In 1997, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair set out his priorities for office as Labour campaigned to put classrooms at the top of the political agenda. "Education, education, education" was the mantra.
In the following ten years, more money was pumped into the education system, the number of teachers increased (reducing teacher:pupil ratios), schools were renovated, teacher pay rose and more teaching assistants came into the classroom.
However, we also saw a marked increase in tuition fees, testing, benchmarking and administration. In my time, I have seen different education systems in different countries as well as delivered corporate workshops around the world and programmes to MBA students.
There are obvious limits to the education system, including desired academic outcomes (are they relevant to the real world?), education as a political football (academic direction shifting every time there’s a new government) and the teachers (burnt out, disenfranchised, cruising to retirement). The thing is, no matter what the limiting factor is, it is the children that suffer - does education put children first?
So what questions should we be asking?
Do we need teachers?
In my experience as a pupil, a parent, a visiting lecturer and someone delivering workshops, I would suggest that the days of needing a ‘teacher’ are becoming fewer. When I attend yoga classes, the person at the front stresses that they are merely on the same path of learning as everyone else in the room - so they see themselves more as mentor and guide than teacher.
And this is a key point - we see kids being increasingly ‘taught’ by the internet - LinkedIn recently acquiring online learning website Lynda for $1.5 billion is a sign of the scale of opportunity here. In workshops, we facilitate learning rather than ‘chalk and talk’… and if you consider something like Edgar Dale’s ‘cone of learning’, people learn more by doing than by reading, hearing or seeing.
In learning & development (and we want our children to develop as well as learn), we talk of 70:20:10 – 70 per cent of the time is spent ‘doing the job’, 20 per cent is spent in learning from others (teachers, facilitators, mentors) and 10 per cent is from coursework and reading. Go check the Ron Clark Academy - singing, dancing, physical exercise as they learn - and beating all targets.
Do we need school buildings?
We spend a LOT of money on school buildings (hey, shiny new buildings are vote-winners, after all) - and we even hear people blaming the state of a building for the success of a child’s learning. I would suggest that engaging with pupils was more important (as well as better tutor:pupil ratios) and access to relevant course materials. Consider Bridge International Academies and their Academy-In-A-Box model.
Formed in 2008, Bridge is the world’s largest chain of primary and pre-primary schools bringing world-class education to the poorest of the poor, using research, technology, and data analysis in order to standardise and scale the entire lifecycle of education delivery. This includes how academies are built, teachers are selected and trained, lessons are delivered and monitored for improvement, and more.
The first Bridge International Academy opened in the Mukuru slum in Nairobi, Kenya in 2009. Today there are hundreds and Bridge continues to expand across Africa and Asia. New academies are opening at a rate of one every 2.5 days. With a mission of Knowledge for all, Bridge plans to educate 10,000,000 children across a dozen countries by 2025.
When I first checked these out, lessons were carried out outside under trees. When I last looked, attending a Bridge Academy cost $6 a day per pupil and, on average, a Bridge pupil fares better than their peers in neighbouring schools (based on USAID-designed exams).
Do we need homework?
The mere mention of the word conjures images of 'taking work home with us' and a general form of punishment. We do, however, have to prepare for meetings in the workplace, write up minutes, work outside of the working hour… so what’s the difference? If we talk to students about preparing for tomorrow’s lesson and then point them in the direction of relevant websites… this IS homework. In a flip-learning model, have them prepare in advance for the next day. Just don’t call it homework, and don’t call it ‘learning’!
Do we need examinations?
For the majority of people in the workplace there is, at some point, the need for an exam - whether it is a project manager, an accountant or a secretary, a piece of paper is needed to ‘prove’ someone’s ability. I have two counter-arguments to this. First is a client of mine who felt she needed to be a qualified accountant for her job and so took up a position that gave her access to it. Two years’ down the line, she realised she was 100 per cent able in the post (in fact, over-and-above what was required) and time taken out for exams would have reduced her effectiveness. The second is a little bit more contentious - I have worked with a HR Director of a major university who paid someone to get her MBA for her.
In the main, we don’t really need the paper - we need the skills and experience which are achieved through applied learning. Cue complaints from all quarters - how to measure a school’s effectiveness if there’s no exam?! Maybe we measure the school on how many progress into employment, how many into enterprise and how many into further education… but the paper in itself is an irrelevance.
Do we need private sector involvement?
There is a battle between the ‘purity’ of academic pursuit and the corporate world. If you look at the support for Bridge International Academies, investors include various venture companies as well as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Consider Stanford University - it’s incubator (StartX) is not-for-profit although supported by grants from the Kauffman Foundation and Silicon Valley companies in 2012.
For enterprises to receive investment from Stanford, StartX companies must raise at least $500,000 on their own from professional angel investors or venture capitalists. Let’s not forget that there is a fundamental gap between what education offers and what employers want. So why not involve the employers in the process?
Do we need games?
Generation Y and Z children are gamers. There’s no denying it - whether it is crushing candy, hours on Minecraft, X-Box, PlayStation or whatever… gamification is here pretty much to stay. Bonus points, unlocked levels, leaderboards… gamification has radically reduced feedback loops, focuses on student engagement and has micro-learning modules (e.g. to unlock the next level of the game, watch this 90-second video clip and answer three questions correctly). Is the current academic curriculum ready for this?
So now I’ve touched on some deeply unpopular questions, what would the new classroom offer pupils?
Well, how about trained workshop facilitators (we used to call them ‘teachers’) introducing a new topic to pupils in a four hour workshop (20 per cent of the time allocated to it) and then a series of hands-on projects (over a 16-hour period – 70 per cent) with supplementary mentoring (two hours – 10 per cent) and recommended reading materials (‘homework’) that can be found on YouTube as much as in a library. With a focus on output more than input, the project teams are formed based on psychology profiling with an assigned project leader who reports into the guy at the front of the class with updates on the project and input from team members.
Local organisations (public sector, private sector, academia) are invited to get involved as a way to build closer ties (collaborative intelligence) and to gain a wider understanding of a particular topic that goes beyond the co-working space (we used to call them ‘classrooms’).
The final stage… well how about no classrooms but open-plan floors with project teams attending their four hour workshop in a training room, follow-up meetings in a booked meeting room, 1:1 or 1:many mentoring from the workshop facilitator who is also the ‘boss’ that project teams report to: closing the gap between employers and education.
By having the majority of the project aligned to gamified eLearning, the pupils are engaged and eager to ‘win’ - and they are learning. I think, as a parting piece now that I’ve alienated nearly 90 per cent of people reading this, if we do what we always did then we get what we always got - if we want to achieve something new, we need to do something new - and keep putting the children first.