occurring in the first place is like re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic – ultimately pointless.

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