This week, when I was looking through the reading/listening/watching materials, I was thrilled to see that the TED talk Changing Education Paradigms by Sir Ken Robinson was on the list. This particular talk is very near and dear to my heart, and I’ve always enjoyed the animation that’s gone along with it. In the talk, Sir Robinson talks about several topics, all of which branch out from the idea of the current education paradigm. As someone who’s got a problem with the current system in place, I think it’s important to take a critical look at what Sir Robinson has to say about the educational climate of today in order to improve it.
The talk begins with an explanation of what kind of climate existed when the current system was founded. This is an important piece of information to keep in mind, as it had a significant effect on the way the system was set up. While Sir Robinson discusses the opponents of the system at length, it’s also important to understand what the proponents were thinking in their push for free public education. Robinson points out that opponents of the idea believed there to be two types of people: smart and not smart. Of course, he points out, this was based on whether or not people were educated and classifying people as essentially ‘educable’ and ‘uneducable’ based on whether or not they had received an education was a pretty sodding ignorant system of beliefs. What Robinson makes less mention of is what the proponents of the system were under the impression of. This was the idea that people would be inclined to seek an education which was freely available to them. This belief was based in two assumptions: first that people would be interested in improving themselves and therefor driven to seek education and second that people would be interested in the higher standard of living which was becoming common for educated folks.
Here is the first point at which today’s system begins to break down. The two assumptions that the belief of proponents of a public education system were based in are no longer necessarily true. Sir Robinson touches on the first part of this, which is that having a diploma no longer guarantees having a job. The Atlantic reported just last year that almost 50% of recent college graduates were unemployed or underemployed at the time. This comes not only from a slump in the economy, but an over-saturation of the job market with college grads. Couple this with the fact that HR departments rely on applicants to stand out in the application process and you’ve got jobs that used to be filled by students with BS and BA degrees now being filled with MBA degrees. This trend has got many students asking “what’s the point?” All they wanted was to get a degree to get a job and now they’re being told that they should pursue a higher degree in order to get that same exact job.
This “what’s the point?” phenomenon isn’t exclusive to collegiate students. Returning to an earlier point, the assumption that everybody would want to pursue a free education isn’t necessarily true anymore. That’s not to say that kids don’t want to be educated at all these days they just don’t want the education provided to them. Sir Robinson touches on this too in his talk. He points out a complimentary point, in that students these days are being bombarded with more information ever available. With TV channels extending into the two-thousands and a whole internet for students to browse at their convenience, there is a seemingly inexhaustible wave of new information rolling towards them every time they open their eyes. Now, Robinson brings this up as a point when discussing the recent ‘epidemic’ of ADHD. I, like him, am in no position to declare whether or not it is a real disorder, but he certainly brings up an interesting point. It’s easily possible that the reason students are being distracted isn’t because it’s getting easier to distract them, but rather that it’s getting easier for them to find alternative sources of information that they find more interesting.
Robinson elaborates, it’s this mentality which is poisoning the current educational system. Consider standardized testing: if you’ve ever had to take a test-prep course, you know that they don’t teach any skills other than how to take and pass a test. This is true of GRE courses, SAT prep courses etc… They’re all just a series of drills to acclimate you as a test-taker to the climate of a test. Now consider how boring this would be if the class was compulsory because you didn’t get a satisfactory grade on a pre-test of some sort. This is exactly what’s happening in our middle and high schools right now. The students who do the worst on the standardized testing because they lack experience from previous years are placed in special test-prep classes during the school day. In my experience, these test prep classes have replaced the only elective classes students get. So now we’re taking away a students ability to choose a subject that interests them and forcing them to do practice tests for however many minutes a day.
It’s this exact action which is one of the largest problems with today’s educational paradigm. Rather than trying to nurture many individuals into whatever they want to excel at, students are forced into a cookie-cutter curriculum and graduates are mass-produced. Of course there will always be outliers who are either so brilliant or stubborn that they refuse to be molded but, by and large, our students are just knockoffs of this sort of ‘ideal student’ that was conceived during the enlightenment.