Educational difficulties.

Image from Joseph Szabo’s ‘Teen Spirit’

Education is undoubtedly vital in society, but not in the form it is today. The modern education system stifles creativity, punishes failure, and places an unhealthy amount of pressure on its students, resulting in a lot of leavers who feel disenfranchised and unprepared to face the wider world. If education’s job is to prepare people for life, it’s failing miserably. The model of our curriculum and standardised examinations encourage linear thinking and regurgitation of information, with strict mark schemes and a general sense of jumping through hoops. The content itself is often useless in regard to modern living, and the exams themselves present about as much of an indication of an individual’s intelligence as a word search does, with them simply measuring one’s ability of fact recall and exam technique. These exams are then given unreasonably high regard in terms of one’s future, something so brash and callous when you come to think about the fact that each and every ones individual merits and talents are now based largely upon a set of letters next to subject titles they may have no interest in learning.

The problem is, the world is developing at startling rate, and civilisation will look drastically different 30 years from now, and our society cannot afford to be churning out individuals who have been taught from 5 to intellectually conform. With the internet and its great swathes of priceless knowledge providing a levelling tool for anyone, this is a time of great change. Our students need to be allowed to innovate. They need to be allowed to question authority and the status quo. They need to be allowed to fail. They need to be encouraged to explore their passions and the limits of their minds. But most of all, they need to enjoy it. Anxiety levels of high school students now are the same as psychiatric patients in the 1950’s — this is a worrying statistic, and along with suicide rates rising, it’s clear the current system is unhealthy for the minds of our future. Adolescence happens once, it’s a time of turmoil yet hope and optimism for an uncertain future, and it’s a great tragedy that people are becoming so depressed that they are willing to take their own lives, often because of the pressures placed through schooling.

Every student is unique, and the standardised system is failing those individuals too often. Hans Zimmer, the Oscar winning composer behind some of the most innovative soundtracks of the last two decades, was kicked out of 6 schools during his time in education. He felt totally uninterested in the subjects he was being taught, and became disruptive. His passion was for the piano, and that’s all he wanted to do, yet the way in which he was taught thoroughly bored him. He wanted his freedom and room to experiment. At his 7th school, the head master promised to do what he could to help Hans learn, so he allowed him to just play the piano the way he wanted, when he wanted. He soon mastered it, and his interest and engagement with other subjects increased.

My point here is simple — if a child cannot learn in the way that you teach, you must teach in the way the child can learn. There is no use trying to teach if the learner has no desire to listen, and so we must find ways to engage our students with more than just punishments. Plato once said ‘Knowledge that is acquired under compulsion has no hold on the mind.’ and the fact that this is still so relevant today is testament to the lack of evolution and change in the basics of educational thought.

Our current curriculum was established at the dawn of the industrial revolution, where maths and sciences were the most valuable and lucrative skills to possess. As a result, most schools work in a hierarchical system towards the pool of subjects — STEM subjects at the top, Humanities in the middle, with the arts at the bottom. Peoples dreams and passions are so often disregarded as being unobtainable — ‘you’ll never be an artist’, ‘you can’t be an actor’, etc. This prejudice is harmful to not only individuals, but also society as a whole, leading to a dangerous creative stagnation and adults who are unsatisfied with their careers. Essentially, individuality, unique interests and passions should be encouraged, not shunned because someone else told you it would never work out and that maths is far more important.

Stanley Kubrick is regarded as one of the greatest directors ever lived, a visionary behind masterpieces such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove and The Shining. Kubrick was a thoroughly average student as far as grades were concerned, and his attendance record was extremely poor. Obviously, Kubrick was not unintelligent, but his interests were simply elsewhere, he was passionate about photography and literature, often skipping class to watch films or read novels. School failed him, but through his talents and perseverance, he supported himself in ways where an exemplary school record was not needed, kick-starting his creative career by working as a photographer. School failed him simply because he was unmotivated, unengaged and uninterested by the standardised curriculum, later in life speaking out about schools being “ineffective in stimulating critical thinking and student interest”. Kubrick was fascinated by so many different things, yet school offered none of them, and his insatiable desire for learning and exploration was not replicated when it came to his mundane school work. Luckily he pursued his interests, put traditional schooling as second place — perhaps risking future prospects of mundane yet high paying careers — and became a hugely influential, ground breaking and successful film-maker.

Intellectual freedom and creativity is vital in learning efficiently and the furtherance of society as a whole, however the homogenising effect of education today is harmful to this pursuit of progression. Personally, I feel intellectually suffocated by the subjects I have been forced to learn and I yearn for the freedom and time to delve into countless other topics of far greater interest to me, and this frustration is felt by many, many other people my age.

‘I always like to learn, but I don’t always like to be taught’ — Winston Churchill.

So, what specific aspects can we set about changing? And how can these changes benefit society?

Firstly, the curriculum and content itself needs to focus on more practical knowledge, placing preparedness for adulthood (both in terms of intellectually and psychologically) as the top priority. In a democracy, the most important tool for positive change and progression is information — having an understanding of the policies, challenges and ideologies prevalent in modern society is invaluable when it comes to the well-being of our nations. Unfortunately, this vital aspect is broadly glossed over within secondary education, and many young adults are often leaving school with little to no grasp of the political process, weakening their democratic power and position in society. Perhaps more worryingly, the little grasp they may have could be passed down from the ideological standings of their parents, providing a warped view of these issues as a whole. I believe engagement with the political process should be encouraged within schools, with non-bias informative teaching and discussion of current affairs following.

A more specific example of a more practical angle to education comes in the form of mathematics. Maths is invaluable, I won’t dispute that. However, the mandatory teaching of complex forms of algebra, quadratics, calculus etc at GCSE level is a somewhat wasted opportunity. Let’s not pretend that these forms of the discipline have much bearing in the real world outside of the bubble of mathematical careers itself, so to continue to champion them as necessary seems an obvious non sequitor. Instead, GCSE-level math would be more beneficial (and interesting) if it focussed on its applied use within economics. Micro-economics, macro-economics, interest, debt, the Keynesian school of thought and the opposing Austrian ideology — the value of understanding these things seems to be being ignored within the curriculum. Of course, economics is incredibly important within current affairs and politics, leading to another interesting point of reform. The act of dividing the curriculum up into strict subjects, with little relation to each other, seems counter intuitive in education’s aim to educate, as in order to fully comprehend our world and to elevate our understandings of the information taught, you must first recognise that modern life is systemic and almost everything is connected, related and impacted by each other. Finland, a nation renowned for its progressive and successful (often taking no.1 spot on international league tables for numeracy and literacy) education reforms, have embarked on a ambitious idea to move away from traditional subjects and instead towards “phenomenon” teaching; a new model that focuses on topics that incorporate different disciplines and subject matter within a real world environment. For example, when reporting on Finland’s reforms, The Independent presented the EU as a topic — merging ‘elements of economics, history (of the countries involved), languages and geography.’ Not only would this approach increase student’s understandings and applications within the separate subject, it would also give them a solid foundation of general knowledge needed to navigate and understand the complex processes, institutions and events of the world around us.

However, the content alterations I proposed would lack significant impact if students do not engage. Student engagement is a more complex issue to tackle, but I believe that the dynamics of the classroom itself should focus on more intellectually stimulating and less mundane activities than what is currently rife in the system today. More student collaboration, discussion of subjects and less homogenising, somewhat dehumanizing copying off a board or from dictation would greatly improve the dynamic. This, coupled with more practically applicable subject matter, should provide a far more successful, cooperative and enjoyable environment for those involved, benefiting individual students and society alike.

There is no doubt more I could say about the matter, detailing more possible reforms and approaches necessary in the progression of a largely unsatisfactory system, like the teaching of philosophy in regard to our social and political contexts to encourage more peaceful coexistence and mature approach to relationships and self reflection, or the need to examine the student/teacher dynamic in the hope of perhaps improving the sometimes autocratic stance the latter takes and democratising the teaching process to accommodate individual needs. But in the interest of brevity I will end with this — The hope for a peaceful, progressive, idyllic future wholly depends on the education of the people within it. We need to educate people to solve the problems the previous generations burdened us with — dynamic, creative and intellectually broad citizens are our key to doing so, and the current situation may well put that in jeopardy — ‘Civilisation is a race between education and catastrophe.’