One of the oldest sayings in the world is that you go into school blind and come out seeing. While this may have been true for the ancient Sumerians, it arguably hasn’t applied to us for a couple of centuries. Our education system was effectively designed 200 years ago, back when the most you could hope for was just a job – not a well-paid one – not an enjoyable one – just enough to get you by. As a result, the main aim was to create obedient factory workers, who could be told when to eat and when to speak (much like teachers and bells do with us). Since then the world has changed, employers are now looking for individuality, creativity, and entrepreneurship, for jobs that once didn’t exist, and may not now either. In fact, one of the most momentous changes to education during my lifetime happened when I was in primary school. Teachers were banned from using red pens due to the negative connotations of the colour. So, for the next few years, as I sat in a classroom with prettily marked books staring out the window, my teacher explained the times’ tables for God knows how many times.
I think that’s why half of adults don’t understand maths (Richard Garner, 2012). It’s not a case of stupidity or lack of effort, it’s because we were taught to remember the steps and solutions, rather than having to seek them out ourselves. To find an example of this, we need to look no further than GCSE (a qualification meant for 14-16-year olds) and A-level (a qualification meant for 16-18-year-olds). You can get a grade 9 (which is the highest) in GCSE maths and plummet in A-level all because you were never exposed to that level of independence. The solutions are no longer as simple and you can’t apply a single method to a single problem, each question becomes more about how you combine different aspects of maths and that journey to a solution. The point of the question becomes more about how you think mathematically rather than being solely judged on a final right or wrong answer. However, most students never get to A-level. Most students never get that experience of independent logical thought. Most students get turned away because their natural impulse of curiosity isn’t met because they’re taught to remember rather than to solve.
Arguably, you can’t blame the teachers. After all, they’re just doing their jobs. Our worth as students and their worth as teachers is dependent on tests. It doesn’t matter that most don’t measure our true understanding because at the end of the day they are an easy way to show that learning (even if it is inauthentic) is being done – which is enough for most including the UK government. In fact, evidence shows that we forget 90% of what we memorise within a week (Art Kohn, 2014). So suddenly, that grade 8 science paper is no longer representative of the students’ knowledge within just a few days.
In 1979, Pink Floyd released a single called Another Brick in the Wall; it perfectly encapsulated how many students felt about their education. It created such an impact that in 1980 the South African government banned it following a national strike of more than 10 000 students fighting against racism in government spending and intimidation by teachers. Essentially, the song describes how individual identity is actively discouraged at school in favour of forced obedience. Children are basically on a conveyer belt, moulded to fit the agenda.
By schools losing specificity they lose their original purpose. It becomes less about showing children the world and asking them what and how they want to change it, and more about where they place in league tables. Generation Z, like many generations before, have a turbulent relationship to those older than them. Every day, articles come out peppered with every lazy stereotype – that we are: entitled and sensitive and unrealistic and clueless. But when it came down to it, thousands of school children campaigned for protecting the environment. It wasn’t a problem given to us in the classroom, rather it was forced upon people, but it showed that when anyone is given something they are passionate about, they will dive headfirst into it.
That’s the message I want to leave with you. That if schools encouraged curiosity and intellectual freedom, then perhaps you’d see more success stories and fewer kids staring out the window. Speaking up for myself, I won’t be another brick in the wall.