What school could be for

Picture 042 So I had my rant about the current system of schooling in response to Seth Godin’s question, “What is school for?”

In review, it’s pretty negative. But, that is how I feel about the current system of schooling. I believe it could be so much better.

I do believe in the need for schools. However, the world has changed radically in 150 years, but schools have not. Whilst the school rhetoric changes and styles changes lightly each year, the basic assumptions and structures of school remain the same.

Schools run in the same basic format today as when they were formed (or forced on us) at the dawn of industrial age. Back then capitalism needed workers and managers for factories.

Whether you think the industrial age brought us progress or not, you need to acknowledge that it has passed for us. We are now firmly planted in the information age. But in order to be relevant to the information age, school as a concept must radically change.

Of course, there are still subjects that simply must be held to a practical tested standard. For example, you would never trust a surgeon unless he was qualified to a standard. You wouldn’t hire an engineer unless you were absolutely sure he could do the calculations. However, the path to achieve those competencies must be adapted.

When I think about the question, “What is school for?” I think about the:

  1. Foundations: What do people really need to know at a minimum?
  2. Delivery: How can we learn most effectively?
  3. Confirmation and Qualification: How can we determine how competent we are in order to cross over into real practice?

Allow me to explain these 3 thoughts…


As I see it, the basic foundations of education that people need include:

  1. Learning how to read, write and manipulate numbers
  2. Becoming confident to handle an unknown, unfamiliar situations by gathering information and making decisions
  3. Developing compassion and empathy for others

That’s not 12 or 16 years worth of learning. Those three aims can really be accomplished in just a few years. I believe that they are the entire basis of competence required for real learning.

You see, once you’ve learned to read, write and manipulate numbers you can learn anything that you truly desire to learn. Once you have confidence you are not afraid to learn. Once you learn compassion and empathy, you can work in a team and cooperate.

Having achieved the foundations, there is no need for a fixed curriculum. Instead, your personal curriculum would set by the topics of your interest. Your interests would naturally lead you to a career.

For example, if you were fascinated by animals – as many kids are – you might want to become a vet. Through the study of animals you would learn things like biology, chemistry, maths, finance, business, physiology, psychology and all sorts of other subjects as they relate to your field of study.

Studying a subject like chemistry in a context like this makes it far more interesting and meaningful. This in turn results in true retention, not just test regurgitation.

This kind of general education through interest would lead people directly to their logical place in the world. It would end the illogical situation that we have today where most kids simply have no idea what they want to do with their life by 15, 16, 17 and so often even 18 years old.

Such and education would allow students to master a far broader field of knowledge in their chosen area of study by the age of 25.


If you were asked to do something important that you didn’t know how to do, who would you turn to?

  1. A low paid teacher who has no experience in the real work, but has lots of theories to teach in a structured format
  2. Seek out someone who has hands on experience in the task, and who can communicate with proficiency about it.

Unfortunately, under the current system, we choose option (a). For example, your economics teacher at school is well versed in the theory of economics. However, you’d probably learn a lot more about the real situation of our economy from someone like Marc Faber.

So good schooling would be delivered in context within community by the community. It would require business, professional and community involvement.

In my ideal school, people with real experience would offer mentorship to the young, and this would start from a much younger age than it ever does today. In fact, in my ideal school kids from 10-14 should be involved in real, hands on and productive learning.

“School” would never be very far from real life at all. Actually, school as I see it cannot be separated from real life. Real life always presents a smorgasbord of opportunities to learn, and so would my school.

In order for this to work however, we would have to get rid of some terrible assumptions of the current system. Bogus assumptions such as:

  • Boys and girls, or for that matter anyone learns the same way and at the same pace
  • Competency in a topic should be reached by a certain age
  • Things worth learning can be broken into 45 minute segments and thrown randomly together for the purposes of scheduling
  • Mistakes are bad, only right answers matter
  • Learning must be guided by a teacher
  • Students can be led to understanding (not just answers) by pedagogy
  • Learning can take place inside shut inside a classroom
  • Anyone can learn effectively in a class of 20-30 students or more
  • Surveillance is required to keep students under control
  • Written testing can determine competency or mastery
  • A certain (high) percentage of students must be weeded out or failed.

So many of these assumptions set students up for failure. Even those who pass with flying colours are set up for long term failure because they are not equipped for the real world.

In building a school context without assumptions like those above, you would create an environment for students that would support true learning without fear.

Ultimately, students with confidence, context and freedom become self directed and self motivated. Answers that are sought out have so much more sticking power than those that are rammed down throats.

Students would be less likely to pursue a subject that they have no aptitude for, as hands on application would show them that they would not find fulfilment in it.

Qualification and Confirmation:

Who is in the best position to determine who is ready to practice in the real world?

Undoubtedly different professions require different standards for qualification. Becoming a house painter does not require the same level of scrutiny as a becoming bridge engineer. Surely though, a house painter would be best to determine who is a good house painter.

Under the current system of official testing there are incredible gaps. Many companies today decry the knowledge standard of university graduates. It seems that graduates often fail to retain important knowledge.

I can vouch for this. One graduate accou
ntant that I offered some work experience to had to keep a sticky note on his monitor explaining the difference between a debit and a credit. Another fresh accounting graduate that I recently spoke to did not understand what insolvency was.

I’ve heard so many more stories like this. It demonstrates to me that the current system of institutional testing is not adequate. These guys had both passed the tests, but they failed to retain some of the most basic and important accounting concepts.

So how do you know if someone is competent in a subject? Well, I believe that it can only be done by a person who is competent in that subject. Working closely with a student over time and under close supervision would clearly reveal the true extent of their competency.

Qualification in this way could not be achieved by a series of written exams or tests. The medical profession often adopts a practical method of mentorship and qualification like this one. It is time consuming, but then again, getting it right is so important.

The same could be applied to practically anything important. The level of risk would determine the intensiveness of the qualification period required.

So is a radical change like this ever going to happen?

Sadly, I think that the answer is no. The current system is far too entrenched. Parents lack a thorough understanding of the changes required, and instead demand more of the same from schools.

The teachers and politicians who run the system have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. The only way to bring about radical change like this is to bring it about yourself for your own family.

Written by brettg in: Education |

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