Yesterday a colleague and I spent a day at The Education Project. This was an annual conference sponsored by Bahrain’s Economic Development Board. It brings together school principals, university professors, educational thinkers and government officials from around the world to discuss issues in education.
As you would expect from the company that runs the annual Davos gathering of the great and the good, the conference organization was top notch. The stand-out session for me was a series of short presentations about innovative projects in South Africa, the US, China and Brazil. In the China presentation, which involves teaching critical thinking, the speaker made the interesting comment that 300 million people in China are currently learning English – more than in the USA.
The plenary sessions ranged from baffling to uplifting. A chap from Cisco described the Global Leaders in Education Project (with the attractive acronym of GELP), which seemed to me to be an opportunity for educationalists to travel to interesting places to discuss other people’s problems. Fine, but there weren’t any specific outcomes he was able to share. On the other hand, four students from the Crown Prince’s elite Scholarship Program were brave enough to sit on the podium and discuss their thoughts on education with admirable eloquence.
From the conference I was able to gather that everybody – from politicians to educationalists – was violently agreeing that education needs to change. That we need to move from the attitude that education is all about certificates. That we need to give people the skills to succeed in the workplace as people rather than as repositories of knowledge. That learning should be life-long. That teachers should care. That parents must play a role in educating their kids rather than leaving the job to teachers.
As I sat among hundreds of well-paid education professionals who had flown in to Bahrain from all points of the globe, I was left with an uneasy feeling that these people represented an educational paradigm that has been in existence for a hundred years, but is not fully fit for purpose in the 21st Century. The linear process of primary, secondary and tertiary education does not serve people in India living in villages without electricity. It doesn’t serve manual laborers in China or illiterate women in Afghanistan. In communities where education is about learning how to plough, to build shelter, to survive from one day to the next, the pinnacle of the education system, the university degree, is about as relevant to the vast majority of the population as the black monolith that appeared among the hominids in Stanley Kubrik’s movie 2001. As Malcolm Gladwell suggests in his book Outliers, those who escape do so through a happy combination of luck, ability and circumstance. The rest spend their lives in poverty and deprivation.
I don’t have answers that will address the problem of the educational have-nots any more than I have bright ideas to eradicate poverty, disease and conflict. I also see no chance that the rigid structure of education – primary, secondary and tertiary, academic and occupational learning – is likely to change any time soon. There are too many vested interests that will work to prevent it.
But I also keep thinking about technological leapfrogging. Countries which can’t afford a traditional land-based telecommunications infrastructure, but go straight to mobile telephony, and from there to the internet. Is it possible that these countries can develop systems of education that also run parallel to the conventional structures? Systems that deliver education to the many rather than to the few without having to build hundreds of schools and universities and hire thousands of teachers?
Perhaps we should be rethinking the purpose of education, and looking to create an alternative construct that focuses on basic human needs – food, shelter, security, community – and builds from there. If you don’t understand crop rotation, how will algebra help you? If you don’t understand basic hygiene, does it really matter whether you can read or not? For most of our history, know-how was passed on via hands-on instruction, through learning by doing, not through the use of textbooks and the internet.
As for the existing system, why is the lack of critical thinking skills such a hot issue? Kids should be taught to think for themselves from the time they learn to walk. Why does the education system not recognize the basic abilities required to function in the workplace – communication (as opposed to language) skills, leadership, negotiation, personal finance, self-organisation, real-life problem solving (as opposed to algebraic solutions) – as credits in a system that is supposed to produce citizens ready to play their part in society? Why do secondary and tertiary institutions not recognize work experience, social projects and tangible, demonstrable outcomes arising from extra-curricular activities as credits in the educational system? Why is there no facility for gifted kids to attend tertiary-level programs at neighboring universities? At the same time why can’t they remain in the secondary system for study areas where they are in the mainstream of ability, and among peers at the same stage of emotional development?
I’m sure you will find people in the existing system who will tell you that “we already do this”. But I don’t see the evidence or the outcomes on a widespread basis. If it were so, there wouldn’t be thousands of training and education companies who make their living by shoring up the failures of conventional academia.
As I said, I don’t have the answers, but I’m absolutely certain that in a hundred years from now the global education landscape will be a very different place, or our descendants will be in deep trouble. And I’ve only mentioned the internet once.
I’d like to think that we will fix the system, and perhaps this will happen at the grass roots through the dedication of people like Taddy Blacher in South Africa and his Maharishi Institute, and through iconoclasts like Roger Schank in the US. While there’s life there’s hope.