Recently, the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) released a statement criticising the current education system in the UK for being too focussed on testing, results and tables. The result of this, they claim, is that children are not learning the skills that are required of them by the world of work.
The backlash consisted of many and various claims that a knowledge-based curriculum is essential, and that many other countries who apply this system have proven it’s value and effectiveness.
A regular component of my conference talks on education is a segment where I show a list (compiled from many independent surveys) of the top ten attributes that businesses say they are looking for in future employees. Here it is:
3. Self-motivation / drive
6. Decision making
7. Time management
8. Hard working
10. Problem solving
Like the CBI, my point is always that these competencies are under-valued and under-taught in our current education system.
However, it’s tricky to teach any of them in isolation - you need a context within which you can offer the opportunity to practise each and every aptitude.
The go-to area for developing everything on this list is the arts, but as we know, all things creative are well out of favour with our Ministry of Education. Like many of you, I think this is an appalling error in judgement. But all is not lost.
Even if you cleave to the traditional knowledge-based curriculum, and the current focus on STEM subjects, it’s possible to advance expertise in these top ten skills through the way the curriculum is taught. Giving children more opportunities to learn independently, to organise themselves within group tasks, to generally behave more like they will be asked to do in any workplace, can only be beneficial.
When asked, youngsters themselves are crying out for some applicable context in their learning. They want to learn about the issues they will have to deal with (and are perhaps already starting to have to negotiate) in real life.
Can we not incorporate teaching about tax, about housing, about credit, about starting a business, about benefits, or just all the daily binds of the daily grind? It’s much more interesting and easy to learn things when you can understand the application.
A change is well overdue, and more and more voices are joining the call for a major shift. Surely it’s only a matter of time before we reach the tipping point.
Last week I spoke about how children are often willing and able to embrace complex vocabulary, and I’d like to expound on that here.
Never be afraid to use a long word with a young child. Children love playing with language and long, complicated words can be fabulously alluring.
A class of 7-8 year olds I worked with got hooked on the whole concept of the history of language. It really kept me on my toes. I had to make sure I’d looked up the origin and derivation of any words I thought they might ask me about, and keep my etymological dictionary with me just in case they caught me out. One term, their focus was the Egyptians, so I’d got myself as up to speed as I could on relevant vocabulary, in preparation for my weekly session with them. Sure enough, as soon as I mentioned the Sphinx, the hands went up, and the question was asked, “Where does the word ‘Sphinx’ come from Nikky?” and I dutifully replied, “It comes from the Greek word ‘Sphgix’ meaning To Squeeze*”.
They persisted, “Why?” and I had to confess that I had absolutely no idea why. Then magic happened. One little boy put up his hand and proffered, "Could it be because the Sphinx is two different creatures squeezed into one?” Brilliant.
For me, that is the essence of good learning. The most valid teaching is the stuff they teach themselves, and that is more likely to happen in an atmosphere of playful exploration.
Play is crucial throughout life, and the more we can instigate a sense of play in our children, in a broad range of spheres, the more resilient they will be to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and the more tools they will have at their disposal to problem solve creatively throughout life.
*I didn’t mention that this is also the root from which we get the word sphincter!
There is a school of thought which says that if you can create the right conditions, children are able to take care of their own learning and development.
You may be aware of Dr Sugata Mitra’s project, “Hole in the Wall”.
In 1999, whilst working teaching people how to write computer programmes in New Delhi, he dug a hole in a wall bordering the urban slum next to his office, installed an Internet-connected PC, at child height, and left it there (with a hidden camera filming the area). The children from the slum learned how to use it (with no adult intervention) and how to go online - teaching themselves some English in the process - and then they taught each other.