Being educated about education
I’ve been thinking about education a lot lately. I think about how I hated studying Chinese and Western history because no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t do well in exams. I think about how lucky I am because those subjects weren’t in the core HKDSE curriculum and I didn’t have to study them anymore since F.4. On the other hand, I am also lucky because the subjects that I was good at, like English and mathematics, were compulsory subjects that lasted till the end of my secondary education. Meanwhile, my friends who were amazing at sports, music or art only had an hour per week to do what they enjoy. For the rest of the week, they were stuck with subjects they didn’t like.
If you asked me how I would change the education system while I was suffering through my history exams, I might have screamed “scrap history lessons!”. As with any system, it’s easy for anyone to propose a change from their perspective, but not so easy anymore once they start to think more holistically. Creative Schools introduces the problem by asking one simple question.
What are the purposes of education?
At the start of the book, Sir Ken Robinson states the four main purposes of education:
- Economic: a country needs students with high-in-demand skills and knowledge to stay economically competitive, whereas students themselves need them to be economically independent
- Cultural: education is a way to pass on cultural values to the next generations, and to allow students to appreciate their own cultures as well as others’
- Social: education teaches students to be active, responsible and compassionate citizens in order to drive society forwards
- Personal: education teaches students to “deal with the world within them and the world around them”, helping them to cope with their internal emotions, goals and values, as well as external events and people
Education must consists of a balance of these four principles. It’s important that the design of any syllabus be based on them. In reality, these principles are often overlooked in favor of a more academic, test-driven and rigorous education.
What’s wrong with the current system?
Students are unique. There is no one single curriculum that suits all students. That’s an easy enough concept, yet it is difficult to realize once you factor in money and politics.
Governments started to panic when their students didn’t rank high enough in PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), a test that measures the performance of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics and science. Rigorous curriculum were put in place that limited what schools could do. Governments issued easily measurable standards to compare schools. Schools had to perform well to receive fundings. Students were reduced into mere datasets. What did you say again, “students are unique”?
Dominance of academic subjects
There is a widespread superstition that intelligence equals academic work and academic success equals educational success. As described in the book, current education focuses heavily on theoretical analysis, where it involves:
reading, writing, and mathematics rather than on technical, practical, and applied work that involves manual dexterity, physical skills, hand-eye coordination, and the use of tools.
As a result, schools spend most of the time teaching language and STEM subjects, while “less scholarly” subjects such as music, drama, visual arts and sports are given little attention. Students whose talents lie beyond the “standard subjects” in schools are robbed of the opportunity to perform and shine. We should all recognize that our community needs a diversity of talents to flourish, not batches of robots with the same abilities.
Instead of actual learning, students are confronted with tests after tests. For easier marking, tests are designed to contain multiple choice questions and closed-end questions. The skills needed for doing well in exams do not translate into skills needed by the modern society, where qualities such as critical thinking, independence and creativity are imperative.
“We don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out of it”
In addition, the feedback given to students are often non-constructive (e.g. a simple letter grade that doesn’t explain how a student can improve) and delayed (test results are only available days or weeks after the assessment, by then the student would have already moved on to the next topic), which does little to help a student’s development.
Tests are supposed to complement teaching, but now schools teach for the sake of preparing students for tests.
A day at school is divided into equal chunks. Each subject takes up a fixed amount of time and when the bell rings, everyone leaves what they are doing and go on to the next subject. A curriculum at school is divided into subjects. Everyone studies the same subjects. It’s not until the last 3 or so years in students’ secondary education when they can start to choose from a small pool of electives. This industrial-style education turns learning into a dull and painful chore.
What have people tried?
The book goes on to talk about the different creative approaches to education that have shown promising results. High Tech High is a high school that has a project-based interdisciplinary curriculum that combines technical and academic education; A+ schools teaches through the arts; the Learning Record gives a personalized documentation of learning process to each student; Big Picture Learning Schools aim to allow students to learn in real-life situations by sending kids to work in the community under the guidance of mentors. Of of these approaches resulted in more engaged students, fewer disciplinary issues, more effective learning and, perhaps not so important anymore, better test scores.
Regardless of how different these approaches are, their design were all based on one or more of the following beliefs:
- All kids are natural learners: when given the right incentives, all kids are willing to work hard. Kids that are “lazy” are just drained of all passion and interest to learn by the current system.
- Flexibility of framework: None of these approaches are hard guidelines. The success of one A+ school does not mean it will work in any school. Schools are welcome to study and implement the frameworks in their own ways.
- Making learning fun and personalized: For some reason, there’s a notion in today’s education that “studying” and “playing” should be two separate activity. Yet all of the examples have shown that students are more engaged in learning when they enjoy the process and can choose what they want to learn.
- Application of knowledge: similarly, students are also more engaged when they can apply their knowledge in real-life situations and be involved in the community. As Sir Ken puts it, “students need to leave schools to stay in school”.
There are two final things people should keep in mind:
- Education isn’t confined within the walls of schools: parents and the community also share the responsibility to educate the young.
- Tests / assessments / exams aren’t inherently bad: tests should be designed to be diagnostic (to point out areas of improvement), formative (to gather information on students’ work to supprt their progress) and summative (to show students’ overall performance). Sir Ken isn’t against testing. Problem only arises when testing hinder learning itself by devouring valuable learning time and putting students in unnecessary stress.
Creative School is a clear, comprehensive and well-researched guide to changing education. Besides the content summarized above, the book also delves into topics such as school leadership, parenthood and politics. This summary covers far from what the book has to offer and I encourage everyone who’s interested in education to give it a read.
Who am I to change the education system?
I’d like to leave you with one final quote:
“If you’re a teacher, for your students you are the system. If you’re a school principal, for your community you are the system. If you’re a policymaker, for the schools you control you are the system.”
By extension, if you’re a student, you are the system. Don’t stop learning. Don’t stop dreaming. Do what you love and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.
Check out Creative Schools here.