Professor Averil Macdonald is the Chair of Science Engagement at the University of Reading. Averil encourages girls to pursue careers in science.
Does the current way of education fully prepare children for the 21st century?
I’m not convinced it’s doing the best it can. I can see what we’re trying to do is to make sure that an employer knows what a student knows and that’s what the tests will do. What we’re not doing is understanding how to make the student ready for work. That’s the area where I think we are falling down, because we are not enabling the students to become sufficiently self-reliant. There’re becoming far too reliant on teachers and on parents. We’re not giving them the freedom they need to make the mistakes from which they will learn, so that they can then become useful members of society.
So we need to allow more risk-taking when we educate people, and give them the chance to make mistakes. At the moment we’re petrified of getting anything wrong and we are insisting that they learn everything right.
What are the skills we need to be teaching our children?
I think the important things are collaboration, cooperation and understanding people. We’re no longer in a mechanistic world, producing stuff by hand. Most of what we do is related to negotiating, engaging with people, persuading people – and none of that ever comes through the education system. Yet the vast majority of businesses would fall apart if they didn’t have people on board who were good at negotiating, engaging and persuading.
So actually you have to think much more in terms of people skills. There are loads of students out there with those skills, but interestingly the current system doesn’t value them at all.
What is the role of the teacher?
The teacher is now much more of an enabler. They have to make sure the students can see where they fit.
In the UK for a long time we’ve had a big problem trying to get girls to consider that they should get a role in the STEM industry - Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. This has been going on for many years, it’s not recent, but we’re making absolutely no progress. For example when I was a teacher in the 1980s, of the students taking a physics qualification at age eighteen twenty percent were female. Now we are still at exactly twenty percent, we have not improved. And people have put a huge amount of time, effort and money into this with no impact.
So actually we are trying a new approach and this is something that Wise has been working on. It works on the basis of how young people in their teenage years begin to create their own self-identity. There’s a lot of research out there about how on average girls are more likely to think of themselves and who they are in terms of adjectives: ‘I’m friendly, I’m helpful, I’m organized.’ Whereas boys, in general, will more often think about themselves in terms of what they do: ‘I’m good at running, I’m in charge of the Scouts’ etc. There’s a lot of overlap but the research shows broadly that’s the way it goes. The theory for why this happens is it’s related to the way that you’ve been praised as a child – boys are praised for what they do, girls are praised for who they are.
Now this is the revolutionary bit – whenever we try to go to a school and say to young people: ‘Really, science is a great thing to do. It’s fascinating, it’s exciting, it does important things.’ Girls will say: ‘I can see that it’s exciting and important, and I’m good at it. But it’s not for people like me.’ And the reason is this, whenever we talk about science, scientists and what science and engineering does, we only ever use the verbs: ‘we create satellites, we build bridges.’ We never talk about the sort of people who work well in these environments.
So what we have done in Wise is that we’ve produced a particular resource that schools can use for free. Girls do a little quiz, where they choose adjectives that they say describe them. Comparing the adjectives that they’ve chosen they’re then mapped onto different roles.
Basically, what it’s telling them is that we need lots of different people in STEM businesses to make them work. Everything from the engineer or manager to the entrepreneur, trainer and communicator.
So the role of the teacher is to allow students to engage with wherever they’ll fit in the world according to the type of person they are. Because only if they fit it, will they actually be able to be happy and successful in their role. So they have to move away from ‘what can you do?’ to ‘what type of person are you and where does that fit you? Where are people like you happy and successful already?’
We’ve been trialing this with 300 girls and they’ve all been very positive, eighty adults also trialled it and said it was scarily accurate in predicting the job they’re doing. So if teachers can incorporate this, I think it will help a lot in preparing young people for where they are going to fit in the working world.
Do you think standardized testing is an effective way to assess learning?
Having been a teacher, I’ve found it is very difficult to test understanding. It’s a doddle to test recall. Unfortunately the system in the UK at the moment seems to believe that as long as they can recall facts, they therefore understand and can use and can apply those facts.
It’s a lot easier and cheaper to do recall-type testing but we should put a lot more effort into the sort of testing that enables a student to apply knowledge to a situation, because in the real world that’s what they’ll be expected to do. And if the employers rely on our view of what a student is capable of doing, we’ve got to be providing that sort of information.
What would be the most exciting learning environment?
The real world. We’ve got to get young people into the real world, into businesses and talking to people who work there.
The first job I ever did was being a teacher, so having gone straight from university into teaching I knew nothing of the real world. So how could I advise a student if I had never worked in a world other than education? We need to get young people into the real world, but also we need to make sure teachers themselves have experienced the real world, possibly through job placements. Then they can talk about it with their students, rather than having the education world somehow detached and separate from the working world with students only entering it after leaving school.
What role do you think government should play in education?
Governments should enable teachers to be good at what they do by giving them the resources they need so that the kids get a good experience. I don’t think governments should be overly heavy-handed in regulation. But I do think there is a role for regulation, because I think that teachers and schools, unless they know how they match up to the requirements, don’t really know whether they are doing things right or not.
So I’m not against regulation, but I think it’s got to be one half of the sandwich. The other half has to be giving people the right environment for them to teach in, and unfortunately that’s going to cost money, so the government has to provide that.
What was your favourite moment in your own education?
During my PhD, which I did part-time as a mature student when I had two young children in infant school, I remember a particular moment when I suddenly made a scientific breakthrough. The eureka moment of ‘Wow! I know something nobody else knows!’ I had to run upstairs and tell somebody. It’s more recent than my formal education, but it’s really stuck with me.
Did you have a favourite teacher?
There are two teachers that stick in my mind for things they said to me. I had a lot of brilliant teachers, but in particular it was my maths teacher who told me ‘You will never have trouble getting a job with a science qualification as a woman,’ and she was absolutely right.
Another woman I hadn’t realized had influenced me until quite recently had said to me: ‘it will be for you (the class) to pave the way for the girls that are to follow.’ That actually has been what I’ve been doing in my life, to pave the way for the girls who want to follow the route into science. And if I can make it easier for them my life has been worthwhile.
The next 100 years
The next 100 years of Finnish education should… prepare people for a very different world from the one we’re in. Be brave and do a little risk-taking to move us from continuing with business as usual, to an environment that is open to everyone and also carbon-free.