Old Schools Die Hard — What Does the Future of Education Look Like?

If I told you to go back to the 18th century, you’d probably die. That’s the harsh truth. We’ve come really far since the days when getting the flu was a death sentence, getting a cut was a death sentence and falling in the local river was… also a death sentence. However, every time a child steps into a classroom, they’re probably going back to that dreadful time.

To be fair, teachers aren’t too happy about it either.

Despite changes in the features of the classroom, the overall structure is still the same as that in the 18th century, when the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Britain, and later the rest of Western Europe, were gearing up for the transition from manual, artisan labour to menial, machine-assisted labour, with the invention of the flying shuttle, various kinds of machine tool and the advent of mass production in manufactured goods. This system, driven by the economic imperatives of mass production and the ideals of the Enlightenment, treated children like products, giving them free education (which didn’t exist before then) in large numbers to turn them into useful workers for society.

To do this, our education system was modelled after the factories which its products were destined for. Schools were assembly lines of children, with periods signalled by bells, subjects taught separately (a process of specialisation) and batching by age group instead of ability. Meanwhile, the way students are classified is a symptom of Enlightenment-era divisions between “academic” and “non-academic” learning; entering technical education, in many countries, is still seen as the mark of a “less intelligent” student, but are you “less intelligent” if you hire a handyman to repair your faucet or fix your fuse box?

While the outside and some of the insides have changed (beating children as punishment, for example, has been phased out in many countries), the factory is still there, churning out thousands of children every year into an economy that increasingly has less use for its products. This factory has failed to adapt convincingly to the demands of the modern, information-saturated economy; instead, like British shipbuilding, automakers in Detroit and other sunset industries, it asserts its power through an increasing focus on standardisation and test performance as benchmarks of “success”. What it produces, in fact, are students whose minds are chained to the traditional economy, traditional modes of thinking and to the traditional, hierarchical Victorian workplace, when in fact so many different, radically innovative options exist.

We need a new model of education, one which is suited for the present day and makes full use of the technologies that are available. Connectivity, collaboration and interactive, non-hierarchical learning are the future; students must be allowed to think for themselves, with some guidance from experienced mentors. They must be given the ability and (importantly) the freedom to develop, pursue and collaborate on potentially world-changing ideas. Our next generation must be empowered to break free of traditional corporate hierarchies and take ownership of their work through cooperative ventures and entrepreneurship, learning not just academic subjects but also practical and technical ones.

Implementing this new, powerful educational system from the ground up will take time and a determined struggle against the educational establishment, which tends to resist change despite calls from compassionate teachers to reform or lose out. I know that where I am right now, we’ll be among the vanguard of this revolution.

Will you join us?

(This article was inspired by, and partly sourced from, Sir Ken Robinson’s amazing speech on “Changing Education Paradigms”.)

Robert Liow is the marketing director of The Students Startup Ltd. He is also an active writer and spoken word poet, and a law student at King’s College London.