December 11th, 2011
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: firstname.lastname@example.org
I am puzzled and confused at the way my friends are taking their kids out of the school system. Either they home school their children or, if they have money, they send the kids to private school. “If they have money” includes working 3 jobs and, in one case, meeting men in hotel rooms for sessions of nude photography — it is incredible the sacrifices some of my friends are making to keep their children out of the public schools. And what is that makes the public schools such a horror?
Repeatedly, the argument was made that the education system is smothering creativity, actively discouraging innovation and turning out mindless ‘drones’ with a high number of often worthless qualifications. The case was made that we should act to change the curriculum;
“We should include
in the curriculum”
“We should retrain teachers to improve the quality of their teaching and recruit talented
ers as teachers to impart their knowledge the next generation!”
This makes sense from a data-driven perspective; Better teachers = Better students = Better future workforce. This approach, in my opinion, is fundamentally flawed
Back in the glory days of the UK, schools were largely under-regulated when compared to modern schools. League tables were a figment of a young tory party representative’s imagination and Ofstead was a meaningless word
Schools ran courses because they wanted to, not because they would ensure the highest possible rank on the league table. Computer Science was taught alongside ‘CIT’ and English teachers were allowed to teach “Lord of the Flies” without fearing losing their job. Most notably, however; Science teachers could blow stuff up without worrying for health and safety. It was that notion of ‘blowing stuff up’ that drove students in hordes into science lessons. How many of the most influential British scientists were once inspired by their secondary school teacher’s borderline pyromania?
This is something we have largely lost. With the exception of the most dedicated educators who fight for the combustion of jelly-babies in testtubes to make their lessons more engaging, science is bland and uninteresting and the teaching is completely clinical. The same is true for Maths and for Computer Science, frontiers in which upward mobility is still completely possible and innovation is commonplace, reduced to basic operation of of Microsoft packages, use of dead languages and outdated theories. Where are the pyromaniacs in Computer Science? How many programmers have we lost for lack of ‘blowing stuff up’?
To complement this shift in teaching-style, exams changed too.
Where O levels were terminal (one exam, one shot at winning, or 2 if you resat), modern examinations are modular. Each subject consists of anywhere between 6 and 20 modular exams with supporting coursework and assessments. Subjects can and often do entail hours of work each night, severely limiting the amount of time young people can spend exploring their own interests. For high achievers, this problem is only made worse as instead of being allowed time to explore their interests and passions, they are forced to take on more subjects ‘because they are capable’. These high achievers are often the ones with outside interests and as a result end up with less than desirable scores in exams and ‘Effort Grades’ below average.
Though the blame cannot be placed entirely on the way we’re teaching our young people. A large part of the problem stems directly from the number of subjects we’re forcing upon our students. 5 GCSEs is the minimum, but students are commonly expected to achieve upwards of 16. I myself ended up with 22. We’re working our young people too hard.
Reading back through the comments on hackernews, I noticed a recurring theme. Hackers would bring up anecdotes of playing around with BBC Micros in their spare time, learning C in their spare time or building basic command-line games in their spare time. Most of the best developers I know are products of tinkering with technology when they had a minute, but in an educational ecosystem which squeezes every last drop of energy and free time from students, where do they find the time to explore their own interests? We force so much structured work onto our young people that they loose all opportunity to take part in the arguably more important “unstructured work”, the tinkering and hacking that once made us the leaders of the industrial world.
We’re heading for disaster but we can do something about it. Organisations like Rewired State are already reshaping the way programming is taught from a grassroots level and communities where young developers can share their experiences and knowledge are beginning to emerge in their wake. Similar communities, im sure, exist for other subjects. The kids of Rewired State are the archetypes of a new era of education, one in which we have the tools and the ability to teach ourselves what we want to learn.
We need to refocus out energies not on producing the most highly-qualified generation in history, but the most highly skilled and highly satisfied. Only then can we really start to change the world.