Is our education system a cyborg?

Zahra Davidson
Jun 26, 2016 · 4 min read

The future of education is a hot topic right now. At the time of writing a search for UK events focussing on said topic yielded 495 results on Eventbrite alone. No wonder it feels both exciting and frustrating to be an education or learning practitioner at this time; we value creativity and ideas in this space, but we perceive them as part of our longer-term future, leaving an enticing yet challenging gap.

A cyborg is defined as a person whose physical abilities are extended beyond normal human limitations by mechanical or electronic elements built into the body. We could say that metaphorically, our education system is the person, with many ‘normal’ limitations. The mechanical or electronic elements are the multiple plug-ins or additions that the system depends on to reach beyond those limitations. This is not to be confused with reaching beyond people’s expectations. If our apparent eagerness to discuss the future of education tells us anything, it’s that people’s expectations are barely being met, let alone exceeded, by the performance of our learning systems, or by the pace of change and evolution.

For those of you immersed in the education system, you will know well the kind of enhancement I’m referring to. These plug-ins are sometimes technical solutions, such as software to enable efficient management of a school, but very often they are social solutions, delivered through generosity, determination and hard work. They are charities, social enterprises, initiatives and projects, and they are being plugged in and switched on throughout the system. They provide a service.

Cleaner fish providing a service to their larger host.

The sheer quantity of these service-providing-supplements was one of several hot topics of discussion at Changing Learning Systems, an event that Laura Billings and I put together. We wanted to bring a diverse group of people together at Edspace, and highlight initiatives that illustrate system change in action within the education space. We invited four speakers to tell us about the systemic challenge which they spotted, how they formed a response, and how they made that response a reality.

Robin Chu from CoachBright explained how holistic coaching can be used to raise the expectations, confidence and grades of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Ed Fidoe of School 21 showed us how a school can link curriculum to purpose for the students by focusing on iterative learning methods and feedback to create things that people value. Similarly, Sarah Drummond from Snook described a project called The Matter which supports young people to gain the softer skills needed for employment, through writing and producing a newspaper — a tangible artifact and physical manifestation of their learning. Last but not least, Ben Colegrave told us how ELAM is a school that serves industry, but through doing so prioritises the interests, needs and futures of students who are often failed by mainstream schools.

In innovation theory, new ideas or entrants into the system from the ‘niche’ can indicate a dynamic space which is ripe for, or in need of, change. These new entrants might be entirely new nodes in the system, such as School 21, or they might be more distributed, providing a service to many nodes, such as CoachBright. Undeniably, this dynamic activity is a sign of healthy creativity and innovation feeding into our education system, but could it be indicative of less than full health in the system itself?

There was a feeling in the room that the quantity of social enterprises, charities and initiatives that are seemingly needed to provide children with the likes of STEM learning, coding skills, creative development, holistic wellbeing and vocational experience, perhaps points to an underperforming system with more than just ‘normal’ limitations.

So is our education system some kind of cyborg? So many plug-ins, customisations and add-ons that there is little left underneath? And if we do have a strange and unwieldy mutant on our hands, what does this mean going forward? How can we ensure these extras add up to influence the system itself? We know there is a clear, shared passion across sectors to discuss, debate and attend ‘future of education’ events. How does this passion translate into productive collective action, addressing the limitations of the system? We asked people at the event to tell us what system change meant to them, and we felt the following response summed it up.

“That enough people care enough about education, to care to challenge the status quo.”

What came through our discussions was that for those who care, and there are many, it is near impossible to challenge the mighty cyborg without support, fuel and allies. So, going forward, Enrol Yourself and Edspace are interested in connecting a community of supportive allies, and providing fuel through continuing to showcase initiatives that ‘play’ the system or intervene. Next up we’re running an event called Lifelong Learners, featuring four initiatives offering learning beyond the institution.

Have a browse of other hot topics from Changing Learning Systems:


The #LXDmeetup is a place for learner experience designers: people who are working to make learning happen, whether that’s in the classroom, in the community or in the online world. This blog is where we’ll share what we learn about designing for learning.

Zahra Davidson

Written by

Co-founder & Director @EnrolYourself | Affiliate School of #SystemsChange @Forum4theFuture | Formerly @yearhere @wearesnook


The #LXDmeetup is a place for learner experience designers: people who are working to make learning happen, whether that’s in the classroom, in the community or in the online world. This blog is where we’ll share what we learn about designing for learning.

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