The Education Revolution: I wish they would just stop already!

Dr Mark Williams Neuroscience Professor Author Speaker Facilitator
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Dr Mark Williams Neuroscience Professor Author Speaker Facilitator

Dr Mark Williams Neuroscience Professor Author Speaker Facilitator

The education revolution is being widely talked about. We can’t go back to the old broken system now that we have gone online. Teachers need to get more savvy with online curriculum and virtual classrooms to enable students to flourish. The education system is failing. An education revolution is the common mantra from so many. But is the old system really broken? And is this new utopia really where we should be headed?

I think we should first acknowledge what that “old broken system” has given us. The current education system, one for the masses, not just the elite, has been around for less than 200 years. But what an amazing 200 years it has been. Since mass education was introduced, the amazing technological advances have been staggering. Remember, 200 years ago we didn’t have electricity, cars, planes, internet, computers, space craft and antibiotics. The medical and scientific advances have been truly extraordinary. 200 years ago, 90% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty compared to around 10% today. The list seems endless…and then if we look at the advances that were made in the previous 2000 years and the list pales in significance.

The current system, while not perfect, has resulted in staggering improvement in health and wellbeing globally. It has resulted in technological advances beyond our wildest dreams. The number one best way to improve  a country’s economy is mass education and the best way to decrease poverty, decrease the gender gap, and decrease birth rates is mass education. The current “broken system” that apparently needs to be thrown out has been extremely successful and we should thank our teachers for these amazing advances.

What is this new education utopia?

Most of the time it seems to come down to technology and harnessing new advances in technology to teach the next generation. The problem is, we have tested this idea and the results thus far are terrible. The one laptop for every student experiment that has been tried in several countries around the world has resulted in a greater divide between low and high socioeconomic groups. And countries with the highest uptake of screens, internet use and new technology in schools, are fairing worse when it comes to literacy, maths and science. Research shows the longer a student is on a screen, the higher rates of stress, anxiety and depression. And attentional disorders are on the rise linked to screen use in young children.

Using Virtual Reality to revolutionise education.

Another idea touted around is the use of Virtual Reality (VR) in education. I do quite a bit of research with VR and one of the biggest issues we have is that the longer you have the goggles on the more likely you are to vomit! The mismatch between what you see and where your body is in space (indicated by your vestibular system) often makes people feel nauseous. This is not something that will be easily overcome – it is basic physiology. Of course, the goggles also have screens within them, making many of the issues above also a major factor.

Free-range Education?

There is also the idea of free-range education, where students choose what they want to learn and when. The idea is that the teacher is there to facilitate when the student wants input but that the student chooses what and how they learn. There are many different versions of this concept with greater or lesser autonomy of the student. However, this only works if there is a low ratio of students to teachers in the classroom. That way teachers have the time to tailor work to the needs of each student. In the ideal world, a very low ratio of students to teachers would be fantastic. But is this practical? Maybe in well-funded private schools but again the divide between the haves and have nots is exacerbated. It is also well known that this type of schooling only works for certain personality types and many would struggle. Therefore, it is not going to work for global education.

Should we allow the education system to stagnate?

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t be constantly looking at better ways to teach. I am a researcher and that is what I do. I study how we learn and how that can be improved. In fact, the idea that the modern education system is the same as it was envisaged 200 years ago is completely wrong. There have been huge changes across the system even in the last 30 years since I was a student. But we need to be cautious and we need to ensure that we are not just following trends and hunches.

When I was at school, we were told that robots were going to take the vast majority of jobs and most of the careers that were around would no longer exist. Guess what, the majority of those careers do still exist and robots have not taken all the jobs. And what are futurists currently telling us? That the vast majority of careers around today won’t be around when the current cohort of students finish school. But the problem is futurists don’t actually know what will happen any more than fortune tellers know what will happen.

But robots are taking all the jobs.

Will robots take all the jobs? No. Why? Because we are humans and we like social contact. Currently there are robots that can make your coffee. I could head down to my local 7-11 and have a robot make my coffee if I so desired. But I don’t. I go to a café and have my coffee made by a barista and pay 3 times the price for the experience. Why? Because I like walking into the café and having people say hi. I like having my coffee made by a real person who knows how I like it and chatting to people I see regularly. Bookshops are going through a renaissance period at the moment because we don’t want to order online and have them delivered. We want to walk into a bookshop and sit and read. Smell the books, read the books, and maybe ask a real person for a recommendation. We love experiences, we love socialising and we love bespoke, hand-made, one-of-a-kind things that cannot be recreated by a machine or robot.

What should we be doing?

What we should be doing is celebrating the amazing achievements and advances that we have come about as a result of our current education system. We should be celebrating our schools and our teachers. Are there improvements that can be made? Of course, there always are. For example, we could increase the pay and improve the working conditions of teachers, decrease the amount of testing and the focus on marks, simplify the curriculum, decrease the number of activities and programs, decrease the administration load, and allow teachers to teach. Most importantly we should be using research and what we know about the brain to guide changes in teaching methods instead of the latest technology fad. But an education revolution? I don’t think so!

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