Education is a tricky topic- in reality there is no perfect approach which will get the maximum out of everyone as they are growing up, short of giving every child his or her own personal tutor. Unfeasible even in infinitely better economic climates than that in which we find ourselves today, we are left to look for a compromise- more or less successful with most of the people most of the time, rather than all the people all the time.
Recent years have seen changes to the curriculum to cater for the changing world we live in and the demands we later encounter in society as a result. Ideas such as preparing children for the digital/electronic/technological aspects of modern life with the introduction of mandatory electronic portfolios are excellent but I believe there is still plenty of room for improvement on a more fundamental level. A significant proportion of the education system, especially when it comes to the assessment of academic performance, exercises only the memory of the student. Though the situation has improved with higher percentages based on forms of continuous assessment, there remains a heavy focus on factual content of the courses. As a result, it’s perfectly possible to achieve reasonable results as a school leaver by simply taking in information given by the teachers and then repeating it in exams
If you dispute my claim that this problem still exists, I suggest you keep an eye on the headlines for the next instance of the ever popular lament from industry and higher education that school leavers lack the necessary skills to succeed in life, principally the ability to use information to solve problems and make reliable decisions. We spend too much time learning things like “an atomic nucleus is made of protons and neutrons”, “the Battle of Hastings was in 1066” and so on, facts which, in themselves, are of little benefit to the vast majority of students. Taking into account the omnipresence of the Internet in our society, the ability to store and remember raw information is rapidly becoming an anachronism. If I want to know when the Battle of Hastings was, I don’t need to have that information in my head, or even be able to find someone else with it in theirs, I can just look it up online. For another example of how redundant such abilities have become, when I was a teenager I knew off by heart the telephone numbers of approximately 20 people, now I know one (not counting my own). My life is no worse for this change, if I wish to I am able to contact many more than my original 20 people despite not knowing any numbers as they are all stored in my phone along with many that I will never use again.
Another problem with the focus on learning raw information brought on by the relentless march of time is that the facts themselves are often superseded by more accurate ones as researchers discover more of the truth. A child growing up 100 years ago would have been given some very different information in, for example, science lessons, to those of today. So, while some level of basic knowledge is of course important, much more valuable and adaptable to change is the ability to think, to form opinions and insights from information presented and to draw your own conclusions as to its deeper meaning and knock-on effects. This is what various bodies often complain is lacking in school leavers, and has been for some time.
The obvious next questions to deal with are: “What should be done to change the situation, to teach our children to think?” and, a bit less obviously, “Who will do it?” The second question arises because many of the hard working people we have teaching in our schools were also not taught this skill sufficiently in their own time at school and it’s hard enough teaching people something you do know, never mind something you haven’t yet learned yourself. Despite the proliferation of specialist programmes designed to teach precisely these skills of critical thinking, I believe it is best done in conjunction with teaching the more important factual information in ways which I will discuss further in my next post, which should appear in the next couple of days. Watch this space!