Providing a more relevant education to young people is one of the key issues we face in building a better world. By now, we are all aware that education must go beyond the rote memorization of disconnected facts, and must embrace authentic experiences. It should hone children’s innate talents and interests and help to build real world skills.
As we strive to improve standards of living globally, as we move to decrease population growth and our mounting effect on the planet, as we progress towards a more enlightened age less tolerant of mumbo-jumbo and dishonesty, cruelty and greed, we need young people to take up where we leave off. As such, addressing educational challenges should be important to all of us, regardless of how near we are to the education front-line.
We need a new generation of entrepreneurial and independent thinkers. We need young people capable of thinking critically and of generating creative solutions. We need them to be globally aware and socially active. But most of all, we need young people who have the confidence to do things for themselves and to be agents of change in the world, instead of victims of it.
So when we look at education systems around the world, we have to ask why they seem to be failing so grandly at nurturing all of these aptitudes.
And they know they are failing. This is why we see new curricula appearing every few years, why we have an ever greater emphasis on teacher in-service training and the periodic rushed frenzy around the development of teacher resources as new syllabi appear.
This recognition of their own failure is further evidenced by how educational authorities constantly try to analyse the ‘data’ provided by standardized assessments. And their response to the downward spiraling results they get usually works like this:
STEP 1: Revise and simplify the syllabus
STEP 2: Give more and more time to core subjects like Maths, Science and Languages
STEP 3: Garnish with words like ‘Twenty-First Century Learning’
STEP 4: Train teachers
STEP 5: Monitor and analyse internal and external assessment results more closely
STEP 6: Hold schools more accountable for the results they achieve
STEP 7: Realise that these results are not improving
STEP 8: Repeat from STEP 1
In schools, this translates to pressure on teachers to produce results, and this in turn leads them to pay closer and closer attention to the syllabus they’ve been handed from on-high.
For parents, students, teachers, the media and the public, those little letters on a school report have become all that matters. And when these are worse than is expected (and they invariably are), pressure is placed on education authorities to fix our ailing system. And back we go to square one.
I am here today to suggest that there is something missing in this whole process. And here it is: drum-roll please:
What’s missing… is our students.
That’s right, what’s missing in our classrooms is our students. It’s my belief that the only way to fix education, and – in the long run – to fix the world – is to (re)position our students at the center of what we do. Not big data, not the syllabus, not parents, not textbooks, not teachers. Students. For too long, the young people in our classrooms have been on the receiving end of education, instead of being the heroes of the process.
Strangely, if you go back and look at the entire history of the current formal education system, perhaps all the way back to the industrial revolution, you will see that children have never been at the forefront of what we do in the classroom. They have always been cogs in the machine, or the assembled product spewed out by it, but never the driving force of that machine.
Not since Socrates has education been about the personal experiences and the growth of individuals. Our students are the hidden, missing component of a process that should be solely about them.
It may seem a ridiculously obvious sentiment, but I do believe that placing students back at the heart of what we do at schools is the best way to fix education.
(By the way, I also believe that it will eliminate violence, substance abuse and a range of other ills so rife in our schools – which I strongly believe is directly related to how alienated and disconnected many students feel at school. I am not going to go into these issues in this talk, but I do think it warrants deep consideration. I have had the unfortunate experience of watching this happen several times in my teaching career, as schools get fuller and students become ever more lost in the crowd.)
And yes, there are individual teachers and even whole schools who succeed at implementing the type of child-centered approach I’m advocating, openly flouting the ‘reforms’ put forward by the number crunchers and curriculum designers. But this is usually the result of either a few great teachers or one inspired leader. It is the exception where it should be the rule.
So how do we put our students back into the center of the classroom, so to speak, so that we can produce confident, spirited world-changers?
Here are 10 things I think should be a priority:
Provide students with more challenges and problems to solve and fewer disconnected facts to remember. Ensure that these are genuine heuristic problem-solving activities, not just algorithmic ones (in other words, problems which are open-ended and which require students to create their own formulae to solve problems, rather than using a preexisting model). There need not be an expected answer waiting at the end of this process, and if there is, we should be prepared to question it, modify it … and perhaps even chuck it out altogether. As for the ‘facts’ kids need to know: they will be embedded and contextualized in this process, rather than extraneous to it.
Crucially, as Sir Ken Robinson advocates, we must place much greater emphasis on the humanities and the arts. These subjects nurture creativity, determination, self- expression, introspection, safe experimentation, empathy, multi-level thinking, insight, confidence, in-depth thinking and the ability to justify individual points of view and to forge strange new connections. All of these wonderful things are equally as central, as basic, as necessary, as are literacy, numeracy and analytic thinking. I say again, they are EQUALLY important. This is the biggest thing curriculum reformers get wrong in the process described previously. They think that worse results mean more time should be spent ‘on the basics’, whereas the truth is that a better balance is needed between the so-called STEM subjects, and the arts and humanities.
Teachers should let students provide evidence of their learning in the way that they most want to. Why not an interpretive dance or a painting to show what they understand about a map, or how about a self-derived formula to prove that they understand the causes of World War 2? Standardized tests serve the interests of the number crunchers, not the students. Personalized assessments encourage youngsters to make knowledge their own, in their own unique way – while simultaneously exploring their own talents and interests.
We need to give students a role in lesson planning. They absolutely love to collaborate, and they are more motivated to learn when they feel like they are a part of the process. Give them a back-stage view of education, and teach them about how their brains work as part of this collaborative experience. Allow them to customise content so that it is more meaningful to their own interests, as well as being more brain-friendly. And get them involved in the delivery of lessons, the setting of reinforcement activities and assessments, and even the evaluation of these.
Teach them to treasure learning. Show them how to access information and critique it, and nurture a love of finding things out. Show them the mechanics of thinking critically about the information that comes their way, and teach them to argue and debate with one another about the chewy issues so often implicit in every piece of dry information. Give them the confidence to question, combine, stretch, fold, bend and re-imagine what they learn in interesting, creative ways. Children want to know, don’t tell them, teach them to love finding out.
We absolutely have to begin giving students more time to think. Everything in their daily lives involves jumping from one thing to the next. School needs to be a sanctuary for their minds, away from the mad crush of entertainment, social media and the madness of trying to stay ‘cool’. School should be a place where they get to slow down and think more deeply. Reflection sessions and thinking time need to be as important a part of their school day as lunch time or the final bell.
Let them fail. But let them do so meaningfully. Failing is a crucial part of the process of innovation and deep learning. But getting it wrong needs to be part of a bigger, longer process of eventually getting it right. This teaches kids about grit and determination. Our school systems have a paranoid fear of failure for two reasons: because our syllabi are so packed, and because we benchmark ourselves over the short-term. We cut up learning into small chunks culminating in regular progress reports. We simply do have the time to embrace failure and to coax it towards success. This fear is passed on to students, who pick up on schools’ obsession with short-term ‘results’. Because our timeframes and packed syllabi don’t allow sufficient time for these initial mistakes to become successes, students internalize their shortcomings and failure becomes almost a personality trait, rather than a small part of an overall process. If we are to elevate students to the forefront of education, then we need to change our short-term culture of grades, and turn it into a longer term process of embracing, exploring and remediating failure – not for the sake of reports, but for the sake of individual growth. This is bound to work wonders for their self-esteem, for their attitudes towards learning and the atmosphere of our learning environments. Imagine a school culture where every student has the time they need to make mistakes and work through their failures, and where teachers, parents and classmates work together to turn failures into triumphs.
Let’s focus on connections. Life does not happen in discrete chunks. Nor does knowledge. School shouldn’t either.
So much of our educational system is rooted in fear. There is the fear that students will not have the right skills for a job someday. There is the fear of failure mentioned previously. Teachers and schools (and education authorities) are afraid of plummeting results. This more than anything concretizes the culture of fear in our schools. Because they themselves are constantly evaluated by the number crunchers, teachers and schools can’t help but threaten students. ‘If you don’t study you will fail.’ ‘If you don’t do your homework you will be put on detention.’ ‘If you don’t do it our way enough times you will be put on suspension’. Detention, suspension, retention… it’s a vicious cycle that leads to resentment and withdrawal. It’s like an abusive relationship on a systemic level. If our students behaved the same way as some teachers do, we would discipline them for bullying and send them for counselling. What if, instead, we tried to inspire our students with the promise of self-fulfillment? What if we made homework opportunities for exploration and discovery? What if we matched assessments to students instead of the other way around? What if we tried to develop a culture of support, care and understanding? If you think this is too idealistic and will never work in schools, consider this: we’ve tried it your way, and it isn’t working, will it be that difficult to try another way?
Learning spaces. Why on earth do classrooms have to be so static and teacher centric? Why do desks have to be in rows? Why do we have to have desks in the first place? Why does the teacher need to have a separate station? What would happen if kids got to design and arrange classrooms? What if it were considered their space as much as the teacher’s?
To sum up: I feel that the solution to making education better is to make it more student-centered. How we do this is by making it about problem-solving, by giving equal weight to the arts and humanities, by customizing and personalizing assessments (and eventually syllabi), by encouraging collaboration, by trying to foster life-long learning, by giving kids time to think, by embracing failure as a crucial long-term ingredient of success, by letting our kids tinker and experiment and find out independently, by changing how we think about learning spaces, and most of all, replacing fear as a driving force.
Imagine a world where critical and creative thinkers flourish. Where problems are seen as challenges to overcome. Where kids grow up to be confident, optimistic and fulfilled. Where these young adults have a sense that they can make a positive difference. Such a world, I believe, will be one where poverty, cruelty, fear-mongering and environmental abuse simply will not be tolerated for very long. In short, a better world. And it is within our power as members of civil society to make it happen in just a decade or two. All we need to do is to insist on better measures of schools’ successes. We do need to see grades and means and averages. We do not need to see pass and fail rates. We need to see our students again. We need to see that schools become energetic hubs of learning and development. And we need schools to prove that they care more about the individuals inside them than the marks they so readily place alongside them.
Producing students who are clear-thinking, self-assured, involved, independent and active is good for them, but it’s also what their parents want, it’s what teachers crave and it’s what society needs.