Open letter to the Department for Education & Ofqual for GCSE and A level reform


Dear Department for Education and Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation,

Thank you for your open consultation on GCSE and A level reform: for teaching from September 2017.

In my response I first discuss some general issues I see with the education system, before commenting on subject specific matters, as well as subjects I believe are still neglected.


Background

A brief background to myself. I am an IT contractor specialising in developing web applications and my experience includes working in online learning/education companies. My education was all through state schools, my A-Levels through a sixth form and my degree at a West Midlands University.

Although achieving very highly at school I can safely say that unfortunately the education system taught me very little and contributed almost nothing towards my current career as an IT contractor. This is a disappointing outcome since I think it could have prepared me much better for the world and the tax payer’s money could have been better spent. I would like to make it clear that the fault was not the teachers, nor the facilities, nor the syllabus — who all did their absolute best — but a few fundamental flaws/assumptions in the system which I believe need to be corrected (please see “Problems in the current education system”).

As it stands, the education system has become about meeting targets and benchmarks set by government & Universities rather than looking at the needs of each individual and tailoring the education to what they might need to grow and succeed…

And I also believe I’m not alone in my disposition; the majority of students I’ve spoken to throughout the years have all agreed with me that their education lacked true added value and translated very little into the world of work, bar those in specialised professions e.g. dentistry, medicine, optometry etc. whose education was a prerequisite into a profession.

There were a few key things however that did shape me and my future, in order of importance, and this all happened outside of school:

  • Becoming more self-aware of myself, false notions, fears, world view and limiting beliefs through personal development courses (Landmark Education, Dale Carnegie) and regular mindfulness meditation which taught me integrity, relationship skills, how to manage my stress (especially in difficult situations), communication, openness, patience, gratitude and humility
  • Experimenting with my Acorn and PC at home from the age of 11, eventually starting my own open source software project and developing websites & magazines for voluntary organisations from 16 years onwards which taught me self-sufficiency, self-learning, leadership and a whole bunch of technical skills
  • Doing presentations on various subjects in front of hundreds of people regularly really boosted my self-confidence and courage in myself

So everything I did outside of school led to my career and everything I did inside of school was somewhat wasted, even at the University level.

I realise this may be difficult to read, since I know those of you reading this will have been trying your very best to make the education system the best it can be, and I am trying to not come across as somebody who is pointing fingers or being pessimistic, but rather as keeping to the fact of how the education system affected myself. I hope you will interpret my words as frankness rather than as criticism. Since I am quite a pragmatic person, I also provide a series of solutions after discussing the problems that I think are the key ones in the current education system.


Problems in the current education system (in order of importance)

The education system is geared around meeting national targets with a one-size-fits-all model, rather than meeting individual needs.

As it stands, the education system has become about meeting targets and benchmarks set by government & Universities rather than looking at the needs of each individual and tailoring the education to what they might need to grow and succeed, to feel happy and confident, to feel inspired, self-motivated, to be able to learn most effectively and to be able to experiment with a variety of fields in order to find their true passion.

what is the benefit of teaching students knowledge that they will forget? If only knowledge or it’s application under a limited set of conditions is being tested, does it mean that all of today’s education system is simply a memory test rather than a test of intelligence?

Education should be focussing on:

  1. preparing students for work & life
  2. building students hard and soft skills
  3. tailoring the education to meet the needs of each students, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach
  • This could mean abolishing national targets and letting students set their own goals and targets for themselves, or with the assistance of their teachers.
  • Additionally, it is unfortunate that learning is only focussed around one modality of those who are auditory — thus neglecting visual and kinesthetic learners. The current education syllabus has not been broken into the VAK — visual, auditory, kinesthetic — modalities of learning.
  • The question then arises: how to tailor an entire syllabus to each student? Well, a computer (neural network) could make a best guess based on a detailed assessment of a student’s personality, interests, ways of learning, likes, dislikes etc. This best guess can be adjusted by the student’s teacher as the teacher finds out more about the student and as the student finds out more about themselves — thus continuing to tailor the education to the student. However, as you will see in my later points, there may no longer be a need for a fixed rigid syllabus.

The education system has little to no alignment with work practises in real organisations and businesses

Everything in organisations and businesses is task and project-based. You complete a task inside a particular project by a certain deadline, adhering to a certain set of guidelines and/or rules. If you want to introduce a new idea to a company you create a presentation and pitch it.

Moving away from theory and bringing concepts to life through real experiences is what education should be about!

So what connection do these core real world practises have with written essays and written exams under extremely strict timed conditions, usually without being able to use any support material like the internet? What does testing in this way really demonstrate?

That a person can write quickly? That a person has a good memory?

It’s a nonsensical way to test with little to no alignment to the real world or to the definition of intelligence.

Imagine if by the time you reached 18 you already had completed over 50 real world tangible projects — and how much you would have learnt through those experiences?

The education system focusses on teaching knowledge which we always forget rather than providing experiences we will always remember.

Expanding on the previous point, what is the benefit of teaching students knowledge that they will forget? If only knowledge or it’s application under a limited set of conditions is being tested, does it mean that all of today’s education system is simply a memory test rather than a test of intelligence?

Today, if I need to know something I will Google search it or if Google does not produce reliable sources, I may search an academic paper or contact a few experts in the field for their views or write my question on a forum for people to answer or on my social media profile to tap into the knowledge of my collective friend circles. Knowledge is merely a means to a goal, it’s never a goal in itself. Only knowledge which is applied in a real world situation or project comes to life, otherwise it remains as a dull concept devoid of any real world application and is forgotten

So how about an education system which only focuses on giving students projects to complete — both individual and team projects — just like in the real world? Giving them real problems to solve?

Out of all of these skills, the most important is relationship skills

Creating electronic gadgets, creating software programs, creating an art or sculpture piece and showcasing it in an art gallery, doing real scientific research under the guidance of scientists, creating and launching a product, solving a maths conjecture, incorporating a real business and filing real accounts, having the opportunity to lead a team, making a pitch to investors or bankers to secure funding, creating a new board game.

Moving away from theory and bringing concepts to life through real experiences is what education should be about! In each project, every subject can be covered as it’s need arises — mathematics, science, languages, IT, business etc.

Imagine if by the time you reached 18 you already had completed over 50 real world tangible projects — and how much you would have learnt through those experiences? and how ready you would be to face the real world which is not all that different to what you've already been doing since joining school?

There is no focus on soft skills which are the key to a successful life

Mathematics, IT or science cannot make us successful in life, but there are a few key soft skills which can:

  • managing one’s emotions
  • integrity/honesty
  • relationship skills
  • leadership skills
  • communication skills
  • networking skills
  • gratitude
  • learning to deal with difficult situations
  • learning concentration / stillness of mind
  • and self-awareness & stress management through mindfulness meditation (which is the 100% scientifically backed)
  • Out of all of these skills, the most important is relationship skills and the most difficult to learn is leadership as it’s a combination of all the other soft skills and is the skill most lacking in our world which is full of examples of poor leadership, with very few examples of great leaders.
We need to make more use of: automated IT assessment, computerized homework marking, automated progress checking like e.g. https://www.khanacademy.org … Teachers would finally have time to spend supporting students’ individual needs

Some essential life hard skills are not being taught

At school I wish I was taught:

  • Survival cooking — growing, cooking and eating your own vegetables & fruits
  • Money management (& investment) — how to manage your finances, create budgets, managing cash flow and assessing whether something is a good investment or not
  • How to learn — getting students to find out if they are more visual, auditory and/or kinesthetic, and how they learn best. What type of personality they have. What they are good at, what they enjoy, what they are bad at, and what they hate. To become self-sufficient in finding answers to different questions e.g. Googling, asking experts, asking friends, creating surveys, doing scientific research etc.
  • Basic programming — In an internet-connected world, basic programming skills will becoming increasingly essential for each citizen/student to know. It’s becoming as important as English, Maths and Science.
Education can really be the most fun experience of our lives — the most memorable — the most transforming, where we move from being little girls and little boys to becoming responsible women and men.

Every teacher has to reinvent teaching the same lesson over and over again thus wasting teacher time in offering students real guidance and support

We need to make more use of:

  • automated IT assessment
  • computerized homework marking
  • automated progress checking like e.g. https://www.khanacademy.org
  • remote learning by allowing students to learn from anywhere, anytime by logging into their PCs
  • and crowd-sourcing lessons by the best voted teachers (or even industry professionals?) in the country to record a lesson once and for all as a video!
  • Teachers would finally have time to spend supporting students’ individual needs and letting technology mark their work, keep track of their progress and teach the students
  • Initially the teaching of lessons can be done through just a video (just like in https://www.khanacademy.org) but when 3D technology becomes more prevalent in the next 5–10 years, these lessons can be re-recorded in 3D providing the best virtual teacher for any given lesson without re-inventing the wheel each time
At school I wish I was taught: Survival cooking … Money management … How to learn … [and] Basic programming

Education is not fun and it can be

Education can really be the most fun experience of our lives — the most memorable — the most transforming, where we move from being little girls and little boys to becoming responsible women and men.

It can be a platform to allow children to explore their passions — like being in a playground — free from fear of experimentation.

A lot of education could be gamified in order to make it more engaging. Having a points system and (virtual?) rewards for achieving targets as an individual and as a team? Team scoreboards to create a bit of healthy rivalry/competition. Teaching most subjects through gamification would be highly engaging


Subject specific comments

  • Business — This could involve incorporating a real company and filing annual accounts. The business can be given some seed funding of say £50, out of which some would be a marketing budget and some to develop a product and sell it, with the aim to make a profit
  • Philosophy — Philosophy by itself does not produce any real world benefit/change until it is applied so I think this subject could take a more practical approach — moving more into psychology. There can be a module focussing on mindfulness meditation/self awareness by keeping a 40 day journal of experiences of a silent non-religious meditation. Students could also record their dreams for a period of time as an assignment — studying Carl Jung’s Dream Analysis. To bring more life to the teaching of religions, visits to the temple, church or mosque could be made — or even more experiential — to live life as a person of that faith for a period of time!
  • Music Technology — This sounds like an incredible subject and highly practical — providing a good model for other subjects to follow. I foresee some fantastic music tracks being produced in this subject and students moving onto careers in the music industry as a result
  • New IT Subjects — I also see a range of subjects around IT which need to be introduced if the UK is to remain competitive in a fully computerized & automated world: web development, mobile development, games development, user experience design, product management, digital marketing, data analysis, DevOps/system administration, ethical hacking

Thank you so much for your time in reading my humble thoughts and for doing the best you can for education in our country.

If you have any questions or comments on what I have written, please do feel free to get in touch and I will be happy to respond.

I am also happy for you to publish my comments in part, or full, with or without attribution.

Kind regards and best wishes,

Jasdeep Khalsa


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