What’s Wrong With School?

We live in a world that is constantly changing. In fact some things are changing so quickly that it is possible to wake up in the morning and wonder what new piece of technology suddenly became available overnight or what has suddenly disappeared because it is no longer of any use. In January I will be attending a technology conference in London and within the blurb that they recently sent me was this idea, “Take yourself back to the turn of the Millennium, the start of the 21st Century and remind yourself what your mobile phone looked like, who the leading software companies were, how you used the Internet, who supplied your entertainment and how you engaged with the digital world. Now bring yourself back to the present.”

The start of the 21st Century was just 10 years ago and yet so much has changed. We now look at YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, iPhones, iPods as if they had always been with us. I found a website called ‘worldometers’ and it reckoned that as of 4.45pm today there had been 2,118,000,000 searches on Google. This begs the question, “Who did we ask before Google?” We might laugh at this picture of a ‘mobile phone’ but this was cutting technology just 20 years ago. Especially if you compare it to the coin operated phones that I was used to as a youth, press button A to connect, press button B to get your money back. Many of you wont have the foggiest idea what I’m talking about! What will mobile phones look like 20 years from now?

As a teenager I loved watching a TV programme called ‘Tomorrows World’ where they made predictions about the future and showed you prototypes of the next amazing bit of technology. Programmes like this allowed you to dream about how fantastic the ‘future’ might be – but you always knew that that ‘future’ was a long way off. Such a programme today would be impossible, by the time it had been produced and ready to screen half of the items would no longer be newsworthy.

If Rip Van Winkle was to wake up today after having slept for 50 years he wouldn’t recognise a thing. Or would he? You could take him to the local hospital, to the shopping mall or an airport or for a ride in a car and he would be quite bewildered. But – take him into a school and his eyes would light up, he would smile, at last he was somewhere that he recognised!

We think that our schools have changed but they haven’t. 55 years ago when I started school we used to play in the Reception class but then get down to ‘proper work’ from then onwards. The same is true of many of our primary schools today. In my day school would start at 9.00am and finish about 3.30pm, we would have a morning play for 15 minutes at 10.30am and would all go off to the hall for school dinners at 12.00pm. We had an Autumn term, a Spring term and a Summer term and long Summer holidays. What’s changed?

We used to sit at desks in groups of four or 6 and all face the front of the classroom where you would find the teacher and the blackboard. Exactly the same today except the blackboard has been replaced by a whiteboard! In terms of learning we did maths and English in the morning because learning the ‘basics’ was important. Other subjects, deemed to be less important, were squeezed into the afternoon. Visit a primary classroom tomorrow morning and guess what they will be doing?

At the end of our primary school we were coached for a national test, it was called the 11+. A school’s success was often judged on how many of its children passed that 11+. Today we have simply replaced the 11+ with SAT’s. We still coach the children, if you get a Level 4 or higher you are deemed to have ‘passed’ if you don’t then you have failed. Schools teach to these tests because that is how some people will judge the level of their success.

So schools are stuck in the past. Maybe it’s just as well then that research suggests that only 15% of learning takes place in school. I suppose the question is where is the other 85% taking place and how? Sir Ken Robinson writes,Current systems of education are based on the manufacturing principles of linearity, conformity and standardization. The evidence is everywhere that they are failing too many students and teachers alike. Reforming education is rightly seen as one of the biggest challenges of our times. In my view, reform is not enough: the real challenge is to transform education from a 19th century industrial model into a 21st century process based on different principles.”


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