26% of Australian students – more than 1 in 4 – fail to complete year 12 at school or a vocational equivalent, according to the Educational Opportunity in Australia2015 report by the Mitchell Institute. And the numbers are worse for those from socio-economically disadvantaged areas and worse again for Australian Indigenous students.
Is this a failure rate that a business would put up with? What if your business lost 1 of every 4 of your customers a year? Every year? Wouldn’t your business be in crisis mode? So where is the panic from government? Why aren’t the customers of our education system – the students and their parents and guardians – up in arms? And the ultimate end-users – the businesses that need bright, creative new employees – why aren’t they screaming for change?
How did we become so complacent about failing the next generation of employees and employers, of entrepreneurs and innovators?
In poorer countries, where the provision of schooling is weak or non-existent, young people are desperate to get an education – because education is seen as a way out of poverty and into a better life and a better world. Why don’t young people in affluent countries have the same vision and aspiration?
I believe it is because our education system lacks the flexibility to teach to future needs and not to past ideals. The world is changing – has changed and continues to change – and schools are not keeping up.
We need a new set of values for our education system:
1. We must value diversity over conformity.
The school system was designed to pump out workers for the industrial revolution – people who could all do the same job in the same way with the same level of supervision. In the modern world we should not only value our differences in culture, language and abilities but also be prepared to teach in ways that allow for diverse ways of learning and succeeding. There is no one size fits all way of thinking, of behaving or of being – so why do we persevere with an outmoded system that teaches to the common denominator.
2. We must value curiosity over obedience.
Once we dispense with the idea of the common denominator we can allow students to follow what interests them, allow them to investigate and to speculate, allow them to be curious. Blind obedience is not a desired outcome for modern businesses as we are no longer expecting the majority of school leavers to perform identical roles to identical standards and in identical timeframes on a factory floor.
3. We must place diagnosis above grading.
Rather than using (or over-using) tests to give students grades – to pigeonhole them – we can adopt an assessment for learning framework that uses data gathered from student responses to tasks, activities and exercises to diagnose what has been learned, where support is needed and where practice is required. Rather than worrying so much about where Australians fit on the NAPLAN, or how we rank on PISA scales, let’s pride ourselves on how we deal with students who need help.
4. We must seek passion before demanding delivery.
Teachers are handed a curriculum document – essentially a list of outcomes for all students – and expected to deliver knowledge (content) to allow students to pass tests of whether they have absorbed the required information. Why? Because that’s how we’ve always done it. How many of us as adults recall all the content we were meant to have absorbed at school? Not many! Some of us were lucky enough to have had a teacher who ‘saw something in me’, who encouraged us in a subject that we had an interest in, who developed our passion. It is likely that if you are one of these lucky people that you continued to study in a related field, or developed a skill that you used in employment. Why isn’t this quest to discover and develop every student’s passion the number one objective for every teacher? I believe it is because teachers are measured on delivery of content, judged by the grades that their students achieve. What if we instead trusted them to seek and develop each student’s individual talent, something they have a passion for and encouraged them to develop skills? In my opinion we would end up with more artists, more dancers, more engineers, more mathematicians, more designers, more coders. And perhaps fewer generalists, fewer drop-outs, fewer sceptics, fewer de-motivated school leavers.
Who needs to advocate this kind of change?
We all do – parents, teachers, employers, politicians and students.
Because we are failing 1 in 4 of our children and this is unacceptable. In fact we may be failing more than 1 in 4 if we consider that many of the 3 in 4 do not discover their passion while at school.
Can we afford not to do this?
I’ll leave that one with you.