Peter Cochrane's Blog: Rigid education fails to make the grade

Education system needs to get flexible but vested interests may block essential change...

...five steps, the reaction is that it is too difficult or too much like hard work.

Now here is the paradox. Those same minds play computer games where tenacity is essential and the steps to achieve success might number 30 or more. But the players trained themselves, were unfettered, and free to develop their own strategy.

In contrast, the education system put them into a straitjacket and told them what and how to do everything.

Now here is another paradox. In the computer world the players expect tough competition and failure. To succeed they assume that they will have to work hard and persist, which appears not to be the case in education.

Probably the only solution is through the gateway of technology, but I'm not sure there is, or ever will be, a silver bullet. More likely, we will increasingly be playing catch-up but I do think it is clear that the following will be necessary:

  • The demise of the sage-on-the-stage model with thousands of mediocre teachers delivering the same material in the same format at almost the same time. They will have to give way to a few special, and networked, individuals who are in the premier league of tutorage in their field.
  • Local or online guide-at-the-side cadres of tutors will be required for individual student support.
  • Many complex concepts will have to be augmented by online animations, movies and simulations.
  • Stronger connections to the reality of industry and commerce with more work experience pre-graduation.
  • New forms of student and academic networks will be required to advance the speed of subsumption and understanding.
  • In some areas virtual experiments and laboratories in the kitchen will suffice, while in others the real thing will remain the only option.
  • University attendance will have to become more dispersed in time and space and more flexible. Attending 30 universities during a single degree programme should be possible.
  • Extended, sporadic study periods and conventional student programmes will be needed.

I could extend this list but I think we might guess that the biggest problem will be the vested interests of academics, institutions, the funding models of student and system.

During my life I have seen education ebb and flow from the rigidity of grades and subjects, to flexible options, and back again.

Up to the age of 15 my schooling was rigid but between the ages of 16 and 30 things grew very flexible. For example, I was able to take exams without attending courses, I could attend courses without strict justification or academic support.

During my years at university there were mandatory courses, and then to my great joy I found individual courses and lectures where I could just sit in as a guest. This situation came to a head one year when 12 courses were on offer and we had to choose eight to be examined in. So I attended all 12.

If there is a moral here it is that I set great store in those invisible lectures and courses I attended. Untold doors to understanding were opened for me, and the cross-subject linkages have proved invaluable throughout my life.

Such a serendipitous approach might constitute the future for student populations to come, but online, open to change and with continual updating. The only snag I can see? As ever, the inability of people to change fast enough.

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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