Our education system doesn’t learn

An opinion piece on education? I know. Don’t worry this is less than a thousand words.

In rich countries the education system we currently have is frequently and enjoyably criticised from every angle((Leaving higher education to one side, early childhood, primary and secondary education is an area I have some expertise in, having been a secondary teacher for almost a decade and having gone through phases of intense research into educational outcomes.)). But it’s important not to be too cynical. Our ((I’ll use Australia as an example but it’s a fair stand-in for other developed nations at least at the general level)) industrial schooling model is the utopian dream of 100 years ago: we have free education from ages five to 18, six hours a day, 200 days a year provided by tertiary trained professionals, gender discrimination is on the way down, playgrounds contain few hazards, teachers are forbidden from using corporal punishment or sexual molestation and students are encouraged (especially in high school) to express themselves, pursue some interests and develop as people. Although reformers generally talk about an “education revolution”, or the integration of new technology, or a rethink of the student’s role in learning, I think there’s a lot of strong points in our system and revolutions should be based on evidence (of which we have very little).

Strong points

  • Free babysitting, allowing parents to work.
  • Provides social environment (albeit artificial and unlike the world at large) for people to mix with peers and an efficient way to form platonic and sexual relationships.
  • Diligent children emerge with knowledge of algebra, geometry and calculus.
  • Excellent sporting opportunities provided by most schools.
  • Children from literate parents become literate.

Weak points

  • System reproduces socio-economic advantage that children carry with them going in at age five.
  • Curriculum based on 19th century subject areas.
  • Teachers unions now motivated by issues like class size rather than children’s cognitive development.
  • Teachers poorly paid, attracting fewer high quality candidates (especially pronounced since 1970s when high achieving female graduates became teachers, being debarred from higher paying professions).
  • Mainly exposes students to children from similar socioeconomic backgrounds (determined by geographical location for public schools or wealth and/or religious belief for private schools).
  • Children with illiterate parents develop poor literacy.

In short, the system is truly laudable by historical standards, but has plateaued since the 1970s.

I think there are two big improvements that need to be made to the system and — because we still have a shocking and ironic lack of knowledge about how education works — three problems with the public debate on this topic.

Two improvements

  1. The most robust finding about human beings’ learning capacities, are that ages zero to five are the most crucial in determining adult literacy, numeracy and overall cognitive abilities. We have a massive, expensive, public and private schooling system that shapes the texture of the early quarter of our lives, employs millions of our workforce and which kicks in exactly when it is less effective. This is darkly funny. The unregulated mishmash of the early childhood education sector, conversely, has relatively untrained professionals, no rigorous curriculum, no explicit focus on learning and it’s opt-in. If we took half the money we spend on children aged five to 18 and allocated it to what we think we know about infants’ cognitive development (expose them to language, sociality and problem solving; and provide nutrition and freedom from toxins) we might actually start elevating children beyond their socially predestined literacy levels.
  2. A back to first principles, hard reset of the content we teach in secondary school. This is up for grabs but if I were brainstorming the most important things for people to know at that age, I’d emphasise sophisticated reading and writing skills, history, introduction to the natural sciences, opportunity for expression and appreciation in the arts, higher mathematics, how our political system works (in theory these are already covered); and probability/statistics, second language acquisition, coding, family planning, knowledge of cognitive biases, mental health strategies (none of which are really integral to the current curriculum)((Of course we also need to teach some things very differently. We clearly emphasise national history too much over world history. English teachers spend too much time focusing on films, TV and books rather than the increasingly abstract levels of literacy that allow one to read, write and think more powerfully. Mathematics is too much based on calculation at the expense of computation, statistics and problem solving. Our science curriculum has effectively taken the most wondrous ideas on earth and made them connotative of boredom and drudgery. Religion is somehow still taught in state schools. Even comparative religion (a useful knowledge of the world’s religions) gets far too much priority over study of other ideas of equal or greater importance such as philosophy, psychology, anthropology, etc.)). Or whatever, my ideas are biased towards what I would have benefited from learning. The point is that we currently have a legacy curriculum rather than a useful and enriching one.

Three problems with the debate

  1. Everyone involved in the debate (including me) has, by definition, had a successful educational experience. The teachers((Should I become a teacher? The 80,000 Hours site provides a good summary of the pros and cons of being a teacher, but does not look at the most crucial years when education can make a difference. Perhaps the most effective way to be a teacher is to break into the pre-school arena where one could seriously improve the literacy potential and cognitive development of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Still, as the above reference points out, children in developing nations are not even at the stage yet where they have an industrialised education system about which to complain and so providing even basic, primary education to girls in sub-Saharan Africa is probably the best thing we could be doing with our school fees in rich nations.)), researchers, politicians, columnists and psychologists who babble on about learning, frequently criticise parts of the system with which they themselves grated. They advocate removing aspects of education (rote learning, narrative history, “new math”, etc.) which left them in such a poor state that the best they could do was become a leader in their field and an articulate advocate for educational reform. Probably they were from healthy backgrounds with literate parents and regardless of the school they went to, the teaching methods they were exposed to and the mixed competency of their teachers, they were nonetheless destined to be middle class and attend university. The result is that the students who need education the most and the adults who were most failed by it are unrepresented.
  2. Commentators on education also need to let go of discredited (or never credited) theorists like Piaget and Vygotsky and move to an integrated knowledge base of cognitive neuroscience, cultural differences and experiments in early-childhood education. Further, most educational research and commentary is devoted to politicised issues such as class size, public/private funding, history wars, the place of sex education, etc.((The whole-language versus phonetics debate of the 1980s and 1990s was highly ideologically driven, but at least it focused on something fundamental.)). These are important but they are perversely, disproportionately prioritised ahead of the basic research object of education: how can we make kids learn more effectively?
  3. Concurrently, we need a debate on what education is for. Without knowing what we want students to become, it’s pointless to know how to teach them. There are four implicit goals of education and we need to prioritise, clarify, reject or combine them: providing literacy, numeracy and knowledge of different subjects; the socialisation of young people in a safe, enriching environment; providing skills for vocations; and developing good citizens for the polity in which they’re educated. All important ends but they no doubt have completely different means and some may be the purview of tertiary education only.

Education is seen as a panacea for society’s other ills such as inequality, welfare dependency, poor health outcomes, etc. But unless we refocus onto pre-school education, low educational attainment will remain a symptom (rather than the cause many assume it is) of socio-economic deprivation. This may require programs for parents to help them read to their kids, provide them nutrition and expose them to language. It may require a shift to compulsory pre-schooling. Or, probably, the status quo will continue which will see the excellent operation of a gigantic system designed to distract kids and parents while it lurchingly reproduces social stratification with impressive fidelity((Subjoinment added 16-09-15. Education is frequently seen as a good to be consumed, particularly by economists, and it certainly is. Higher education is especially amenable to such analysis because people have some degree of choice over which higher education product they purchase, firms compete and occasionally they even respond to demand, such as the recent advent of MOOCs. But in the case of primary and secondary schooling such analysis breaks down because the consumers aren’t the consumers: parents put their kids in school where they are provided a valuable service but are not invested in its uptake. Even when people know that education is good for them and are willing to pay for it, they still frequently spurn its offerings. Worse still the consumers whose lives could be most helped by the education product are the ones least interested in its provision — even though it’s free. This makes schooling difficult to analyse with traditional policy tools because there is a class dimension and also a lack of autonomy on the part of the consumers (children). However, we mustn’t veer off into a reactionary cultural studies approach, all too prevalent in teacher training courses. Instead we need a mixture of empirics and lots of experimentation. The space of possible educational programs is vast and our exploration of it negligible. Maybe young children would learn better with iPads, maybe in groups of five, maybe only in the afternoon, maybe after they’ve had protein rich meals, maybe by rolling all subjects into one, maybe with gamification, maybe in boarding schools, maybe in song and dance, maybe with the help of study drugs, maybe some optimal combination of the above, maybe some methods work for certain kids not others, and on and on. What is known is that the total cost of education reform programs in developed nations since the 1970s has yielded virtually no results. At best, policy makers’ efforts seem to have not made schools noticeably worse in that time.))