There is a revolution coming. It’s becoming common knowledge that the education system is fundamentally broken. Every year more 16-to-18-year-olds are assuming astronomical six-figure debts in the hopes of having leverage in the modern job market without truly understanding what they are getting into. Modern institutions are far more concerned with easy-to-measure statistics like degrees awarded or students retained than to the capacity of a graduating individual. A recent report by CBI and Pearson revealed nearly half of all top firms say top school graduates are unfit to work and lack basic abilities like customer understanding and basic work ethics and that 61% of the recently graduated workforce is simply ‘unhireable‘. And it is easy to only point at big-name colleges and universities, but the problem arrives much early on. As early as pre-k and elementary schools go, we have been following the same educational formula based on preconceived notions of what education should be, yet in an evolving world, those notions should be tested and evaluated to see if they stand the test of time. Spoiler alert: They really don’t.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF EDUCATION
Although humanity has had a long history regarding schooling (and the lack thereof) and we have fully accepted the necessity of an education system in our society, we have taken our education methods for granted and have forgotten why our system was designed the way it was in the first place. Formal education can be traced back to the Roman Catholic Church back in the Middle ages where Christian monastic schools developed the first idea of instructor-driven schooling with the status of accreditation. Later on, it is during the Brittish Empire in the early 18th century that education truly took the form that we know today. This is because the people of Great Brittain had a very present problem with the administration of their vast domain. This problem was the fact that to smoothly run their global operating system, people from all around the world had to have the same efficient qualifications as the professionals from Great Brittain itself. So much so that it was intrinsic that you could take an individual from one end of the world and place it on the other end and it would become instantaneously functional. Their answer was a series of standardized schooling projects all over the globe which had the single objective of mass-producing a standardized workforce to run the empire. The result: It ran fantastically.
This was the beginning of the schooling model we know today and was fully implemented and it worked wonderfully in all aspects. By the days of the early industrial revolution where the mentality of mass production was further cemented within the communal consciousness. Factories required hundreds, if not thousands, of equally proportionate individuals operating a single money-making machine. The objective was very clear and the education model was a perfect system for the time. Looking back at pictures of these early school photos that are now 150 years old, they are eerily similar to what we have today.
This brings us back to the question of where it all went wrong, and the simple answer is the historic context we find ourselves in. To quote the famous author and public speaker, Sir Ken Robinson, ‘The education system is modeled in the interests of the industrial age and in the image of it’. These interests and seemingly aged values came in the form of rapid growth and efficiency of performing systematic labor without disruption. The faster and bigger, the better. Today, however, in an age of process automation and progressive machine learning, the value of uniform aptitude is rapidly diminishing and the demand for unique talent is on the rise. Machines have been slowly, but surely, replacing a large portion of the workforce with greater efficiency than we humans could ever hope to achieve (Ex Machina anyone?). At the same time, this is creating new job categories that only humans can do. Schools focus on lashing hard facts for young minds to memorize when we all of humanity’s data is one Google search away as long as we have any remote connection to the internet. The fact of the matter is the historic context we find ourselves in demands for uniqueness, complex problem solving, creativity, analysis, emotional health, work ethics, and all those soft skill traits that are largely ignored by most educational institutions around the world. The current system is not broken, it’s largely outdated. Sure, improvements have been made during the past centuries, but more in the sense of add-ons. It’s the very foundation of the methodology that must be pulled to rebuild a new and updated school with the one objective of preparing the young for what they will find in the real world today instead of 100 years ago. That being said, here are five changed that could (and should) be made to update the education system:
1. Less academia and more learning
The last century has been focused, if not obsessed, around the idea of accreditation. Back in the day, having a degree used to mean the difference between getting a regular job and a great one. It was a symbol of status and credibility. Nowadays it’s a basic requirement. Most entry-level jobs will not hire a prospect without a degree of some sort, even though according to a study by the Society of Human Resource Management only 34% of employers will do a background check of said degree. This, however, is starting to change. In the age of global interconnectivity, automation, and agile development, the needs and requirements of the current job market are by far outpacing the relevancy of the education colleges are capable of delivering. At the end of the day, it’s the market that decides what the relevant skills are, making some degrees (Computer Science, for example) virtually outdated in the span of 4 to 10 years. This is a huge change of what made a college degree have any value in the first place and is prompting tech giants like IBM, Google, Facebook, Netflix, and Amazon, to name a few, to welcome applicants without a degree; some even creating their own universities.
The fact of the matter is that a degree is no longer a reliable quantifiable measure of a person’s capacity to work as many of these graduates will have outdated skills with little-to-no experience in soft skills such as learning on their own and updating their personal value to modern needs. This is because learning as we know it is more about cramming as much information as possible to a single individual in as little time as possible. True education is about having the ability to connect dots not the knowledge of what the dots themselves are. This allows individuals to evolve, understand, create, and adapt to whatever they are required to do. It’s a basic skill that should be taught at an early age but sadly it is not. Its easier for institutions to follow along with the guidelines of the latest pre-approved textbook and prompt kids to memorize hard facts which they could have Google searched at any time. The future of education should teach more skills like work ethic, creativity, teamwork, critical thinking, complex problem solving, and emotional intelligence let alone practical skills like personal finance savvy or interpersonal intelligence.
2. Education should be a learner-driven
“Is this going to be on the test?” is a question all high school teachers hear regularly and a really sad one at that. The question itself acts as a filter for students to find out if their new learned topic should be temporarily memorized or downright forgotten. Schools have become so grade and exam-oriented that both students and teachers forget what they’re doing in school in the first place. Standardized testing, a one-size-fits-all grading system, and a lecture-driven education are further reinforcing those aforementioned outdated industrialist values of producing drone workers instead of capable individuals. We are so conditioned to sit straight, quiet down, look up, and follow instructions that by the time we become adults we have been stripped of our curiosity, individuality, creativity, and interactivity that makes us unique and capable.
Though lecturing is a fast way of teaching a topic quickly, the fact is humans (along with every other mammal) are not programmed to learn in a single session to session information exposition. Quite the contrary, humans are programmed to learn through play. The reason play itself exists in animals is to create an incentive of trial-and-error experiments with your surroundings. A bird doesn’t learn to fly by memorizing the properties of aerodynamics and a lion doesn’t learn to hunt by taking the written standardized hunter exam. They do so through supervised experimentation during play sessions. We learn our best when we are in a safe, nonjudgemental space where failure is not only allowed but encouraged. We need to stop reprimanding mistakes and start embracing them. Standardized testing makes capable kids feel incapable and grading makes students act competitively instead of cooperatively.
Instead, schools should have learner-driven models where each student can learn at their own time and at their own pace. Not every person learns at the same speed and in the same way and there is no reason they should. Software and tools like online courses have made a personalized education not only possible but accessible. Not only that, every person excels at different skills and topics and that should not be chastised but embraced. Instead of teaching the same portfolio of hard facts to children, how about we teach accountability, responsibility, problem-solving, and the most important of all, learning how to learn and find your own answers instead of relying on an all-knowing textbook. Programs like Acton Academy are using readily available tools like Khan Academy to let children learn at their own pace and they are monitoring results through what is essentially a contract between the teacher and the students. This approach has achieved amazing results as it doesn’t only teach responsibility and liability to children, but it also creates an environment where time-management and organizational skills are put into practice from an early age.
3. Students and teachers are people and should be treated as such
There is something disturbing about the image of teachers yelling or undermining students. We can generally agree with the old methods of authoritarian aggression from teachers to students feels outdated and inefficient, to say the least, but how about the concept of a teacher dictating the class? From the simple acts of sitting kids in straight rows facing forward, without being able to interact with one another, following rules without question, and even requiring permission to relieve bodily functions are all remnants of this old-fashion industrialist behavior. We take for granted that children are not capable of responsibility and self-management without authoritative supervision. The opposite is also true, however. When children are given complete control over the teacher via sensibilities and overreacting parents, then they obtain a tool that allows them to manipulate a system and limits what teachers can do. Well, if neither teachers or students should have control of the class, who should? A more compelling question would be: should we take agency and autonomy away from children?
To answer this question, many new education models are taking this seemingly inherent truth and giving it a new perspective. Schools that base their roots around Montessori and Learner-driven education have gone as far as to remove the titles of ‘teacher‘ and ‘student‘, replacing them with terms such as ‘guide‘ and ‘voyager’ or ‘eagle‘. The entire premise of the experiment is to place both “teachers” and “students” on the same playing field. This is done in the form of contracts that are negotiated and agreed upon by both parties. These agreements generally consist of a trade. Children agree on how they will behave or perform and guides agree on how much freedom or privileges the kid may have in return. This might include privileges such as using your phone in class, sitting wherever you like, or even the ability to take days off. The results of these models have had made it clear that when you give independence and liability to children, they will comply with flying colors. And it’s not just between students and teachers, but also student-to-student, student-to-headmaster, teacher-to-headmaster and so on. Basically, the idea is to acknowledge every present individual as an equal human being and respecting boundaries and promises.
4. Education should be decentralized
We’ve accepted the idea that we should limit our studies to the teachings available on one institution, and that we must choose the best. This idea, nevertheless, is being challenged by many experimental schools and programs that aim to give a more accessible and less institutionalized education to everyone involved. Online courses and automated platforms are a small showcase on how education can come from virtually anywhere. Imagine if there were certified courses from a global education institution that gave children access to take a law class from Harvard, a programming class from MIT, and even a wine course from Oxford, and that is just talking about big-name colleges. Look at how Master Class is taking top talent such as Howard Schultz and making a $60 course. Taking the same course 20 years ago would have cost thousands. The idea is simple, education and institutions could and should borrow instruction materials from each other.
5. School should be a likable experience
What is it with schools making the experience feel like a grind instead of an adventure? Why should students feel relieved on Fridays instead of excited on Mondays? The fact is school is boring, mundane, stressful, and emotionally and mentally harmful. I graduated from game design back in the day and one of the most useful skills I got out of it was the ability to understand human behavior, and especially how to stimulate certain reactions and emotions such as fear, curiosity, or fun, and it is not that hard to turn school into a likable experience. You see, there are very few differences in activities we might consider work versus that we may consider fun. If you take away graphics, momentum, music, and all of the flashy bits, a game is simply a job we do for fun. And what makes a game a game is three main rules:
1. A sense of purpose – every game will have you playing as a hero in an epic quest, a member of a sports team, or with the simple purpose of arranging blocks in a straight row. Most students are in school because they have to be there, without question. They are simply another number undergoing the standard procedures of academia. What if everyone was a hero? What if everyone found a calling, as simple as it may be, that drives their journey?
2. A clear objective with a safe space for experimentation – What are the rules of chess, poker, or video games like The Legend of Zelda? Generally, a well-designed game will present you in a digestible fashion what you can and cannot do as well as what you should try to do through experimentation. You must jump instead of fly in many video games, you can only do one move per turn in chess, and you can only have five players in the field in basketball. Schools oversimplify this by telling the students what to do and what not to do. Nevertheless, they fail in experimentation. Again, humans learn through curiosity and play. Experimenting is what makes us grow. Let students bend the rules in exchange for performance. Enhance their creativity and let them explore and try out new things.
3. Immediate and flashy feedback – Every time you jump off a cliff in the famous Super Mario you get sent back to the beginning, and every time you miss a shot in soccer, you risk the other team gaining the ball. Grades often give students negative feedback, but how about positive feedback? How about accumulating points in a gamified manner to obtain a reward or accomplish a title? And how about instead of making individuals compare with each other having them work together for a common objective?
The conclusion is education should be fun, exciting, more about the learning and preparation, and most importantly, schools should be effective in the formation of a person. The bad news is education has not seen too much progress during the last century. The good news is it’s finally starting to change, and fast. The education industry is ripe for disruption and it’s only a matter of time until someone gets it so right that every educational institution will have no choice but to adapt to the trend.
If you’re curious about learner-driven novel educational models or if you’re looking for homeschool alternatives or unique schools in Miami, then check out Acton Academy Central Miami to learn more.
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