Schools, Universities, and the Workplace. Who is to Blame for Not Producing Independent Thinkers?


Ms Demanding Workplace

Mr Selective University

Mrs Compliant School

DW – Ugh! I’m so tired of these employees of mine. No vision, no initiative. Everything needs to be done for them.

CS – If you could just…

SU – (Interrupting CS.) I know. It’s the same problem here. They come out of school with no ability to think independently. They just sit there and write things down. And when they’re questioned, they give us the textbook answer!

CS – But you ask us to…

DW – We have told the media time and time again that businesses of the twenty-first century demand a new set of skills. Where’s the creativity? Where’s the critical thinking? Where’s the problem-solving and the ability to collaborate!?

CS – We try to…

SU – I hear you! We have the same problem. It’s like if this stuff isn’t learned early enough, it’s too late. Our lecturers always complain about the lack of insight and critical thinking they read in student essays. And it’s getting worse.

CS – But surely…

DW – It has to be our schools that are at fault.

CS – Now wait just a…

SU – Absolutely! We can only work with what we’re given.

DW – We need to be more vocal and controversial in our communications to the media: Change the education system! Teach independent thought and innovative thinking! Ten Things Employers Look For! 5 Skills for the Modern Workplace!

SU – And let’s agitate for better teacher training! More rigor! More focus! Higher standards! Meta-analysis!

CS – (In her best teacher voice. Faint quivers in her voice giving away how close she is to losing her composure.) Sit down, the two of you. Immediately. And listen. No! No interruptions! I’m tired of your bullying. This has gone on long enough! I’m speaking now. And you’re listening.

Want to know why all of this is happening? It’s your fault. Mr University: Do you know why you think the students we send you are so unspectacular? Well, try a teaching methodology that goes a bit beyond your stand-and-deliver lectures for a start. And assessments which go beyond exams. Most of the schools you complain about mirror your methods exactly.

But more importantly, your selection criteria are to blame. You tell us you only want those who score above a certain average grade on a standardized test. So we prepare them for that test.

We prepare them to do well in their exams because you create the perception that this is all that matters – just so that your selection process is made easier. And our parents believe this to be the sole purpose of school. As do the media. This is why they are so obsessed with results all the time.

Perhaps if you could consider looking at a more personalized set of criteria, one that embraces critical thinking, creativity, collaborative skills and independent problem solving, we would be more able to focus on those things. Because believe me, we desperately want to.

And then you do studies and meta-studies and you create lists about what works and what doesn’t work in education – based on children’s ability to remember things and to do well in tests. Is this what education is to you? Is it any wonder that all you get is the result of children learning to take tests well?

And you Ms Workplace. It’s your fault too. You sit there all high and mighty and issue missives of complaint, but what are you actually doing to help? Sponsoring chairs and endowments and scholarships for Mr University is what. The two of you, thick as thieves, having your conferences about what’s wrong with education. And then spreading your inane ‘solutions’ to the media.

When do you ever offer to get involved with schools directly? When do you ever turn to University and insist that he changes how he does his selections? Schools these days are far more innovative than either of you two can ever imagine. But the bottom line is that we have a responsibility to get these kids where they want to go. And that is determined by the two of you.

No. I’m still talking.

It strikes me that the two of you are actually only covering up your own shortcomings. The problem isn’t a ‘foundational’ or ‘grassroots’ problem. The problem is a top-down problem. You’re passing the buck, and I expect both of you to own up immediately.

Want better schools? Want sharper, more resilient, more innovative, more independent people at your organizations? Want more mavericks, more energetic out-of-the-box thinkers? Well then, dammit, start rewarding those people who display these aptitudes in your own organizations, instead of rewarding compliance.

It’s time to go to your corner and have a rethink. Ms Workplace: how about you bring your funding and your needs to schools directly, and help us to re-imagine what we do? And keep back your endowments to Mr University until he changes what he does and how he selects students.

Mr University, how about you rethink how you select students to be trained for their careers? Yes, yes, I know it’s more difficult to work with individuals rather than test scores. But it will pay off, I promise. Nothing worth doing is ever easy, as they say.

And while you’re at it, you must set the example. When 90% of what you do is lecture and examine, is it any wonder that you have fewer and fewer independent thinkers?

Have I made myself clear? I expect much better from the two of you from now on.

I’ll be watching you.