Are traditional approaches to education really preparing students for the future? Photograph: Yassay
Bad physical and mental outcomes, burned-out students and teachers, and young adults arriving at university and work unprepared and uninspired. That is the assessment of concerned mum, Vicki Abeles, who documented her years examining the US secondary school system in the film Race to Nowhere.
An intense focus on performing at all costs is becoming a key feature of many education systems around the world and has not only pushed actual learning to the background, it has created a black-market in essay and project outsourcing and dramatically increasing the rate of cheating on tests and exams. More disturbingly, it is killing the very skills and capabilities students will need to survive in the future - the love of knowledge that fuels a life-long learning journey, and the space, time and risk-tolerance to enable creativity and innovation.
Much of the pressure on students to "succeed" is aimed at securing entrance to a top university, but if traditional higher education is no longer a viable form of education to ensure employment and a career, why are we continuing to drive our kids down this path and what sort of education should we be providing them instead?
Secondary schools face a range of challenges in meeting the multiple expectations that are placed on them, and this article is by no means an attack on schools or teachers. Indeed, many teachers are equally frustrated by the lack of freedom they have to develop creative and engaging learning experiences for their students, and in our current compliance culture, their heavy administrative workload diverts precious time away from engaging in-depth with students as individual learners.
As parents, we need to face up to the fact that we are one of the main drivers of this pressure and expectation (even if for good, but increasingly misguided reasons). It is ironic that as Western countries move towards a “tiger mum” focus on scores and success signalling, Asian governments are trying to move their original “tiger mum” cultures in the opposite direction. Out of a concern that despite Western 15-year-olds' limitations in test-taking, Western counties have produced greater innovation, countries like Singapore have started to emphasise life-long learning and skills over scores, and China is gradually introducing broader and more rounded curricula. But Asian governments are finding it very difficult to unwind these deeply ingrained cultures of maximising test scores and Singapore parents, for example, continue to fund one of the highest per capita expenditures on after school tuition in the world.
At the heart of the challenge is the question of student motivation. High pressure learning environments that are based on extrinsic (external and competitive) motivation do not produce the best learning outcomes and are plagued by the problems noted above. Rather, studies increasingly show that students learn and recall more through project-based learning and are consequently more intrinsically (self) motivated and engaged around discipline content. Such project-based learning draws on students' own interests and passions to direct their work and requires an individualised, student-centred teaching approach.
Many will be wary of letting students' "passions" drive their learning, noting that the fires of youth can be fleeting and do not necessarily lead onto viable careers. While it is true that not all passions lead directly to a job, they do lead to more and better learning.
Students’ intense concern about climate change is a great example. How many deep learning projects around science, physics, engineering, politics, and communication etc., could be driven from their highly-motivated interest in this topic? Once this type of open-ended inquiry begins, new fields and opportunities for learning inevitably open up. As Barbara Oakley, author of "Learning How To Learn" recommends to students - don't just follow your passions, broaden them.
In response to the profound changes underway in the world of work and employment, there are an increasing number of secondary schools introducing new programs to address some of these issues. Philosophy and similar subjects are being introduced to help students develop deeper thinking skills. Other schools are creating entrepreneurship programs and maker/incubation labs to give students the opportunity to take on real-world problems and develop innovative solutions. Public high schools like the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy and Templestowe College demonstrate what can be achieved with committed staff and dedicated community support. Innovative approaches are also being tested and launched by private initiatives including the Whittle School and the New Nordic School.
Abeles follow up film, Beyond Measure, provides many other examples of what is possible in secondary schools and reinforces the urgency and benefits of taking action. But given the pace of transformation being driven by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, these changes are not happening anywhere near the speed nor scale required. In the film, educationalist Sir Ken Robinson (presenter of the most popular TED talk of all time) makes the point that the change needs to come from the bottom up, not the top down.
So, imagine if we as parents, redirected even just 10% of the effort and expense we dedicate to conventional education pathways for our children and focused instead on developing new and inspiring learning opportunities. Happier kids, well established on their path to true life-long learning would be just the start.