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25.5.2017 | Josephine Lister

What We Talk About, When We Talk About Education

Discussions about the future of education always come back to the key question, what are we educating for? You may think you know the answer, but so does everybody else...

Every discussion about the future of education always boils down to the same thing – what are we educating for?

This seems like a simple question at first, but with every different perspective comes a different answer. The wide and varying goals are what makes it so complicated to structure education. This becomes even more impossible when you add to this the fast developments happening in the world, as the goals at the start of a child’s educational career have changed by the time they leave education at eighteen. No wonder education is such a hotly contested topic!

To get right down to the core things that matter in education, we need to take a look at the basics we definitely need to get right.

Education as a means to a job.

Job creation (and preparation) is nothing to scorn at. In a time of increasingly competitive job markets for recent school and university graduates, many young people find it demoralising to discover that the career they’ve worked so hard towards is out of reach. Education was supposed to prepare them for the world, but instead they find themselves detached from it and being left behind.

"I don’t want people who can recall stuff because I’ve got computers to do that, I want people who can make stuff."

Alistair Smith, director of Education and learning strategist at Frog, explains how this instability feeds into how we need to prepare young people. ‘Young people are going to have to be immensely resilient, what people describe as having grit, they’ll need to be positive in order to bounce back from setbacks.’

Taking into account employers’ views can help young people into jobs as they are prepared for the job market and have the skills for today’s workforce. Lord Jim Knight, Chief Education Advisor at TES, told us, ‘As an employer I don’t want people who can recall stuff because I’ve got computers to do that, I want people who can make stuff.’

However, to reduce education to a supply and demand model would be extremely detrimental for the students involved, as Sir Ken Robinson argues, ‘Somewhere in there is a tacit conception of supply and demand. That’s what you see in the standards:  ‘We need more engineers, let’s make that the heart of education. We need more mathematicians, let’s have much more math in schools (...) We need fewer ballet dancers, let’s not have dance in schools.’ It is as if education is some sort of pipeline for manufactured products.’

Educating for the new career path

In terms of career preparation, we are living in a different time in which it’s unusual to remain in the same career for the rest of your life, as Cynthia Campoy Brothy, Founder of ArtworxLA, explains, ‘Young people don’t graduate to work in the same job for the rest of their lives, so how do we give students the skills to be nimble and creative so that they can be adaptive, so that they can adapt to something that changes (...) how can we give them skills to creatively tackle problems that don’t even exist yet?’

"How can we give them skills to creatively tackle problems that don't even exist yet?"

Will Richardson, co-founder of Modern Learners, agrees, thinking young people are going to have to keep learning throughout their lives. ‘I think skills are now about having a certain kind of mindset. Kids, and people generally, are going to have to really think about how they can continually learn, continually upskill, learn new things and apply those new learnings to the work that they are doing. It’s never going to stop.’

Educating for the Internet Generation

Educating for ‘today’s world’ also means preparing young people for the age of technology and the internet.

In a world of fake news and online abuse, today’s young people need to be educated in order to understand their world. Bryan Alexander, researcher and teacher, says ‘Definitely kids need to be exposed to computational thinking as early as possible and all associated technological skills: thinking about privacy and intellectual property, what it means to be human online - that’s one whole set.’

Currently, many educational systems throughout the world are still educating for the industrial age. To help our young people grow to be well-rounded, intelligent and healthy adults we must educate them adequately on the world they live in.

Has education really changed that much?

We like to call the skills kids need today, ‘21st Century Skills’, but are they really that different to before? Issues such as fake news have been a problem throughout history, where propaganda has been used to further particular agendas.

Knowing how to communicate online also feeds back to how we communicate in real life, being aware of how we act and the effect it has on other people. The internet is just a new playground in this sense.

Matt Esterman, high-school teacher and New Learning Co-Ordinator, argues, ‘I think it’s misleading to put ‘21st century’ in front of things and say: "this is stuff that we’ve just discovered." These are innate human traits that we have been hoping kids grow up with for millennia.’

Even though the human traits today’s young people need aren’t anything new, curriculum creators need to take into consideration these skills and their necessity in today’s world.

So what are these essential human traits?

‘What’s the point of having skills if you haven’t developed your character to use them?' says Sophie Deen, Creator of Detective Dot. 'I think one of the core skills is being a human being, learning about empathy, about your own character and what you think about the world. How to be non-judgemental, how to get on with other people, how to be a happy adult (...) We need to give kids the skills to feel empowered and to question all of the systems we are taught not to question. (...) I think it’s really important to teach kids to question everything, to question what they are being told and the information that they’re getting, to not take it at face value and to feel empowered to make a change.’

Looking past the fundamental human development we hope education enables, it's also important to look at the basic skill sets that are most vital to have too.

"These are innate human traits that we have been hoping kids grow up with for millennia."

Sir Ken Robinson explains what he thinks these are, ‘For me, the purpose of education is to help young people understand the world around them and engage in the world within them. A lot of the education system is focused on the external world, but all children have their own talents and abilities, sense of possibilities, biographies, anxieties, hopes and aspirations. (...) On that basis there are four big purposes of education: economic, social, cultural and personal.'

Robinson goes on to describe the competencies that are most essential for young people to develop, 'I would include things like curiosity, because in the end education depends on an appetite to learn. (...) Creativity is an essential set of skills and capabilities. It is the capability to have and develop new ideas that are original and of value and to know how that process works (...) Other critical skills are communication, which is being able to put our ideas together and explain them properly to people in a variety of forms, and collaboration. We live in a social world, we need to work with other people.’

Behind every opinion on education is the endeavour to give young people the best start in life possible. What that looks like in reality however is something still up for grabs!