Education Philosophy – 3 FAQ

(First published on the Keystone blog here.)

Parents today take a more active interest in their children’s education than the generation or two that preceded them, so that it’s not unusual for those of us working in education to be asked our views on a “growth mindset” one day or the “outdatedness of the 19th century factory model of education” the next.

However, a little information can be a dangerous thing and many of today’s trendiest educationalists often present arguments which sound irresistible… but require further scrutiny. This imaginary conversation looks at three of the most common.

  1. Most of the jobs of the 21st century haven’t even been invented yet, so why is education the same as it was in the 19th and 20th centuries?

Before going any further, we need to examine carefully the factual premises on which such claims are frequently based. As David Didau shows here, the claim made in one of the most influential viral videos on this question (called Shift Happens) and repeated elsewhere that “the top ten in-demand jobs in 2010 did not exist in 2004” was bogus; in fact, the top ten in-demand jobs in 2010 included accountant, biologist and dental hygienist. In other words, it is likely that children starting school aged 5 this year will leave at 18 to find a far more recognisable job sector than is often suggested; the job market is not changing fast enough to justify a completely new way of educating (even if such a ‘new way’ were effective, which as you’ll read below I don’t believe it is.) This article digs into the argument in more depth, and these pieces in the Telegraph and Independent report on the top ten in demand jobs in 2015 and 2017 respectively.

  1. Even so, this is the 21st Century! Surely children should not be forced to study a stuffy old curriculum with Latin, French, history dates, countries and capitals etc… they can just Google these after all. Mandarin, coding etc. are much more useful, not to mention 21st century skills and habits such as creativity, research, teamwork, mindfulness etc.

Firstly, these “21st Century skills” are rarely anything of the sort. As Daisy Christodoulou points out here, they are skills of timeless importance, as essential in ages gone by as they are today.

Such skills are the by-products of a good education. Paradoxically, if these skills are made the explicit focus of a curriculum – e.g. lessons in creativity; lessons in teamwork; lessons in research etc. – the skills themselves are less well developed than a curriculum focused on a “stuffy old curriculum”. The great example is Shakespeare, one of the most creative men ever to have written, whose education was simple and traditional, based on the stuffiest of stuffy curriculums. (See more here.) And always remember that Mark Zuckerberg himself studied Latin.

Why is this paradox so? Because when skills are made the explicit focus, they are prioritised over knowledge – and it is knowledge which truly underpins vital 21st century skills like creativity. (Watch this point debated here.) We forget how important knowledge is because we have so much of it already – a principle called “expertise-induced blindness” – but, without it, lessons are reduced to vacuous shells which do little to build up the skills you so treasure. Why do these lessons do so little? Being skills-led, they are often taught in either a Group or Project-based way – and both of these ways of learning have been convincingly undermined in recent years. (See this piece on Group-work and this on project-based learning. Watch a great debate on project-based learning here.)

As for why you can’t just Google it, read this excellent piece by E D Hirsch on how knowledge doesn’t quite work like that. Daisy summarises it here and again here.

  1. Okay, but you’ll grant the point about Mandarin and coding. Not being able to master these disciplines in today’s world is a great impediment, no?

Mandarin and coding are great subjects – intellectually demanding, perhaps genuinely useful. Like other subjects, they’re not for everyone – some estimates say that it takes 6 years of school Mandarin before you can have a conversation in China – and are of course now frequently offered in schools.

But we must remember the concept of ‘opportunity cost’. An hour a week doing mindfulness, Mandarin or coding is an hour not doing another subject. There is not room in a busy year’s curriculum for everything and trade-offs have to be made. What we do know, following the very influential work of E D Hirsch, is that the more ‘core knowledge’ a curriculum contains, the more it is of benefit to children.

A final plea: we live in a utilitarian age but since when did education become solely to be justified by how well it prepares children for the job market? Is there no larger purpose? As Claire Fox said at the Festival of Education a few summers ago, it is more important that children read King Lear than learn how to code…and no research paper would ever convince her otherwise. Do others have the confidence to make such value judgements? The more specific an education, the more trapped are its graduates. The payoff of a more liberal education is intellectual liberation. To walk down Cromwell Road blind to the historical allusion, or even to listen to the tune of a blackbird and robin deaf as to the difference, should be evidence enough of an incomplete education; it is strange and rather sad that ours is the first age neither to know nor feel this.

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