An opportunity for change

Professor Sugata Mitra

Many years ago, I had the privilege of listening to this amazing guy give the keynote speech at a conference. He spoke about our education system and showed some powerful photographic images to explain why our schools are the way they are. It made more sense to me than anything I had ever heard before. Here's the gist of it...

Our Victorian education system

The education system was created, to ensure that children were given the skills they would need to be able to live and work as adults and to contribute to society. What did the workplace of the late 1800s look like? Well, there were different jobs but the everyday person might work in one of the following places:

  • An office - everyone would have their own desk, usually in rows and columns, facing the front. It was very important to be able to write neatly and legibly. You would do a piece of work, and then hand it in to the supervisor at the front of the office.  It's easy to see how a classroom prepares children for this.
  • A production line - people needed to be able to follow instructions to the letter, do the same task over and over again and get it right every time. There is no time to stop and chat, ask questions, make suggestions, etc. You have to do as you're told and definitely not attempt to do anything creative! 
  • The armed services - obedience is very important. Everybody does the same drills, works together to achieve the goal, and the person in charge is to be revered. Again, nobody should question the person in charge or attempt any form of creativity.
Of course there were other workplaces but the majority worked with a similar skill set - the ability to turn up on time, work your hours, do as your told without questioning, and repeat tasks many times without getting bored. If you performed well, you could get promoted and thus build a career in one specific field.

Most people started and finished work at the same time, working a five day week and on bank holidays, everybody took the same day off to have a rest. Breaks would often be taken at the same time, allowing workers to socialise whilst having a cup of tea and a biscuit.

It's easy to relate this to the education system. Children attend school for set hours each day, Monday to Friday. They have their breaks at a mutual time and all have holidays at the same time. When 'working', they sit at their desks, pay attention to the teacher and do the work set, hopefully without questioning it. Initially, they have that beautiful creativity that is innate in children but that is squashed so that by the time they leave, they are ready for the world of work.

The modern workplace

There are so many different workplaces now, that it is difficult to find anything they have in common. Here are some things that seem important in today's workplace:

  • Flexible working is the norm - everyone starts and finishes at different times of the day. Some work completely from home; others work in the office all the time. Many do a combination of this. The flexible work patterns are agreed with a line manager and although they are usually checked occasionally, employees have a responsibility to put in the hours.
  • Breaks and holidays have to be arranged so that there is always cover. If someone's wife is due to give birth and another person is going on holiday in the same week, others might have their request for leave denied. Outside of education, it is very unusual for everyone to take breaks and/or holiday at the same time.
  • Team work is important. It is recognised that we all bring different skills to the party, so one piece of work may be completed by several people. The ability to organise and co-ordinate workflow is very important. In the team, jobs are not given out randomly or to make it fair. It is about maximising the skills that each person has.
  • Knowing information is less important than being able to quickly find out and learn something. The ability to use the Internet for research, picking out the relevant information from all the junk, is far more important than being an expert in one subject. 
  • Staying in one career for life is less common than ever before. Most of us change jobs regularly but make several complete career changes in our working lifetime, so it is important to have a set of generic work skills.
  • The ability to sell yourself to an employer is important. Gone are the days of sticking a 'hiring' poster in the window and the first person to walk in gets the job. Getting a job takes all kinds of different skills and the ability to create a CV and a professional online profile that stands out, can make the difference between getting a good job or not.
It is clear that the workplace today is a lot different from what it was in the late 1800s. And yet, school hasn't moved on in the same way. Sure, the desks are now in groups, but does that equal team work? The importance of creativity is now recognised but if you compare the creative skills of a 5 year old with those of a 15 year old, you would still see that they have been squished somewhat. The most astonishing thing to me though, is that our education system is still largely knowledge focussed. There is still a lot of rote learning, memorising of facts and I don't think it really prepares children for employment.

An opportunity for change

At the moment, most children are off school. Lessons are cancelled. Exams are cancelled. This generation, that previously couldn't miss a day of school without risking a fine, will now have a six month hole in their education - minimum! There are many things (not just in education) that couldn't be done and yet, this virus - Covid-19/Coronavirus - has made us do the impossible.

What an opportunity! We could close schools until the autumn and then spend the remainder of this year preparing all children and staff for a totally new education system. Obviously, the details would need to be filled in, but I imagine a system that looks something like this:

The school year would run from January to December so that it fits with the majority of work years. Children would attend school for a set number of hours per week. This could vary so that there is a minimum for all but for various reasons, some could attend more hours. Every child would take 12 weeks leave, of which 8 weeks must be taken in full week blocks. Leave would be applied for, just like we all do and for the most part, it would be granted but in certain circumstances, it could be denied. Can you imagine how this would affect holiday prices? No more school holiday price hikes, as there is no such thing as a school holiday. One exception could be Christmas. A full 2 week closure would allow for deep cleaning of schools and the majority to take a break at the end of the school year.

The management of learning would work in a similar way to the CPD (continuous professional development) system that many workplaces use. The only difference would be that for young children, reviews would be daily, becoming less frequent as they get older and make progress. The aim would be to move from the teacher being in full control of a child's development, to the child being in full control by the time they leave school. 

The curriculum would keep certain subjects. Children need to learn to be literate and numerate and there would other compulsory subjects that maybe don't exist in their own right yet - digital literacy, mental health, research skills, relationship skills. How many teachers still complain that they feel under pressure to get on with their lesson (maybe history or art) but they have playground disputes to sort out? But which is the real need? Learning how to relate to others must surely be the more useful skill - way above subject knowledge. 

Although the vast majority of children would attend school full time, there would be options for remote schooling, maybe not all the time but for an agreed amount of time per week. Where identified learning needs are better met at a different school, children could move between different schools. Things like sport, music, etc that require special equipment and premises could take place in one school that has the right stuff. Different schools could have different specialisms and children could go to different places on different days, depending on their needs.

I expect by now, you have many questions, mostly beginning with HOW? Of course, there are many issues that would need working through and resolving but we have the time to do this now. There has never been such a golden opportunity. 

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