• Diahann Hughes Hawkins

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

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 the global pandemic, compounded by technological advances and a potential global 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.

Pedagogy: the approach to facilitating learning that helps structure optimum learning environments, which will look different for various cultures throughout the world. Examples are subject, project & topic-based learning approaches.

Learning Environments: these can range from the traditional ’bricks & mortar’ schools to community centres to virtual learning environments at home. They also should include an element of outdoor learning to bring a balance between nature and knowledge.

Learning Tools: discovering the best ways to impart knowledge through books, videos/documentaries, lectures, AI-platforms, virtual/augmented reality ‘classrooms’, online courses… or a mixture of all of these.

‘Quality control’: academic assessment is vital to determine effectiveness of learning, which is usually standardised tests or teacher assessments. However, more edutech tools are constantly emerging that can make assessment easier and produce a more holistic snapshot of the individual student. These should also include well-being standards to ensure that whole-child development (beyond academics) is being fostered.

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 is firmly in the domain of national education policies and local authorities, who mostly determine how to deliver the best environment for learning. And the 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. However, 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. It might be that older trends like apprenticeships and project-based learning return again as an educational option for those to prefer to ‘learn by doing’. Or high-tech learning apps may 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 in 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 country.

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. Education may one day look as different as a city full of iconic skyscrapers with their own unique characteristics, which is a far more likely scenario than the homogenised, crumbling structures we are trying to teach in today.

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

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