Some of the problems with education

The average humanities graduate finishes with no discernible or relevant skills and the relevance gap broadens every day. This turns out to be true of some engineering grads too. They are experts at theorising, report-writing and emailing. They are terrible at doing things, interacting with humans, engineering changes in the world.

Looking to convert your degree into something useful, the average Masters course will set you back £30k over a year or two. For that price, you could do 6 round the world trips at £5k each.

It does, of course, go much deeper. Everyone knows education is broken the whole way through, but the number of radical initiatives is fairly low, relative to quite how broken it is.

The imperfect current situation

  1. Universities are highly motivated by the drive to improve their ranking. This forces standardised examinations backwards along the entire educational system.
  2. Standardised examinations largely determine primary and secondary school rankings, which they therefore care about hugely.
  3. This forces backwards along the entire system the type of teaching that generates effective examination-takers.
  4. This type of teaching, carried forwards through the system, does not amount to the sort of education any educator, parent, child or employer would describe as ‘ideal’.

Firstly: University rankings. Given any set of issues that you might think Universities care about, the vast majority of them reduce to rankings. Student experience? Factors into rankings. Research quality? Factors into rankings. Impact? Factors into rankings.

This granted, a university can most easily improve their ranking by ‘improving’ the quality of their student intake in the first place. A higher quality intake improves exam results without any change in teaching methods, whilst at the same time your bucket of researchers and academics improves. Similarly, surrounded by other intelligent individuals, the perceived quality of your education improves, raising student experience scores.

Secondly, examinations. Besides leading Universities to spend vast sums on branding and marketing, this in turn requires a complex filtering system: years of evidence about the individuals in question, so that Universities can make decisions. Such a filtering system must be standardised across the country: there must be a set of challenges which students are prepared for in a similar way. One version of this is curricula + exams.

In order for a school to have a good reputation, it must prepare students as well as possible for University intake. It must not only maximise grade performance, it must also maximise admissions to top tier Universities. If this is not true of state school, I know for a fact that it is true of Grammar schools, from the inscribed oak boards listing Oxbridge students hanging in my secondary school dining room.

Thirdly, teaching to exams. To prepare students as best as possible for exams, it must teach them how to perform well in exams, and must do so at a nationally competitive level. This necessarily absorbs the majority of the final years of school, bleeding back earlier and earlier, until Secondary schools in turn must examine students for entry, fresh out of primary school, ensuring that they are exam-writing machines, malleable, not too maverick, docile. This seems to me to be indisputable fact.

All of this is more eloquently put in Ken Robinson’s world-leading TED talk).


In places, schools and Universities have realised that simulating the real world can be useful. “In the real world, you won’t get away with a first draft”. Or “in the real world, you will have to deal with clients who put up moving targets”. In the end, however, the pieces of work generated are nevertheless evaluated by a fixed set of a priori criteria.

The centrality of “criteria” is among my greatest frustrations with schools and Universities, and one of the most stubborn challenges of education. And this goes deeper than the usual gripes with jumping through hoops and box-ticking.

You cannot have someone do a piece of work “as if it was real” and then mark it against set criteria, because no matter what, known criteria can and will be gamed. No matter what, criteria misrepresent the shifting scales of the real world. No matter what, fulfilling known criteria does not decide success in the real world.

Criteria are introduced in order to create fairness. Everyone is judged against the same scale and so the outcomes, grades, are comparable. Grades can thus be used to discern between people. Society can therefore allocate jobs and higher education efficiently. This allocative efficiency is, in the minds of many economists, an ideal of fairness.

But people are rarely selected for anything on the basis of their grades. They are usually filtered by them and then selected on the basis of finer attributes that are harder to measure and create standardised scores for. Psychometric tests are occasionally introduced to do the second comb, with actual humans talking to each used as the barbaric final process.

Moreover, success in anything is rarely achieved by fulfilling a set of specific criteria, acknowledged and understood by a group of people ahead of time. It is almost the other way around: success is achieved by realising before other people (or completely by accident) what needs to be done in order to be successful. Outside of sport, it is somehow working out what the criteria for success are that usually creates success.

The usual case is a shifting, invisible set of criteria that fade and transform over time. Recognising that a problem exists and what fixing it would mean is the hardest part of problem solving, so far as I can tell. It is therefore also the hardest part of being successful. The inventor’s hardest work is completed before the first sketch is ever committed to paper. It is also, therefore, not trained for or tested in schools. This is one of the most destructive oversights of the society we inhabit today.

The ideal of the current paradigm

In the ideal of the current paradigm (and emphatically not even the current reality):

We’re educated so that we can understand and complete tasks given to us by other people as part of jobs.

We learn things that we do not subsequently use, because we learn them in case and not so that we can do something, other than exams, and then interviews.

Even papers on innovation in education argue that education is designed to prepare us (p.9), rather than to be a space in which we change the world, or even, perhaps a little more conservatively, to really improve us (even talking about improving students introduces terrifying dystopian imagery to the debate).

We learn things to create spaces and structures in our minds that can be foundations and superstructures for other things that are actually useful (assumed by those upstream to come later on). We create potential, through education, for a range of specific abilities. We’re given the Lego Basics set: later life will supply the bits we need to make the Death Star.

Except, on the one hand: we're not. We don't get:

  • imagination, creativity, curiosity, enterprise
  • confidence, self-expression, charisma, likeability
  • empathy or emotional/social intelligence
  • leadership, team-working, conflict-resolution/negotiation
  • strategy, or resilience, rigour, self-control/discipline (see this article on Grit, by the Young Foundation)
  • Autodidacticism
  • dealing with disasters, complexity, chaos, seeing extended projects through, dealing with unexpected reactions and outcomes, re-routing, public failure, public success, public anonymity and total normality…

At best, these things pop-up in one or two classes or arise as a serendipitous epiphenomena of education.

The Postgraduate hole

If the system was working as designed, to prepare us to do tasks for someone, these foundations would be augmented with a subsequent flexible range of specific skills: a “bit” before going into work where you are made ready for work. This is, for the vast majority of modern career types, totally absent. Its absence is unexplained and the resulting gap is silently left to hang on bewildered graduates with inflated degrees, mocking inflated egos. The massive wealth of educational content online, from BBC Bitesize all the way through to edx, mocks the multi-tasking, skill-less, directionless graduate.

That is to say, education gives us basic bits and a knowledge of what do with them, but no muscle memory, no embedded experience of the complex underpinnings of a particular use-case, the complex environment of human interaction and general life in which those tasks would exist.