Total reading time: 9 minutes Bolded text reading time: 3 minutes
Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire. - WB Yeats
Deducation exists to help others learn the things they should have been taught, and advocate that they be taught, in school. This core overview of my views will cover its fundamental flaws and some general suggestions on formal education including schools and University in the UK. It is worth noting that many of the underlying concepts which shape British education are seen in systems around the world.
The UK education system was largely established and centralised during the Victorian era. At the time, designers of education needed to produce individuals capable of following instructions and remembering basic facts in order to work on factory floors, given that manufacturing was not only an enormous employer but also most people’s only choice. Discipline, memory and copying were therefore the essential building blocks of education. More than 100 years later, these principles remain at the core of teaching and testing practice.
In a day and age where the vast majority of Britons work in a services industry, where they need to solve problems and test boundaries independently, rather than follow orders and do what everyone else is doing, the current system is failing to produce effective workers. In fact school is failing to produce effective humans.
We are unable to cultivate for ourselves a healthy lifestyle, very few of us truly enjoy ourselves (in sobriety at least), we cannot instil discipline in our lives because we were never told how, and the things we learned in school seem so abstract and irrelevant that they are rightly forgotten upon graduation.
Students are tested now more than ever. Record numbers go to University and we have become bureaucratically obsessed with qualifications, mistaking them for skill and ability. This leads to more schooling, which produces less effective individuals with more debt and less experience or initiative.
As a consequence of copy-and-repeat schooling, poorer students are most disadvantaged. Wealthier children are provided more opportunities by their families to learn and explore outside of the classroom, and regularly perform far better. Meritocracy cannot exist if education does not serve as an equaliser.
Instead of producing box-ticking order followers who aren’t taught to think, even allowed to think for themselves, it would be very easy to redesign the curriculum to produce children who love learning because they have seen the positive effects it can have on all elements of their lives. I have written on the Deducation Start Here page about the four pillars and how education must fulfil these categories: health, wealth, happiness, and lifelong learning. It seems bizarre that only one of these is even semi-satisfactorily met by current education. That is, we teach children how to fulfil some job roles in order to accumulate basic wealth, although without helping them to manage or understand it. In contrast health, happiness and lifelong learning are barely if ever covered. By covering all of the pillars we can produce well rounded, happier students, workers and people.
This requires reprioritising. Before students are handed swathes of subject matter, they should be taught how to learn. Before they cover anything academic or abstract, they need to acquire the skills necessary for learning and life, including health, happiness, and life management or organisational skills. Without including these as solid foundations, how can we expect students to build a credible academic career?
A rounded education system must work for everybody, regardless of background or ambitions, by ensuring that they are given every possible opportunity to make the most of their education. For those who have no interest in following an academic path, school need not be a waste of time for them, and would not be if they were taught to be a healthy, happy person, capable of managing his or her finances. Crucially of course, school needs to interest and excite, so that everybody can enjoy learning regardless of their aspirations. Remember this:
Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.
The current aim of education is not to educate, but rather to create exam-passers. Therefore the system will only work for those with good memories, interested in pursuing careers for which qualifications are worth something. This creates a number of problems.
It is not so ridiculous to think that if students found school interesting, even relevant, that they might perform better in tests. Simply by changing the way subjects are taught, we can inspire and ignite rather than bore and close minds.
The role of education, and the mission of Deducation, is to provide the following for every child:
Given these objectives, and the other statements I have made here, I would like to set out briefly a few key ideas which shape the thinking of a Deducation system. Each of these points, as well as many others, will become separate posts later on. For now I would be grateful for your comments and thoughts on the following.
It is entirely possible to learn a language to a very impressive standard in 3 months, and in 6 months at a relaxed pace. The methods used to do this are not controversial, or counter-intuitive. Rather they make a lot of sense. By focusing on elements you will actually use in the target language, and actually using it, progress can be marked. Being thrown in the deep end works for swimming, and it works for languages too.
In contrast the method used by schools is clearly ineffective, untargeted and frankly useless. I hated French at school, and never really got anywhere with it. However when speaking French abroad I loved it, even done poorly. Reading and copying from a textbook will make nothing exciting, and for languages it will not teach you to speak it either. Learning the names of the furniture in your bedroom is pointless because it has no utility. Common phrases actually used in the classroom will create instant relevance, feedback and progress. Learning something of immediate use is fun, and when we see progress, we continue to work at it.
As I have said, I will be writing a lot more on language learning and my experiences with it, but for now let me know about your own experiences with languages in and out of school.
Happiness is like archery - a skill comprising certain learned chemical reactions and thought processes in the brain. The skill of happiness can be learned and taught, as any other, not to perfection, but for improvement. The neglect of happiness on the curriculum jeopardises education as a whole. If a student isn’t happy they cannot learn, and the expected instability experienced among young people, not dealt with, can squander their opportunity to learn, creating a disadvantage for life.
It is simply poor prioritisation. In the long run, dealing with students as humans first, and teaching them accordingly, will have an enormous positive impact on their education as a result.
What I mean by ‘teaching’ happiness is confronting the sorts of personal issues and emotional problems common among young people, which may also crop up in later life. This includes anxiety and insecurity, as well as mindfulness and calm. These self-development topics are likely to form a big part of this blog, simply because in my opinion they are most important.
Factors and sources. When I was doing history at school this was all that seemed to matter. That’s confusing though, because history is actually an account of what people did (His-Story). Why dehumanise it into irrelevance? We forget it happened, think of it abstractly and usually en masse e.g. 25 million people died during the black death in Europe. That means nothing to us. But when we focus in on a single family, how that must have been for them, how they felt, what they could and couldn’t do, that’s where it becomes interesting!
If we do not learn from history, then it is destined to repeat itself. Yet if there is anything that history teaches us, it is that no people, and certainly no government, ever learned a single thing from history. And yet learning the lessons of history is not the focus in school at all. But how is anyone supposed to take anything away from schooling when that is not the focus? Rather the focus is memorising numbers of people, sources and factors. We can learn useful analytical skills from these exercises, but they dehumanise the subject into irrelevance.
By rebranding history as both the greatest story ever told AND a list of experiences others have passed to us to learn from, we can make history both interesting and useful. Throw out the textbooks and act things out, discuss the thoughts and feelings of the historical figures, their motivations and concerns. From there it is a natural jump to question what we can learn from the scenario, what we would have done differently and why. By humanising and empathising with history, we can make it interesting, relevant, and non-repeating.
The ability to memorise anything more than essentials is unnecessary in life and promotes the skill of copying. We don’t want an army of copiers, but one of individual thinkers. Not a single nobel prize winner or celebrated genius was so hailed because of their memory. Since the invention of paper the skill of memorising has been thrown into irrelevance, and rightly so. Our brains are not amazing storage units; they are built to solve the most complex problems we face.
Yet memory is prioritised as the most fundamental skill on the curriculum, ahead of understanding or analysis. Our obsession with examinations destroys creative thinking and initiative. It is the easiest way to test and also the worst, and we know this because taking a book in to the exam is thought of as cheating. Why should we want to know if students can replicate things already written down? To death goes originality and innovation.
Deducation focuses on creating an interest in a subject, prompting students to delve into and explore them throughout their lives. It is of far less interest to see who can remember the most. Memorising serves no purpose other than to destroy imagination.
For certain subjects it is necessary to remember a minimal amount of knowledge. In order to make this quick and painless, school children should be taught the memory techniques proven by memory champions to be effective. These skills are very easy to pick up, enable rapid memorisation and amazing recall. Why they are not taught to young children, given the pedestal which memory is place upon, is beyond me! Once everyone is able to memorise information easily, education will be forced to steer away from using memory as a measure of ability, because it will be a commonplace ability. It is vital instead to measure problem solving and initiative as far more valuable skills.
Deducation takes resolve from the maxim of WB Yeats:
Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.
This reminds us how awful and unessential memory is as a measure of skill, and that education must be the starting block for a life of learning and discovery, rather than the beginning and end of a torturous fifth of our lives. If education is to succeed it must excite every participant, or else it is a miserable waste.
Exams under examination
If memory is useless, history is a fable and happiness is teachable then you would be right to ask “How on earth can we test all of this?” Happiness is an example of a skill which is not easily tested, but why should it be. Current education fails because it begins from the stance, ‘we need to test things to grant qualifications’. If testing for qualifications is the starting point then it is no wonder that they choose skills which are easy to test (memory) as the priority. Unsurprisingly skills like creativity and innovation, harder abilities to quantify, are not important in current education. Consequently, schooling does not create an education system, but a testing system. The primary aim of schools and Universities aren’t to educate or teach but to grant qualifications - ‘qualification asphyxiation’. When we have qualifications as the focus it is unimportant to designers of the system whether the skills they are testing are useful or not. It would make perfect sense for these people to test how high up a tree students can climb. Eminently measurable!
By focusing on qualifications as our first principle, actually educating students becomes far less relevant. Why would we teach them useful skills? This cannot continue. Schooling must focus on educational development first, and testing only where necessary. So what if happiness can’t be tested? Why should it be? A Deducation system proposes the end of testing for its own sake. Qualifications are pointless without actual skill, and as often is the case, the two do not go hand in hand. This creates problems later, when highly ‘qualified’ students have to apply real skills in the workplace, and for those with skills unmeasured by exams, who lose out on opportunities as a result.
Other than focusing on memory, and failing to prioritise important skills, exams also destroy the enjoyment of learning. Reading this, you probably laugh at the idea that learning could be fun. Well it can be, as long as you don’t go about it like you did in school. That is because you were learning for exams, rather than for enjoyment or use in your life. There is actually a small satisfaction in applying the few useful things you did learn, in real life. For example, the little French you remember, or some Biology to figure out why you are getting ill. Relevance and use to life, not exam questions, would be the guide to Deducation curricular design.
In order to track and assess progress, there are many tools other than exams. Coursework for example, requiring in depth thinking over an extended period, along with originality and clear articulation of ideas, is a far more effective means of meeting educational aims. Engaging fully in an area of the students choosing generates expertise to be proud of, variation across the classroom, and real enjoyment where chosen and carried out properly. The key is to allow the breadth for students to choose something they can enjoy, and find relevant to their lives.
Typical questions which require little independent thinking should be replaced with a problem to solve, allowing students to learn lessons from the subject and apply them as if it were their own lives. An example of a history question would be:
Henry VIII wants to divorce Katherine of Aragon however he is blocked from doing so by the Catholic church. What would you do in his place?
Here students would have a range of things to discuss, including his feelings and motivations for the divorce, the various options other than divorce, and the benefits of breaking with the Catholic church for Henry. It is challenging students to learn from history, and apply themselves to achieve a better outcome by solving an old problem.
An education revolution is vital in order to counter a number of spreading yet preventable epidemics, including obesity and consequential diseases, mental health issues including stress and depression, an increasing wealth gap between rich and poor, and perhaps most worryingly, a growing disdain for education and learning. Education is prevention.
It is our duty to design an education system which shapes our children into the kinds of people we want the future to be made of.
Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.
If you have any thoughts on education, formal and otherwise, you can use the comments below.