I have a friend who is deeply entrenched in the state school system. He firmly believes that the system that we have, being the system that we have, is the system within which he needs to prepare his socio-economically deprived cohort to function. And so he upholds the system, he tweaks what he delivers to make it better for his kids and he does his best for a group of kids who deserve someone doing their best for them. He’s awesome.
The exams, the university placements, the work experience, the need to do homework so that they can get used to doing homework. For him, these tasks are not only necessary, they are the fundamental tools that he is morally obligated to provide his pupils so that they can go on to find their place within our society. I get it. And the world needs folk like this. But he’s wrong.
The idea of educational reform is that whilst the folk like that are teaching the kids like that to do the stuff they need to do to one day be the folk like that, there’s also got to be some folks who don’t buy it, who won’t countenance it any longer and who genuinely and passionately believe that it is possible that we can create a better educational system for our future generations.
Yet, there is a difficulty in getting people to buy into something that cannot be guaranteed. No doubt every one of you can look back on your life, at the opportunities that might have been, the things that would be different or the decisions that didn’t get made because it was easier to just leave things how they were than to upset everyone and try to start again. The risk of saying that thing or forcing that change or suggesting that new route is that it could all go wrong. You might get embarrassed or worse, it might completely fail and ruin someone else’s life as well. So it’s easier (and safer) to just keep doing what we’re doing – maybe with a few tweaks along the way.
Our education system has, for too many years, been being tweaked by people too afraid to throw in the towel, admit defeat and agree to build something entirely new. Yet I’d argue that the only way to create a new and better educational future for our children is to do exactly that. We are going to have to stop building additions and finishing the basements and instead get a new plot of land, a new set of tools and really commit to making decisions based on research, psychology and the desire to put the best interests of our children over other (economic) concerns.
We are all watching the climate crisis unfold under our watch and there are many voices out there who are willing to admit that we’ve got it wrong and are going to need to start again. Maybe we can tweak cars and make them electric and maybe we can convert our home boilers to run on renewables, but anyone who knows what they’re talking about on matters of the climate knows that we are going to have to realise radical, wholesale reforms not just of our society, but of our economic and political models as well. Buying electric cars is a plaster that may give us a few years grace, but a conversion to mass public transport, walkable cities and more integrated societies are necessary if we’re going to last not just past 2100 but for a good long while.
The same is true for education. We’re going to have to abandoned our tired old notions of ‘curriculum’ with testing and standards being thrown out the window and replaced with the encouragement of real thought. We need to promote ideas, creativity, resilience and focus. We need a schooling system that serves as a place for minds to meet and ideas to evolve. We need to reject the notion that getting everyone to ‘learn’ the same things and then prove they know the same things on tests is somehow preparation for the ‘real world’.
We’re going to have to get rid of our curriculum and start talking about the qualities and attributes we want to develop in humanity. We’re going to have to stop expecting everyone to learn the same things according to the same timeline and instead accept that they will all, in their own time, come to the fullness of understanding that they require in order to answer their own curiosities and develop their own minds. And for that, as a society, we are going to need to learn to trust in children. But that’s a thought for another day.