'If our education system looks unfit for tomorrow’s world, blame our anachronistic curriculum model'

10th September 2016 at 12:01
Teachers aren't the obstacles preventing the transformation of our education system, writes a leading educationist

Before the new term reaches full steam, let’s do some blue-sky thinking, and indulge in what Mrs Thatcher called the "guffy stuff". What might education look like in 10 or 20 years’ time?

First, beware all predictions. In 1998, Paul Krugman, Nobel laureate economist, predicted that the internet would have no greater economic impact than the fax machine. Most predictions about technology’s impact on education are equally wide of the mark. According to an American educator in 1907, “Pen and ink will never replace the pencil." By 1928, another bewailed that “students today depend on store-bought ink. They don’t know how to make their own." In 1950 yet another warned that “ballpoint pens will be the ruin of education in our country”.

So as we take to the futurologist path, stepping carefully around the reputational corpses, is there anything sensible that we can say about the likely future educational landscape?

Step forward Unesco, with its series of working papers on "The Futures of Learning".  The prognosis is familiar: young people growing up today face a very different world, and will require a different set of competencies; and these will necessitate a very different pedagogy. You can guess the details – it’s about 21st century skills rather than content knowledge, and the inadequacy of current instructional models and curricula.

But the vision rests on a mistake. It asserts that: “Today’s students are no longer the individuals that (today’s) education systems were originally designed to teach." Few, I think, would argue with this. We have to work within structures designed for a different age. But this is coupled with a more contentious assertion that today’s students will face a very different world and therefore require a very different pedagogy. This second assertion should not be left unchallenged.

Teachers move with the times

If, at some future time, education is to be radically transformed from a subject-based curriculum with content knowledge at its heart, to a skills-based curriculum organised around the principles of project and problem-based learning, collaboration, creativity, and metacognition – my guess is that the obstacle won’t be the teachers, whose techniques have in fact adjusted pretty effectively to meet the need to teach for understanding, mastery and skills.

Among the real enemies of promise is the examinations industry, invested as it continues to be in high-stakes pen and paper tests orientated around a content-based curriculum. The subjects inscribed in the national curriculum were themselves set in stone in a genuinely different era – our current structure maps nicely on to the recommendations of the ‘Committee of Ten’ in 1892.

If today’s education system looks likely to be unfit for purpose in tomorrow’s world, don’t blame teachers or their techniques. Point fingers instead at an examination system wedded to handwriting and treeware, and at our quaintly anachronistic national curriculum model.

Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1

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