Examining education

By Martin Flynn. Martin, 28, is from Sheffield, UK. Please read his article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

“Should the role of education be to prepare students for working life, or to broaden their mind?” An optimistic reader will likely suggest one immediate response to this starchy inquiry: can education not do both? This essay will indeed argue that the two aims mentioned are not mutually exclusive, and can be achieved in parallel if education is structured appropriately. But before we identify what that structure might be, it is relevant to examine the question more closely.

What exactly is meant by “working life”? In recent years, Western educators and employers have said today’s students will take on jobs which may not even exist yet: the grand-sounding “jobs of the future”. If we accept that industries will evolve ever more quickly as technology marches on, it would seem ambitious to espouse an educational programme specifically tailored to train students for a static definition of “working life”. On that basis, a broader approach that arms them with adaptability and widely applicable skills would seem wiser preparation for a shifting work environment. Even without looking 30 years ahead, it is somewhat simplistic to claim that any work-orientated education system could contain half the skills required for the diverse jobs awaiting young scholars. A curriculum schemed around a fixed idea of “working life” would surely leave a significant proportion of any class underprepared for their respective roles as bankers, boxers, architects and chefs.

Additionally, it is important to recognise that any sensibly organised educational institution inherently prepares students for many near-universal aspects of work. Consider that – before we even look at the content or attitudes within a lesson – students are told they must arrive on time; dress appropriately; respect designated authorities; and refrain from extreme displays of rage, affection, or drunkenness. These “skills” will transfer positively to almost all workplaces, indicating that students are already being primed for employment through the daily routine of most schools and colleges. With that established, we can examine the concepts of an educational outlook that would “broaden” students’ minds, with the happy by-product of further readying them for professional life.

The first concept reflects the notion of a “broad mind” most obviously: students must study a variety of subjects. This encourages a level general knowledge, meaning it is more likely that at least some factual learning will be applicable in working life. But just as importantly, a varied curriculum makes it probable a student will feel accomplished with less effort in some subjects, while struggling in others. They will therefore accumulate practice of confronting difficulties, and working hard with the aim of overcoming them. As well as giving students the best chance to maximise their academic potential, this experience should steel them for challenges they will encounter at work. In education, it is crucial teachers emphasise that this sustained effort is aimed at relative progress – the idea of a “personal best” – rather than arbitrary standards decreed by faraway acronyms.

This links directly to the second principle: an emphasis on process, rather than just results. While this idea has recently become a well-honed cliché among American sports stars, it has so far gained limited traction in education. In the latter context, it revolves around teaching a student that they have the capacity to improve their attainment through effort, rather than traditional notions of “intelligence” being an innate trait. This focus on effort promotes self-belief and a commitment to progress, as opposed to a resigned attitude towards predefined markers of “success”, and the stress and discouragement caused by an unblinking focus on immediate “results”.

Indeed, some authorities believe that teaching a “growth mindset” ultimately improves grades anyway. The Stanford Psychology Professor, Carol S Dweck, eloquently described a study that involved hundreds of New York City 12-year-olds. “We found that students who had gotten training in study skills alone continued to show declining grades … But students in the growth mindset workshop showed a marked improvement in grades.”[1] Through this tactic, a young person may arrive in their first job better qualified, but certainly with the solid belief that they can acquire new knowledge and skills through application. This is valuable in any career, because it means a worker is more likely to feel they can develop over time, and less likely to feel daunted by fresh responsibilities.

Our last concept requires transmitting another view that will not only be broadly applicable in the workplace, but that should help a student retain a “broad” mind throughout their life. It is essential that an education system conveys the intrinsic value – and, whenever possible, enjoyment – of learning itself. What if students were consistently encouraged to ask questions, to engage in respectful debate, and to develop their own approach to problems, without the looming spectre of potential exam failure? (This would also rely on teachers being given the credit and freedom to supervise wide-ranging discussions that develop students’ knowledge and insight, rather than worrying about how to prove that a tightly-controlled lesson adhered to a web of sanctioned “learning objectives”.) If this was the case, students are far more likely to emerge from formal education with fonder memories of the learning process, along with the initiative and communication skills that would benefit them in any professional context.

If “education” looks to these principles, most students should begin working life with an appropriately wide knowledge base; experience of persevering despite difficulties; belief they can improve their capabilities through hard work; satisfaction – if not enthusiasm – attached to the act of learning; and the ability to think critically and communicate effectively with others.

Unfortunately, the English school system currently achieves the exact opposite of this. A crippling emphasis on examinations, data and manufactured “targets” has resulted in neither of the objectives in the title being met. There is, of course, a need for some structured assessment in schools, to measure students’ efforts and assist teachers and future employers. However, the current level of examination means 10-year-olds are reduced to tears ahead of their SATs exams. The “levels” attached to outgoing primary pupils are often inflated anyway due to primary teachers’ fears about their school’s perceived performance, making the holy “data” inaccurate for the secondary school that receives it.[2] (This occurrence is perhaps unsurprising in a country where the school inspectorate Ofsted has redefined “satisfactory” as “not good enough”).

This relentless pressure on teachers and students means young people’s minds are narrowed, rather than broadened, by their school experiences. In the short-term, their perspectives are blinkered to whatever limited material they must regurgitate to make the grade on their next test. In the long-term, they receive the impression that “learning” means nothing more than mindlessly churning away in pursuit of external “expected progress”. Tellingly, a former UK Education Minister referred to those expectations in a speech when he also noted: “Our 15-year-olds’ results in maths were around three years behind their peers in Shanghai.”[3] It would seem worthwhile to pause, and ask whether our education system should be unduly influenced by the statistical record of learners from completely different social, political and industrial contexts.

As well as extinguishing enthusiasm for learning, England’s approach also means numerous students leave school with none of the more refined skills required for working life. They know how to arrive somewhere on time, but their experience of being shovelled exam-specific content for a decade means they cannot work independently or critically consider information, and they lack higher-level communication skills. This is not airy speculation; this essayist saw these issues repeatedly among 16–19-year-olds in a large English college. Committed teachers in the attached secondary school had slogged away to shunt students towards the coveted GCSE pass percentage. In English lessons, those students studied the same novel for three consecutive years in the run up to that exam frenzy. Is it a surprise that many said they never read outside of school?

It is possible for education to prepare students for working life and leave their minds broadened (ideally with some enthusiasm to grow broader still). Here we have highlighted one way of doing this. Whether this approach is employed or not, posing the original question in such a binary fashion suggests a restricted and limiting perspective on the true potential of “education”. Sadly, such a perspective may feel familiar to many observers in England. Looking at the outcomes of the existing system there, one might question the value of a 16-year-old being painstakingly coached towards a tenuous C – apologies, now a “Grade 4” – in GCSE English, while remaining unable to comprehend a financial contract, write a legible job application, or enjoy a page of poetry.

Whether the goal is broad minds, well-adjusted workers, or both, asking questions about education’s role is always worthwhile. At present, the English answer needs serious revision.



[1] Carol S Dweck, “Mind Sets and Equitable Education”, p.27, Principal Leadership, January 2010

[2] Both examples were described by teachers with years of experience in English state schools.

[3] Michael Gove MP, speaking at the London Academy for Excellence in February 2014

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