Education: For Better, For Worse, For Change
There is something strange going on in education – It’s getting both better and worse at the same time.
Exam grades have been improving year on year and this summer students achieved the best exam grades so far in A levels and GCSEs while International studies place our students in the global top 10. However, when students answer questions from past decades they do worse than their historic counterparts.
It seems no one is happy – there is the usual argument about exam “quality” – Richard Pike for example complains that science exams standards have been eroded and that first year chemistry students require remedial education, employers complain that graduates lack soft skills and students enjoyment of science and maths has dropped remarkably.
All these things are true because education is changing.
Information, knowledge and education are embedded within culture and society – the nature of our culture and society changes and have changed radically over the last 20 years. Information is the stuff of education but our relationship to information is very different from that of 20 years ago and even 10 years ago. Back in 1988 information was a relatively slow and scarce resource – “locked up” in papers and books. Today both students and teachers have “at your fingertips” Internet access to overwhelming amounts of information – today information is a fast and overloaded resource.
Methods of dealing with a resource that is slow and scarce are different to those needed to deal with a resource that is fast and overloaded. With slower moving scarce information education focused on the subject with deeper operations on the available information. With faster moving overloaded information education is focused on information with broader operations on the available information – the ability to find, filter, assess, use and communicate information
Michael Shayer found students today were better at tasks requiring quick, descriptive responses whereas students from the 1970’s were better at deeper more “complex” thinking. Shayer goes on to relate these changes to the changes in society and culture – “everything in the past 30 years has speeded up. It’s about reacting quickly but at a shallow level”. Information management and “soft” skills are often referred to as “dumbing down” but I would argue that they are just different and that they are as valuable and complex as the deeper subject skills many value more.
The one experiment that can’t be done is to observe how students from the 1970’s and 1980’s might cope with the information rich world of today. Our students, teachers and education system have adapted to the changes in society and technology. Today we use information technology as a tool for mechanical (e.g. simple arithmetic) and memory tasks to free time for information handling tasks such as research and the application of information to problems. Subject operation is different – instead of “deep” within subject questions we seek to operate more broadly and ask questions that relate subject knowledge to the world we live in.
The curriculum is seeking to adapt to changes in technology, culture and society. The Rose report for primary education suggests that six broad “areas of learning” could replace individual subjects. Looking ahead to the year 2020 The Gilbert report for secondary schools calls for increasing curriculum breadth and more active, collaborative and creative learning. Looking at the global economy the Leitch report calls for Developing a culture of learning (integrating learning with life and work) and the development of communications, collaboration, research and problem solving skills.
The various sectors of society want different things from education and as a result no one is entirely happy. Universities want deeper “hard” subject knowledge and competence. Employers want subject competence but also want adaptable people with “soft” skills. Institutions want to be able to test and measure performance. The government wants entrepreneurs and innovators. On the one hand society wants “hard”, measureable, “traditional” education yet on the other hand it wants “soft” and innovative education.
Somehow education must reconcile the need for measurable deep subject skills with the need for innovation which develops best on a broad base. The only answer is for the education system to be increasingly flexible and adaptive and to offer choices. One approach is through the personalisation of education suggested by Rammel together with a choice of learning/teaching/course/qualification styles.
The questions about education I am most interested in are:
What do students think?
What do students want?
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