Making education fit for future

By Ross Coverdale


The typical educational timeline for a person in the developed world will consist of going through school, then high school, then college and/or university – or of course straight into employment or apprenticeship schemes etc. – all the while building up a plethora of skills and experience, and (hopefully) being moulded and pointed towards a particular career path. Of course, that path can take all sorts of twists and turns, and it’s not to say that being directed to X profession at point A will mean that at points C, D and E a person will be doing the same thing, but you get the picture.

What’s so wrong with the current education system?

For starters, I hope that children are not taught complete fallacies – ‘I before E except after C, and except when this rule doesn’t apply so please disregard this stupid menmonic‘ (it’s not as catchy though, right?) – but in all seriousness, this is a question that depending on who you speak to, you’ll hear different answers.

I’d like to propose two ideas:

  1. A lot of time is wasted
  2. It’s not particularly fit for purpose.

When was the last time you used long division?

I’m sure everyone’s got something in their heads that they remember learning at school that they have absolutely no clue how to do, never mind the inclination or need to do it.

I’ll even go as far to say, if I’m being honest, that a fair amount of my first couple of years at university was a bit redundant too; there was a lot of stuff that was a bit wishy-washy that didn’t really contribute to my overall knowledge or understanding of what made up my degree in publishing, that I would happily have fast-forwarded through, given the opportunity.

Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology at Newcastle University (UK) explains that back in times of old, when technology was far more rudimentary than what we have at our disposal nowadays, people needed to know things, to be able to recall them, and had to be able to solve mathematical problems in their heads (or at most, with a pen/quill).

The fact that the majority of exams in the existing education system are based on students being able to commit things to memory and recall that information at a moment’s notice seems to me pretty ridiculous. For students who simply don’t learn in this way, what opportunities are out there for them? Sure, it’s not like those people are sentenced to a life of poverty but I feel like there could be a better way.

It’s quite fashionable to say that the education system’s broken. It’s not broken. It’s wonderfully constructed. It’s just that we don’t need it anymore. It’s outdated.

Sugata Mitra, from his TED talk ‘Build a School in the Cloud’
(watch his talk at the bottom of this post)

Imagine a system where from a young age, children are able to learn freely in ways that benefit them directly and will 100% serve them later in life. Not only would they be able to gain a deeper, practical understanding of their subjects, but the time spent doing so would be spent more wisely. Of course, a good level of numeracy and literacy should be taught as standard, but I genuinely think that a lot of the standard curriculum could be brushed aside.

It may not sit well with everyone, but think about it like this; what do you do when you have to research something to answer a question, a problem, or there’s simply something that you want to gain a better understanding of? ‘Back in the day’ you’d maybe find these answers in a book, probably tucked away in some dusty library. Now, I’d bet that you’d probably Google it*.

(* Sidenote: Books are great, and you might find your information in one, but I’d hazard a guess that you’d have searched around and ultimately ordered that book online!)

We’re in the Information Age

Information is everywhere and it’s very easy to access. Even if you need to consult expert people, they too are easy to find and reach online – there are swarms of digital communities where advice and answers can be found easily. Why then, when answers to questions about everything are everywhere, are we wasting time learning everything? It might sound a bit lazy, and it might even sound crazy, but I question why we learn the things we do when we literally never ever need to recall them (except from in the odd pub quiz). Surely if we started studying specialisms earlier, focusing on the things we needed to, as a human race we’d get a lot more done?

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t have an organised education system, but it could be fundamentally different, and probably better.

What’s it going to look like, and who is going to pay for it?

I’m no expert on this subject, but I can say with some certainty that shaking it up to this degree, on a global scale, isn’t going to be easy, nor cheap to implement.

With the vast wealth accumulated by the likes of Google, Apple, IBM, Samsung (and the rest), I would argue that cash-rich tech companies have a duty to help educate the population of the future. While I’m sure corporate investment is fairly substantial already (and no disrespect to the work they do!) how wonderful would it be if a proportion of the hundreds of billions of dollars stashed away was spent in revolutionising education for the modern age? Not only would they be investing in their own future, but helping the human race thrive and advance as a whole.

This could go a step further. I know it took me a while to get to but this is where the idea of ‘Google Academy’ alluded to in the title comes in.

What if (now stay with me) traditional educational establishments were abolished completely and these giant companies ran academies that take youngsters through programmes and mould them into specialists from the ground up? No high schools, no universities, but masses of fully qualified people brought up in an environment designed to challenge, examine, solve problems and create solutions. This new system could be easily linked together in a giant collaborative network – with the technology we have at our disposal today this surely isn’t difficult to imagine. This could give us interlinked teams of people all over the world working together to solve the world’s biggest problems.

Now I have to admit, it’s the stuff that dystopian future science fiction writers would have a field day with, but there’s got to be something in it.

Watch this talk from Sugata Mitra on ‘Building a School in the Cloud’ – he touches on a really interesting concept he calls a ‘Self Organised Learning Environment’, or SOLE for short, whereby children today are able to answer some of the biggest questions, using available technology, without the aid of a teacher. Fascinating stuff indeed.

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