How school education needs to adapt, change and evolve to help children thrive in an uncertain world

Notes from A Workshop for Parents on 7th October 2017

We held a workshop last Saturday for parents on ‘How school education needs to adapt, change and evolve to enable children to thrive in an uncertain world’. We had some very interesting discussions and parents also had the chance to voice some of their biggest concerns in light of a world which is changing fast.

As an institution, we spend considerable brain power trying to think of what we need to be doing with students today so that they are best equipped to thrive as young adults and beyond. So a lot of our work involves creating and thinking up situations which enable children to develop not only academic skills, but a host of other traits, mindsets and competencies which are integral to happiness and satisfaction in life.

Here are the big ideas that were discussed during the workshop:

1. The present (and future) are very different to the past (!):

When school education came into being about 200 years ago, the focus was on one-way transmission of knowledge from teacher to students. Education often evolves as a mechanism to train people for the jobs which exist at the time. As such, when a particular technology becomes mainstream, the education system takes a few years, and possibly decades, to equip people with skills that are of use to them in the new world that they find themselves in. When mass schooling was devised (during and after the industrial revolution), the need of the hour was for people to do repetitive, routine tasks. Today, most jobs require non-routine, analytical and even interpersonal tasks. This trend will continue as more of our routine work is passed over to cheaper and more efficient machines. So our needs today are vastly different, but the education system is not.

Another big difference between 1977 and 2017 is that information is now freely available to any person who has an internet connection and a device. Willingness to learn is all that is needed if you want to learn a new skill or gain knowledge in a particular area. So we are no longer constrained in terms of information and knowledge — in most cases, the teacher has access to the same information set as the student. This completely changes the teacher — student relationship.

2. Automation will completely change the nature of jobs:

While we are yet to see what happens to the future of work, we are pretty sure that humans will have a lot less to do in the future, and what they do will involve a lot more ‘non-routine’ and interpersonal interaction. While self driving trucks and cars reduce the need for drivers, other sectors are also coming to terms with the reality that people will only be needed to perform those tasks which computers either cannot perform at all, or cannot perform well enough. This obviously means that humans will move into the realm of what really makes us human — the ability to communicate, lead, empathize and persuade each other. A big aspect of our innate nature is the act of questioning, or curiosity (Jigyasa!). We will have to come up with good questions and then use our creativity to solve them.

3. Focus has to move from academic knowledge to a ‘range of skills’:

The focus has to move from school being a place where academic knowledge is acquired, to one where a range of skills are developed. In the Indian context particularly, we often hear employers complaining that a large proportion of employees lack ‘soft skills’. So it is well accepted that technical skills will only take you so far.

If you assume that the pace of change in the world is not going to slow down, then it is not unreasonable to assume that people will have to learn a number of skills in a lifetime in order to be able to add value to society and earn a living. So the ability to learn new skills is going to become a key differentiator for people.

One often hears the phrase ‘learn how to learn’ in various contexts. We believe that children possess this ability in abundance — one need not ‘teach’ this. So what schools need to do is to equip their learning spaces in ways where there are plenty of opportunities for children to learn new skills and apply existing skills in different contexts.

As far as the range of skills goes, in addition to academic skills, children in schools today have to practice teamwork, collaboration, persistence, creativity, risk taking, adaptability and a host of other seemingly ‘soft’ skills which are getting harder and harder to acquire in the world we live in.

4. The delivery of education will (should?) undergo a radical change:

Thus far in India, the delivery of education has centred around content and grading. The textbooks (another outdated tool) contain a lot of material and the children are tested on how much of that stuff they know. Teachers are under immense stress to finish ‘portions’ and schools often sell themselves on how good the board exam results were. This is fine but it is also one dimensional, short sighted and focuses on the wrong thing (grades and NOT learning). It also promotes a tendency to want to ‘game’ the system in order to get the highest marks. The author was a certified expert at gaming the system and finished school not knowing much at all, but with very high grades!

Assessment in India is also lagging behind. Written exams made sense in 1850 when the written word was the only viable method of mass communication. Now, the workforce requires that people communicate via multiple media. How come our exams are still predominantly in written form? Also, we have technologies to track children’s progress right from the very start. It is high time we developed a mindset of continuous assessment since it is possible to collect information about students from the time they join school. That will reduce the hype around the board exams, and also help students realise early on in life that consistent performance over a long time is what matters the most, not a good performance in a single set of exams. Also, India is in dire need of a system where children can re-take exams if their performance is not up to their standards — other countries offer this and it makes total sense. Why should factors outside a student’s control have so much of an influence over their grades? And why do we not allow a student to retrace his or her steps and improve?

Think of a league like the La Liga or the EPL. Winning one big game doesn’t determine whether a team wins the league. Played over 8 months and spanning 40 odd games, these leagues require that teams and players maintain a consistent level of high performance if they are to win. Why can’t our school exams be like that? Children will have the chance to strategize and will imbibe a long term approach to life, which I find is so severely lacking in a society which seems to idolize ‘overnight’ success and makes instant gratification the mainstay of our existence.

5. The Teaching Model and Teacher Education will have to step up to new challenges:

Most requirements for teaching jobs require either a teaching diploma like an early years teaching qualification or a B.Ed or MA etc. If you look at the content of these degrees, it is not hard to see why the quality of teaching in most schools is so poor. While many teachers are content experts, they are not experts at bringing a subject to life.

Content + Context = Engagement

And unsurprisingly, that is what matters most to the learner. However, most teachers have never thought of it this way. Even parents seem to miss this point and want schools to focus on content. But content without context is a recipe for bored learners and poor grades.

But a bored learner with poor grades is still an intelligent one. However, Indian society has been pummelled into believing otherwise. The irony!

6. Experiences will trump one dimensional content flow:

Only a person who has taught in a classroom without a textbook knows the power of peer learning and student driven interaction. If you start from a point of learning being a dynamic process and are willing to let lessons take shape as student engagement evolves, then you will know how limiting textbooks can be.

Schools and teachers have to move on from a focus on the delivery of content, because anyone with a connection to the internet can get content. You don’t have to pay 2 lacs plus (or many multiples of that) a year for a teacher to dump content into your child’s brain. Unless you consider school a glorified day care facility.

We like to focus on what I call ‘transformative learning experiences’. To my mind, school should be a place where everyone (students and teachers) can engage in experiences which fundamentally change them in some way. In June, our theme in the primary section was ‘How Does My Garden Grow?’, and to this day, the children are so in tune with nature and are fascinated by every plant and flower that they see — so much so that they are willing to stop playing during sports time to go check out an interesting new flower they have spotted. That is clearly the result of a transformative learning experience. Their experiences have fundamentally changed the way in which they engage with the world. Obviously, there is no question of ‘remembering’ in this instance; it has become a part of them.

— Ryan Chadha

As with most other ‘big decisions’ in life, a person’s personal philosophy plays a big role in the kind of education they choose, not only for themselves, but for their children as well. Over the 4 years that we have been running Jigyasa, we have noticed that 95% of our parents agree on the points above, to some extent at the very least. This means that school and parents are on the same page most of the time, which is a good start!

As this admission season gets underway, we wish you all the very best, and hope that you choose a school which gels with your own world view and at the same time is able to deliver happy learning experiences to your child. Good luck!

Oh, and if you’re actively looking for a school for your child, and are captivated by the points in this post, do consider coming to Jigyasa’s Open Day on 28th October. We will hold another workshop which I hope will be very interesting, so do make sure you register in time!

* After the workshop, we got lots of feedback from parents about the workshop. Some even went to the extent of saying that they were facing some of these situations at work already (automation etc). So as an addendum, I would also add that parent involvement in schools needs to increase so that parents and schools can work together to shape education in a manner which better fits the needs of society.

Ryan Chadha is Curator of Learning Experiences at Jigyasa The School, a New Age school in Bangalore. When he’s not lamenting the current state of education in India, he can be found blogging here and other friendly places on the internet.

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If you are interested, you must come to our next workshop on 28th October! Details below.

Open Day & Workshop on 28 October 2017
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