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  • Diahann Hughes Hawkins

Why Reforming our Education System is So Difficult (and where we should begin)

Updated: Aug 3, 2022

The debate on how to re-organise our education system to make it fit-for-purpose in the modern world has been ongoing between political parties, school systems, and educators for decades. While all agree that change is essential for children to be prepared for 21st century challenges, the dialogue usually stops there. It’s time to go back to the drawing board.

All construction projects require a blueprint before construction projects start. It’s unthinkable to build a skyscraper, automobile or even computer without detailed plans, models and prototypes to guide the entire process from start to finish. This blueprint phase is where the global dialogue on Education really needs to start, yet the main obstacle is that so far we haven’t defined a vision for the desired outcomes of the education system that all students should acquire. So exactly why has defining a collective vision to help rebuild an entire education system fit for the 21st century been so challenging?

Because we are in the midst of the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ – a period of intense disruption and technological advancements.

Since we're in the midst of huge upheavals on so many levels, we can't yet be certain about what our children will need for the workforce they are entering into in a few years time. The job market is already changing at dizzying rates due to the disruption of a global pandemic, compounded by technological advances and a looming economic collapse. These monumental events on the global stage haven't affected a graduate workforce so much since the early days of the Industrial Revolution, which happens to be when the foundations of our current global education system were laid.

“It’s fashionable to say the education system is broken. It’s not broken at all. But what it is producing are people who are not needed”.

- Sugata Mitra (founder, Hole-in-the-Wall project)

In the face of such uncertainty, the best tools that our present education system can possibly provide to all children are the essential life skills of creativity, resiliency, problem-solving, collaboration, effective communication and the list goes on. These character-defining abilities can equip future workers with the ability to respond and adapt to the many challenges they will face in order to survive and thrive within a global economy in transition.

The Building Blocks

Once the desired educational system output is clearly defined, the next step is to look at the optimum ways these skills can be fostered in every child throughout the entirety of their developmental years. The basic areas that need informed consideration would be:

Curriculum: what information we deem important for all children to learn as part of a broad education, while considering we’re firmly in the age of digital information. Here is a link to some examples of what should be included: Curriculum Addendums for 21st century Learners.

Pedagogy: This is the approach that helps to structure optimum learning environments, and can look different in various cultures throughout the world. However, most schools utilise the subject-based teaching approach, as it is the easiest method to prepare batches of learners for standardised exams (teaching to the test). Increasingly, there are some alternative 'learning-by-doing' approaches that have been successfully trialling project & topic-based learning. These pedagogies often incorporate innovative 'learning environments' that are better suited to facilitating group projects, such as High Tech High (San Diego, USA), Agora (Netherlands) and Steve Jobs schools.

Learning Environments: These can range from the traditional ’bricks & mortar’ schools, community centres, workshops to virtual learning environments at home. They can also include elements of outdoor learning, to bring a (mental) healthy balance between Nature and knowledge.

Learning Tools: They help with delivering curriculum through a variety of formats, such as books, videos/documentaries, lectures, hands-on workshops, AI-platforms, virtual/augmented reality ‘classrooms’, online courses… or a mixture of all of these.

‘Quality control’: The way that most schools are funded requires a standard academic assessment framework to determine effectiveness of learning. This mostly involves standardised tests in some combination with teacher assessments. However, more edutech tools are constantly emerging that can make assessment easier and produce a more holistic snapshot of the individual student, like through the use of digital portfolios. These tools should ideally include 'well-being benchmarks' to ensure that whole-child development (beyond just academics) is being fostered. View some examples of these in the Connective Learning 21st century 'Life Skills' spreadsheet.

Now Construction Can Begin

When all the previous categories have been carefully considered and mapped, the finer details can be drawn up into a comprehensive Educational Plan and successfully built. This construction process currently lies firmly in the domain of national education policies and local authorities, who determine how to deliver the best environment for learning. However, the reconstruction process will demand radical changes to the current one-size-fits-all system, that assumes all children learn alike and require the exact same tools. More stakeholders need to be brought to the design table, with their specific areas of expertise and knowledge, such as child development specialists and education innovators running successful projects.

With more families home-schooling and small learning groups being created globally, there are increasingly more options to bring about rapid adoption of educational innovation outside of traditional schools. Some older trends, like apprenticeships and project-based classrooms, are making a comeback from the 1970s as an educational option for those who are better at ‘learning by doing’. The growing market of high-tech learning apps offer another platform for learning that can be a preferred option for children whose minds easily adapt to the virtual world.

Artificial Intelligence is already creating tools for curriculum, online learning environments and assessment through 'adaptive learning’ that tailors more directly to the needs of individual students. Online courses have exponentially proliferated since 2020, and offer more up-to-date information while linking students worldwide. The growing number of teaching and instructional Youtube channels rival any cutting-edge classroom in the world, by putting excellent teachers in front of students that might not have the same resources in their own classroom. Plus the digital materials are usually far more up-to-date and relevant than outdated textbooks.

We are indeed in a time of great change, but the most important monument we can leave to future generations is a solid foundation for learning that is flexible and responsive to the needs of ALL children. There just isn't a 'one size fits all' approach that will neatly fit into our industrial-scaled school systems. Education may one day look as different as a cityscape full of iconic skyscrapers with their own unique characteristics, instead of homogenised, uninspired buildings that closely resemble factory farms. Our collective assumptions that 'learning only takes place in a school' and what that 'school' looks like is no longer fit for purpose for the era that we're in. We should focus far less resources on the bricks & mortar part of education, and more on developing the flexible learning spaces and adaptive learning tools that allow children the opportunity to learn all the time.

For more information, visit

Further Reading:

World Economic Forum - “New Vision for Education.pdf”

“Dancing with Robots: Human skills for Computerised Work”

“The ‘Granny Cloud’: The network of volunteers helping poorer children learn” Background to SOLE project and it’s founder Sugata Mitra

Related book recommendations: REFERENCES page

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