Forget Reform. We Need a Revolution
This is Part 1 of a series of essays discussing a crisis we've all experienced: education. It will explore the current state of the system and how to transform it moving forward. I aim to provoke thought and encourage conversation. Please share, discuss and criticise the ideas in here. That's how things get better.
WHAT ABOUT THE TOWN PLANNERS?
I taught robotics to children in a South African township last year. For most of them, it was the first time they’d used a computer. They were astounded at what it could do. I was astounded at what they could do.
They only required a few hours to start writing programs of their own, learning things outside the curriculum, and showing me that 9-year-olds are capable of more than expected.
Schools are filled with children waiting to discover their talents and unleash their potential. The children in that robotics class have the potential to become engineers and mathematicians. Many of them will, because they were allowed to explore and develop those talents at an early age. For those children, that robotics program was life-changing.
But what about the kid who doesn’t have the aptitude for programming but does have the aptitude for town planning? There isn’t a program for promising town planners. The town planner who misses out on discovering their passion isn’t alone. They’re part of the majority.
Most children leave school with a sense of relief. They leave without a sense of purpose or possibility, and without knowing what they’re truly good at. It’s not that these children lack ability, but rather that school only measures for one kind of ability. If you don't fit into that then school isn't for you. That shouldn’t sit well with you.
WHY DOES EDUCATION LOOK LIKE IT DOES?
Our current system of teaching kids to sit in straight rows and obey instructions isn’t a coincidence — it was an investment in our economic future. Before the advent of public schooling, children worked in factories.
Labour was in high demand. The best kind of labour was cheap, and nobody was cheaper than a 7-year-old kid.
The idea of basic schooling for all children was met with outrage. Factory owners insisted that losing child workers would be catastrophic to their industries and fought to keep the kids at work.
They were ultimately convinced that public schooling was a good idea because it would benefit the factories in the long run. A constant supply of obedient workers made for promising profit forecasts. The plan: trade short-term child-labour wages for longer-term productivity by giving kids a head start in doing what they’re told.
‘Go to school, sit in rows, listen to the teacher’ easily becomes ‘go to the factory, work at your station, listen to the foreman.’
Large-scale education was not developed to motivate kids or to create lifelong learners. It wasn’t developed to help children discover their unique talents. It was developed to give children a head start on being obedient and efficient workers⁺.
Over a century has passed, and society has moved forward. The work we do, the tools we use, and the things we value have changed dramatically. The world of today would be barely recognisable to somebody living 100 years ago.
Unless you showed them the education system, because that hasn't changed much.
EMBRACE THE INCONVENIENCE
Education is a frequent topic of discussion. Everybody has an opinion and everybody has ideas for change. That shows two things:
Enough people have been through the system and been disappointed by it to know that change is needed.
Reform is discussed ad nauseam, but we’re yet to see the progress we desire.
Reform is making changes to improve something that already exists. How do you improve a system as broken as the current one? How do you eradicate the practice of creating obedient and compliant learners when it is so deeply ingrained in every part of the system?
We don’t need reform. We need a revolution. We need to re-imagine the way we teach and learn.
Innovation is difficult. It’s taking things which are accepted and supported and uprooting them. It’s getting back to the fundamentals and asking ourselves, “What is school for?” It’s breaking down the current system and rebuilding it to meet the needs of today, instead of the needs of the previous centuries.
Too often, the difficulty of innovation prevents us from doing it. Whether you realise it or not, convenience is one of the strongest forces shaping our actions.
My favourite coffee is brewed, but the convenience of instant coffee means I hardly ever have my favourite. Convenience makes our decisions for us, trumping what we like to imagine are our true preferences. Even when we're aware of it, we fall into the trap of convenience.
Easy is good, easiest is best.
Education is no different - it's convenient to batch children of the same age into one grade. It's convenient to stick them in straight rows and give them the same standardised test. It’s convenient to put them through the same process and measure them in the same way.
Convenience isn't evil. In many situations, it makes things better. Education isn't one of them. Easy isn’t good, and easiest isn’t best.
Educating children - the entrepreneurs, builders and creators of our future - isn’t about convenience. It’s about preparing them to go out into an uncertain world with a sense of purpose and possibility.
Children have diverse talents. There are countless things they might be good at, and trying all of them is impossible. The best hope of unearthing those talents is by creating the conditions for talent to show itself.
In recent months, education systems around the world have been broken down for us. Pandemics don't care about convenience. This gives us an opportunity to build a system that meets the needs of the modern world. A system that keeps children, instead of factory owners, in mind.
School needs to be the place where children are allowed to explore, learn and discover what they’re talented at. The place that creates conditions for them to flourish, regardless of what they’re good at. It needs to be a system that doesn’t only reward programmers, but town-planners too.
Education is difficult. It will always have a feel of inconvenience and difficulty because it relies on effort and discomfort to move us forward. Embracing that difficulty is how we progress.
Part 2 discusses the type of learners and leaders we need to create in schools. Part 3 looks at how we do it. To receive notifications about releases, leave your email below.
⁺ This is discussed in great detail by Seth Godin in his manifesto on education titled 'Stop Stealing Dreams.'