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Leadership is my specialist area. One of the main functions of leadership, I believe, is to uncover the hidden assumptions that keep people wedded to existing paradigms and stop them from conceiving, let alone embracing, a better future. There are few areas where this aspect of leadership is more urgently needed at present than education.

It’s great to see that Sir Ken Robinson’s seminal work Out of Our Minds is back on the bookshelf as it speaks to the heart of this issue. The fact that the RSA Animate of his talk Changing Education Paradigms has over 15 million views shows how much interest there is in this subject.

Education ought to be time and money well spent on investing in the future for our children and, through them, for society as a whole. Instead, for a great many individuals it is a waste of resources, of opportunity, and of young people’s lives.

When we look at how society has evolved over the past 50-100 years, and will change even more so in the very near future, it becomes quite apparent that our concepts of education have failed to keep pace.

Yes, there have been many changes for the good, but what hasn’t changed is the underlying assumption about what education is for. Nobody is asking the question, “What’s the point of education?”

So what’s the big assumption that’s stopping us from creating an education system that’s fit for the 21st century and that serves the needs of its customers – our children?

Clearly it seems the underpinning philosophy is that the role of education is to foster academic attainment, particularly in the STEM subjects.

Whatever great initiatives may have been introduced to make education more inclusive, it still remains the case that the key indicators of success for schools and colleges are around narrow measures of ‘value added’ expressed in terms of students’ academic advancement.

This begs a number of pertinent questions, including:

  • Why do we still accept this assumption?
  • Is it really what’s needed in the 21st century?
  • How is it serving students and society?
  • How could we better invest in our children’s future?

To answer these questions we need to critically examine our concepts of what education is, and the role of schools, colleges, and other institutions in providing this in the rapidly unfolding future. 

When so much knowledge and learning is available on digital platforms, which can often be used to deliver a more tailored and relevant learning experience, why are we still trying to perform this function in the classroom environment?  Are there better ways of using this valuable contact time?

Anthropologically we are at a very difficult point in our social evolution, a point where we are very poorly resourced as individuals to cope with the pressures that life is now putting upon us. We have seen a change from living in tribal communities, to extended families, to nuclear families, to the current prevailing view of ourselves as individual units. We’re trying to do it all and, as a result, we are outsourcing much of our children’s upbringing to others, including schools.

Their moral education and development of a sense of values and culture are falling through the cracks as parents have little time – and, sadly, often little energy, inclination and even skill – to fulfil this vital role.

The result of all this is a declining belief in individuals’ moral obligation to contribute to society, look out for each other, and generally to be good human beings. And yet we really, really need to get this right if we’re going to collectively solve the great problems facing mankind over the next few years – not the next 50 – 100 years: the future is upon us now.

The big question, then, is, what should  be the real point of education?

The answer is, I believe, that we need to plug the gap that has opened up in our children’s upbringing. They should be empowered to manage their own learning and we should instead be primarily focused on instilling a sense of personal responsibility, respect for others, and a desire to contribute. Education should be focused on helping to facilitate their personal and social development, not just training their minds.

Having evolved so rapidly (in evolutionary terms) from our tribal roots, we’ve not adapted to the loss of the collective upbringing children would have received in that environment. Instead they are in a lottery where, by accident of birth, they may receive great parenting or they could lose out through having parents without the required competencies. And, because we’ve developed a notion that the family unit is sacrosanct and we shouldn’t interfere, many children do lose out horribly.

If we are to create equality of opportunity, this seriously needs to be addressed, and education is ideally placed to do this.

We must question our assumptions of what education is for and come up with new assumptions that can promote a system that truly serves the future needs of society and create an educational environment that actually does work for all.

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