How the education system is failing our kids and what to do about it

  • Teresa Roque
  • 22 February 2021

Our present-day education system still celebrates conformity and compliance. We still largely think that human intelligence is a synonym for academic ability.

Traditional education was devised for an industrial society. Students were forced to take in large amounts of standardised information by rote and were accessed by standardised tests, at a one-size-fit-all pace. The problem is that now all that information is accessible at a touch of a button on their phones. So why should they learn by rote? And how much do they really learn by rote-learning? We have long known that in the traditional teacher knows all education, retention rates vary from between 5 to 10%. Quite a grim amount by any stretch.

Our present-day education system still celebrates conformity and compliance. We still largely think that human intelligence is a synonym for academic ability. This is an extremely narrow conception of intelligence and ability. Elon Musk recently posted on one of his social media platforms: “I hate it when people confuse education with intelligence. You can have a bachelor’s degree and still be an idiot.” Couldn’t agree more.

The problem is if you start out with a narrow conception of ability, you automatically generate a large conception of inability. Makes sense, right?! This also means that there will be a large number of people who just don’t meet this purely academic profile, and by these standards require “remedial” help.

Our world has since moved on. Compliance and conformity are relics of the past. The world has become much more fast-paced and complex. To meet these challenges, we don’t need compliance and conformity. Yet education seems largely to be stuck in its outdated ways. In the last twenty years we have witnessed schools, universities and countries competing in league tables. This has done nothing to raise standards or improve the motivation or engagement levels of students, or even the motivation of teachers. How are we to instil in people a love for life-long learning? It’s time we rethink our approach and adapt our schools and universities to the needs of the market place.

In Portugal, the school dropout rate in the early 1990s was around 50%. It has since fallen to around 10,6%, a marked improvement, but still above the average in Europe. A little over one third of young adults between the ages of 20 and 25 are at university. This means two thirds aren’t. That is a troubling statistic.

The school drop out rate is just the tip of the iceberg. It doesn’t measure all those kids in school that feel disengaged, unmotivated and most certainly do not enjoy it. Why is it that today 10% of children and adolescents (mostly boys) are diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADHD)? I’m not denying it exists; I just question whether it has become such an epidemic or if it a consequence of something else?

Human beings are naturally different and diverse – any parent with more than one child can readily attest to that. Above all they are curious and creative. These characteristics are what have made us flourish as a species. The present-day education system stimulates none of the above. Teaching should not be primarily a delivery system of knowledge passed down through the ages. Great teachers, and there are great teachers despite the current education system, don’t only pass on information, but mentor, stimulate, provoke and engage.

A UNESCO study found that up to one year of schooling increases a person’s earnings by up to 10%. The same study found that each additional year of schooling raises average annual GDP by 0.37%. But the benefits of education far exceed its contribution to income, national growth and productivity. It reduces crime, alienation and inequality. It promotes health and greater well-being. It contributes to greater civic participation. In short, greater and better education is the foundation of a more productive and equitable society.

It is imperative that countries like Portugal with small populations and no natural resources become knowledge-based societies. That is the prime aim of the José Neves Foundation, a recent philanthropic initiative, spear-headed and solely funded by the founder of Farfetch, a global luxury fashion on-line retail company. José Neves has publicly announced that he will be dedicating three quarters of his wealth to this Foundation – something hitherto unheard of in Portugal. Giving back to move forward!

Education has always been about preparing the future generation. No one knows what the job market will look like in 2050 or even in ten years’ time. But we do know one thing: it’s going to be very different from today and likely to require very different skills than those that are being encouraged and engraved into our children by the current system. We already know, for example, that 34% of employers globally are unable to find the right employee – in other words there is already a mismatch in skills. This will probably increase as job automation progresses and new jobs are created. Thirty percent of jobs are at risk of automation by 2030.

If that is the case, then perhaps, we should ask ourselves, what skills will be valued in the future and how we reform the education system to best promote them? The following are already being sought after: communication skills, team-work, inventive problem-solving, critical-thinking, navigating complex solutions. The education system also needs to invest more in building character traits like determination, perseverance, resourcefulness, self-awareness, boldness and the ability to handle failure and uncertainty. Empathy, optimism, curiosity and a love for life-long learning can be added to these. Specific skills demanded by the job market will likely change several times within a career as will their complexity. The market will demand that skills be constantly upskilled or reskilled. However, all of the above are transferable skills, that will be needed in a rapidly changing world.

What should education look like in the 21st century? Several global trends are likely to shape the sector over the next years. The curriculum will tend to evolve towards competencies and skills development, rather than pure knowledge acquisition. Success will not only be measured in grades or standardised testing (which will become more diagnostic in nature and not be the all and end-all of education). Social skills, digital skills and cognitive skills will all be taken into account by future employers. The curriculum is likely to be more tailor-made to facilitate building on the strengths of individuals and we are likely to see greater combination of class-based education with practical work experience, along with greater cooperation between schools/universities and employers to help address future needs early on.

There will be a shift towards more collaborative social learning and social networks for peer-to-peer support and tutoring. The learning pyramid shows us that where we see the highest average learning retention rates is when students explain to others what they have learnt, in discussion groups and through practical experience. Students will become more active learners as opposed to being mere passive knowledge receivers. Project-based learning or inquiry-based learning both encourage a more active role. Web-based educational software will be developed alongside already existing contents like the Khan Academy. It is no surprise that we are seeing IT players investing in education, developing schools of the future, next-generational educational computer games and other pedagogical tools.

At this stage you may rightfully ask, are there courses to develop soft-skills? I would imagine these soft-skills would be promoted by the way teaching is done and how classrooms are organised. If children are engaged in more project-based groups, they will tend to develop greater skills in team-work, problem-solving, communication skills, listening to others point of view and so forth.

Employers are likely to value alternative credentials like nano-degrees and certificates. Not everyone needs to go to the same top universities that tend to churn out like-minded products. We are all different and our differences should be celebrated. More universities will offer summer internships for school-aged kids. School and university students will have greater control over their academic path.

Teacher quality is the most important lever in improving student outcomes. A higher status needs to be attributed to the teaching profession. Schools need constantly to invest in teachers’ professional development. Sir Ken Robinson, a household name in education and whose Ted talk “Do schools kill creativity?”, the most viewed Ted talk to date, stated that “the world’s great teachers are also great students”. Learning is a conversation; it is not a monologue. We learn collectively.

Reforming the education system is no easy task, especially public education that is centrally planned. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths, for example, is all the rage. Yet not all students fit into this science, maths and technology mould. A curriculum needs to be broad and diverse including arts, humanities, languages and physical and social education. History and philosophy, for instance, are two disciplines that are critical in my opinion. We should all have a basic understanding of the history of ideas and understand why things are the way they are. As biotechnology and algorithms become more sophisticated, we will need to be able to question the ethical implications of those developments. We are already facing issues such as the use of meta-data and privacy concerns. In the future, things will become much more complicated. Programmers will need to take these things into consideration, as will regulators.

Education reform is no easy feat.  In many respects, it is one of the biggest challenges we face today. Ministries of Education cater for many stakeholders – unions, teachers, voters – at times forgetting that students should be at the forefront of their concerns. However, countries that are determined and able to produce workforce with the right skills will be the leaders of tomorrow. The rest will lag behind, with low-paying jobs and a dissatisfied workforce, not to mention demoralised and stressed-out students, some of whom develop severe mental health issues. Portugal has the added advantage of seeing what has and has not worked in other countries. There is no need to re-invent the wheel. We just need the will, courage and stamina to start down this path.

  • Teresa Roque
  • Board Member at St. Julian's School