I was party to a fascinating discussion with colleagues from the RSA yesterday about the nature of education: asking the basic question – what’s the point of school? Catalysed by the change in UK government, there seems to be a battle between the idea of school being a place for ‘transferring a body of knowledge’ and education as an ‘interactive process of developing skills.’ Proponents of ‘traditional methods’ cite the high academic achievements of Singapore and alike as demonstration of the strengths of rote-learning. Ken Robinson and others argue we need a paradigm shift in education; that the existing system of industrial education (based on deductive reasoning and a knowledge of the classics) is ill-suited to the needs of the twenty-first century.
Knowledge without skills is pointless and skills without knowledge are useless.
Personally, I think that’s a false dichotomy: knowledge without skills is pointless and skills without knowledge are useless. For me, they are both essential elements of learning. Still, something is clearly going awry with the current system. Very few people seem to be happy with the outcomes of a childhood spent in formal education – employers claim graduates, let alone school leavers, lack core competencies and the population generally appears to believe that learning stops at the school gate.
Although most people’s experience of schools seems positive during their primary years (5-ish to 11) for many, secondary education doesn’t just strip fun and satisfaction from learning but sucks the very life out of it. I suspect that, because of the curse of competitive league tables, young people are being taught to pass exams rather than think. The deficit model of highlighting what isn’t known removes the possibility that learning could be enlightening and rewarding in any other way than acquiring a paper certificate.
School is where we’re taught what we can’t do
There’s clearly a need to have a standardised measure of ability to help identify strengths and weaknesses. However, I think that as a society we are suffering the consequences of School, and the exam-system foisted upon it, being the place where we’re taught what we can’t do.
Maybe initiatives like the RSA’s Opening Minds which place competencies at the centre of curriculum and help smooth the transition from primary (theme-based) to secondary (subject-based) education are part of the answer. At least as crucial as bridging the transition between Year 6 and Year 7 is a change in attitude that dissolves the boundaries of learning and dismantles the idea that learning is confined to formal education environments. One might argue that the key to a satisfying life (and all the wellbeing and economic benefits that that creates) is the development of a mentality that embraces constant and continual learning; that school’s greatest legacy, therefore, is providing us with the ability to think for ourselves.