What is it exactly that we are supposed to be preparing pupils for?
As with anything, the answer to the above question depends entirely on who you ask. And, also depending on who you ask the answer may well be anything from strident soundbites to mumbled confusion.
I’ve recently finished reading Ken Robinson’s Out of Our Minds and it’s pretty obvious, despite the enthusiasm of his legions of fans that SKR is no clearer than anyone else. After a shockingly lengthy introduction (8 chapters) he finally arrives at some sort of conclusion in his ninth (and last) chapter. So, what does he conclude? That we, er, should er, like, be sort of creative, or something.
Really. That’s about it. He builds towards what we can only suppose will be an earth shattering climax with glacial slowness taking in the history of just about everything along the way only to end with the example of the Blue Men and their Blue School. So, that’s it. Problem solved. Educational paradigm shift can be achieved by slapping on a bit of woad and opening a Free School. Great.
I’m sorry for the sarcasm but quite frankly, I feel cheated. After the warmth and wit of his much vaunted Ted Talks and the undeniable erudition of his book I had hoped for something a little more considered. This ain’t it.
Despite the lack of any real ideas, SKR does at least point out that what we’re currently preparing students for doesn’t actually exist anymore. The idea that working hard in school will lead to automatically to a good job and a happy life is thoroughly debunked. In these straitened times there is no such thing a a job for life and perpetuating the myth that 5 good GCSEs is the key to success is fundamentally dishonest.
In his thought provoking book Linchpin, Seth Godin says that “our world no longer compensates people who are cogs in a giant machine” and that the past recipe for success, “keep your head down, follow instructions, show up on time, work hard, suck it up”, no longer works.
Godin asserts that in order to process thousands of students every year, schools cope by teaching students to be afraid and that “classrooms become fear based, test based battlefields, when they could so easily be organised to encourage the heretical thought we so badly need.” So easily? Is it really so easy to reorganise the educational system? And if it is, is it desirable? It’s very easy to point out (as SKR does) what’s wrong with schools. It’s fairly straightforward to work out that being good at school is only useful at school (unless your future career happens to involve “homework assignments, looking through text books for answers that are already known to your supervisors, complying with instructions and then, in high pressure settings, regurgitating those facts with little processing on your part.”)
In order to prepare students for the jobs they will actually be doing, Godin says that schools should only teach students to do two things:
- Solve interesting problems – by this he means the sort of problems that Google can’t provide the anser to. Questions like, what should I do next?
- Lead – cos this isn’t a gift, it’s something which has to be learnt.
Can we teach students to be resilient, independent, socially aware, open to new ideas and new connections and to understand how to inspire? Maybe. Should we try? Darn tootin!
Of course there’s no end of folks who think teaching this kind of curriculum is dumbing down academic standards and what we should really be doing is attempting to grind out compliant, well behaved and obedient chaps who know their places. Daniel Willingham tells us that transferable skills can’t taught and that anyone who suggests otherwise is responsible for a perceived crisis in education.
Is he correct? Whilst much of what he has to say in Why Don’t Students Like School? is illuminating and scientifically plausible, I firmly and sincerely hope he’s over egged this one.
My job is to teach and to ensure students pass exams. This is a worthy goal and I am proud of my successes: there is certainly nothing to be said for students failing to pass exams. This sadly involves training students to be able to spew out everything I’ve stuffed into their heads on a given day in June and this being the case I’d feel like a failure if that’s all I attempted to do.
So along the way I want to sneak in a bit non-compliance and do my small part at chipping away at the educational edifice that has grown, Gormanghast-like, into a huge, impersonal labyrinth that sometimes struggles to recognise students’ individuality.