Does Democracy Harm Education?
and will our children die before their time?
Okay, okay, so I do enjoy a sensationalised title.
So I am heading out of London on the train back home and thought that I would have a go at writing a blog in just the time that it takes to get back. So apologies if this is a little unstructured and rushed...
What kind of society would you like to live in? What kind of society would you like our children and grandchildren to live in?
The actions that we take now will shape their lives, their opportunities, their happiness, successes, fears and dreams.
Join me if you will for a moment in the future. Let's say 2050. My driving license has long since expired, and statistically it's likely that I will have too. What kind of Britain would you hope to see? What kind of society would you like to leave as our legacy?
Hold that thought for a while and let's now step back in time.
For a child at school in 1850, the path that their adult life would take was not a million miles away from that of a child one hundred years later in 1950. They would both leave school having been through years of drilling in the basic academic skills. Their handwriting would not be greatly different, the words that they used more or less the same. Their methods for multiplying numbers identical. And off in to the world they would go. Their social class would determine the path that they followed, but regardless of whether it be one of a banker or shipworker, teacher or bricklayer, politician or journalist, the common factor for the 1850 child and his 1950 counterpart is that both would enter jobs for life.
If luck was on their side, they would work for forty years or so (social class dependent), retire and then, within a few months, die.
Their lives would be bounded by a shared culture of Britishness. Most likely, they would have little real contact with cities, villages or towns beyond their own and almost certainly never travel to foreign parts or have first hand knowledge of the lives, living histories and values of other cultures.
Happiness could come from success at work, from meaningful loving relationships, from their own children, from being community spirited, from the Church. Life was small, but small can bring a contentedness.
The world had not changed a great deal. Transplant the 1850 child to the 1950 world and there would not be a great deal that they did not recognize or understand, save the fright of a speeding car or two.
Now think of the next step in the sequence 1850, 1950...
When I was growing up, Britain was pretty much the same place as for the 1950 child. Everyone still talked about the War, overseas travel was rare, TV had two channels. The world was small.
For many centuries Britain had not changed a great deal in terms of society, principles, values and life paths.
But then it happened. The greatest, most rapid evolution of society ever known. I am of course referring to the communication revolution.
Suddenly the world was not small. Cultures now intertwined, opinions, hopes and experiences shared.
The trouble is, our system of education is still geared towards a small world. Geared towards the basic skills that the Victorian do-gooders integrated into their newly formed schools system. Schools are obsessed with teaching children the very same methods of multiplication, the very same rules for grammar, the very same narrow, compartmentalised curriculum that the 1850 child met. As though what was laid down as an education system in that age was the correct answer to educating children forever. As though we got the answer right first time.
I want our children to live in a society that is fair, where they are secure, where they can feel successful and live purposeful, meaningful lives. To achieve this we need economic wellbeing, stability and peace. These goals are only possible if Britain prospers. And this will only happen if its citizens are able to adapt to a new and as yet unthinkable world.
If we want to help achieve this for the generations that follow us, then the cause is urgent. They are being born today and they will enter the schooling system in the next few years. But there is a real danger that they will enter a system entirely unfit for purpose. So the debate for change must happen now. Unfortunately, some politicians have allowed themselves to be fooled in to thinking that their job is to win elections, that a route in to politics has nothing to do with the real world, that they know best and should be able to wield power. But being a politician should be a vocation, should be for altruism, should be for the greater good. Politicians should not be afraid of losing their job through being brave enough to dream the dream.
Politicians now talk about the education system of 2020, about what they are trying to achieve in the next five years, about next year's curriculum. These make good soundbites, and great fodder for manifestos and speeches, but this is entirely the wrong thing to be doing. Politicians need to think beyond their own short careers, beyond their own lives. What about the world of 2050, or 2100. What about thinking big. The short-term-ism that is strangling modern politics is preventing any kind of real debate, any deep discussion about the impact of our current actions.
I have the pleasure of working with government agencies and officials around the world, from various cultures and systems.
Short-term-ism is prevalent in North-West cultures, and these societies are suffering from the same lack of vision. However, there are countries where those responsible for governing (or ruling) do not have to worry about winning elections. In some Gulf Nations that I work with, the system of government is based on a ruling family. This continuity of leadership, and not having to win elections, is allowing some countries to be brave enough to look far beyond our short-sighted 2020 proposals and design education systems for 30, 40 and 50 years in the future.
So is democracy harming education? And what can be done? How does a Britain become brave once more?
Our current system of education is (bar some tiny tweaks) the system that the Victorians designed. How does British politics regain the confidence of that era? Where are the brave politicians, not obsessed with climbing the ladder, not confused in to thinking that being short-term-ist wins more respect than speaking the truth and having meaningful debate? Where are the politicians that will fight for a long term, cross-party, cross-parliament solution? Education should be far too important to be considered as a play thing for ill-informed, career-driven Secretaries of State.
With an Emirate, Dictatorship or Royal system, those governing can dare to be long-term-ist.
Of course, I'm not saying that this in any way trumps democracy!
Just that democracy appears to have lost its way somewhat. And somehow, those elected figures who are put in place to represent the views of the entire population are instead opting to placate small vocal pressure groups or pandering to the media machine. So mindless reform after pointless initiative after mindless reform do we see, and schools are left bewildered and exhausted. But education doesn't need reform – that's what every fashionable tweak to the system for the past 150 years has been doing – no, education needs to be transformed. The world that faces our young will be so fundamentally different, so gapingly far from the child of 1950, that the great system put in place by the Victorians to address their dreams of the future is one that is no longer relevant.
There is strong evidence to link the lifespan of an individual and their level of education (though what this means is debatable). Quite literally, those who are less well educated die younger. There are many reasons for this causal link but to list just a few: less well educated people are more likely to make poor dietary choices; they are more likely to suffer financial hardship due to misunderstanding mortgages, interest rates, loans etc; they are more likely to be involved in work that has a detrimental impact on their physical wellbeing; they are more likely to be involved in violence and crime; they are more likely to take drugs and smoke. Look, I'm not saying that every well educated adult is a paragon of virtue and that every ill educated adult is lives like a character from Shameless , but I am saying that, whether we like it or not, the statistics paint a bleak picture for those that fail to achieve a useful level of education.
Now what do I mean by education? Well I'm not necessarily talking about passing GCSE exams. For me, education is something that is instilled so that we can continue to learn and adapt throughout our lives, so that we can draw together multiple strands of knowledge and make informed choices, so that we can draw on experiences and make better decisions. So that we can have choice and autonomy. It is about thinking skills, it is about confidence, it is about the ability to understand the situations and challenges that confront us, and it is about emotional maturity.
It is about a set of fundamentals that we need to equip young people with to ready them for dealing with the world that lies ahead. And that world is unknown. Now more that ever.
If we fail to provide the right foundations, the right fundamentals, then our children will, in a very literal sense, die before their time.
An important skill to possess is the understanding that you are never right. That what you believe and espouse can always be improved upon, can always evolve, can always benefit from fresh perspective. So I know that what follows is not the answer, I know that I don't have this right. But this is my start on this Friday morning as this train hurtles me closer to home, this is a debate I think we should engage in. This is my attempt at what those fundamentals should be if we want future generations to have the best chance at a society that they can prosper in.
Each neuron that makes up the brain is able to store and pass information, but alone it is all but useless – put billions of them together though and the possibilities are endless. Perhaps the human race could behave like a brain?
The communication revolution, the shrinking of the world could have the ability to release the true potential of the human race – where all of the knowledge, all of the skills can be brought together through collaboration so that problems beyond the capabilities of the individual can be overcome, where ideas and creativity are released through the iterative process of sharing, debating, reflecting, tweaking and adding fresh perspective.
The "Social Brain" has helped to sustain human life on earth for millennia. It is the power of ingenuity that comes from working together and drawing on skills from across the population and individual societies have always utilised its ability. Whether that be groups from one village coming together to build a Church or national armies defending their realm. The strength lies in the fact that each individual has unique skills, knowledge and perspective.
So perhaps an education system doesn't need to try to ensure that all children know exactly the same things. Perhaps each individual is born with natural talent, but that through a narrow view of what society should value in individuals in terms of what it believes knowledge is, we are subjecting the vast majority of the population to an experience that not only de-values them but even regresses their abilities. Of course the difficulty in seeing this comes from the fact that those very people who are allowed to alter the design of the system are the same people for whom the longstanding set of valued abilities has worked well. Those of us who are in positions of influence have almost universally been "academic" – the system has rewarded us. But for the majority, the education system fails to utilise the talent, skills and knowledge that lie untapped within. Perhaps a general education, and the protectionist nature that subject specialists have over their own field, is creating a situation where only those made in the same mould can be successful.
But in my 2050, I want everyone to have had an experience of schooling that is truly developmental and one that leads to a career path for feeling successful and valued. Our children don't all need to know the same things. We can have a system that recognizes a different set of basics.
For me, the basics that we might wish to form an education system around are the very same as the strengths that we need in a future world to sustain our society and to prosper:
Adaptability: our children will not have jobs for life, they must be prepared to continually adapt and learn so that they may be able to engage with multiple careers throughout their lives – many of these jobs don't exist yet and we can't even begin to imagine what they might be. So it is the skill of being able to adjust to a changing world that should be instilled as a basic.
Data synthesis, interpretation and validation: our children can already play a computer game, talk on the phone, text friends, chat on Facebook, listen to music and watch TV all at the same time. But then we create a school environment that doesn't utilise this ability to systhesise multiple data stimuli. In the future, it will be a fundamental basic skill to be able to take huge amounts information, translate it in to sensible questions or ideas, play with the data and then turn the outcome into some solution or next iteration of an idea. At the same time, with massive amounts of data available, it will become a necessary basic skill to look at data with a careful eye. How do you find something out today? Well, you Google it, right? And up pops lots of pages for you to look at – and you only look at the first few on the page – to give you your answer. But what if this information is misguided, subjective, biased, extremist, or just plain wrong? We need our children to be able to sift the nonsense by considering multiple sources, balancing credentials, benchmarking against their own knowledge and feeling for the situation, being able to test the information. We need critical use of resources to become a basic skill.
Languages: We are tied to French, German and Spanish. And even these are in poor state in schools across the country. But even though the international language of business is English, I believe it is crucial that we give access to Arabic, Chinese and some of the languages of the Sub-Continent. Not only for purposes of communication, but to give an appreciation and understanding of culture and values, shared memory and living history. The world is small now, and just as in 1850 it was an important factor in success to know what made the folk in your village tick, so now is it important to understand the viewpoint of your global neighbours.
Collaboration: Success happens because of collaboration. Take any prospering business and at the heart of it you will find people bouncing ideas off of each other, tweaking their viewpoints, changing directions. Human beings are more effective when they engage in collaboration because they are given the opportunity to notice the impact of their actions and to evolve. Schools should rearrange their learning models, moving away from individual work and testing, to one of promoting collaboration. The assessment system could help by creating rubrics for effective collaborative behaviours and outcomes.
Creativity: We should not be teaching subjects in individual silos marked Mathematics, Geography, Music, and so on. This is not how the world works. At no point in a successful adult life do you say, hey this problem requires just maths. You mix and match, combine, see multiple applications. You pull together all of your experiences and relevant bundles of knowledge and skills. We should break down the barriers that have been created by determining subjects in schools. Mathematics for example is not about calculating, it is about spotting a situation in the real world, changing it in to a model that you can play with, then changing that back in to some real world meaning. To do this, you draw on countless areas of expertise. None more so than the ability to be creative. To overcome, approximate, guess, conjecture, experiment.
I started off by saying that I am not right. I know that. But I hope that we can move towards basic skills such as those above and abandon the notion that school is only school if it looked like school when I was a child.
And my train is now arriving...