Education and learning have always been about personal growth and discovery. The Latin root “educare” meaning “to lead out of”, invokes the idea of a journey, an exploration. There is also in this definition a sense of leadership, freedom perhaps. The rigid exoskeleton of institutional bureaucracy that has built up around it in the last couple of centuries threatens to conceal one of the most beautiful ideas of the 19th century, education for the masses.
Today, for committed practitioners, the business of education can feel more concerned with ticking boxes, window-dressing and system gaming. The attendant structures have promoted a culture of superficiality and bulimic learning where students gorge information to past tests and exams only to discard it afterwards. There is no mind space for digestion and deeper assimilation. This at best has produced shallow knowledge “containers” who struggle to think critically and see the interconnectedness of real-world matters. It’s the perfect fuel for the gullible, misinformed, narcissistic behaviour we see being played out in the lower echelons of social media.
Since the dawn of the industrial era, there has been an increasingly widening gap in the development of three interlinked socio-economic domains:
In the case of the latter, particularly with regard to over-specialised practice and reliance on backwards-facing methodologies at the expense of more creative approaches. If you’re doubting why these trends are so interlinked, ask yourself this: What if the place in which you’re born and brought up determines your educational attainment; the work you’re most likely to do, and risk of acquiring debilitating lifestyle illnesses?
“Humans are the accumulation of every sense-making moment we experience”
In this time of global crisis, this retrospective is especially important for understanding where the current trends are headed. The intersections on the graph below show the points where the economic balance in western economies shifted, with children being removed from the labour pool and into educational structures. In this development, one core principle remained unchanged, since by and large, the educational regimes continued to perpetuate the notion that memorisation and rote learning was the key to academic success. Combined with submissive, dutiful obedience it supported the fallacy of pre-determined, structured curricula. If it was an improvement from child labour and exploitation it did nothing to recognise the importance of play, exploration and discovery in the learning process.
Education for the masses was intended to solve the perceived immediate problem of the era. It was not about producing creative, agentic citizens. We see the same pattern during the post-war period, where health services evolved more around treating sickness than preventing it through healthy life choices. With health as with education the bureaucratic exoskeleton again once again overbearing the core value-creating activities of the organisations involved. Any system where the overheads have come to outweigh the purpose for which it was designed is inviting not just change but wholesale disruption, unless it adapts and evolves.
Humans are the accumulation of every sense-making moment we experience (consciously or subconsciously) up to the moment we’re now in. This is the lens through which we make sense of the world around us and is the true meaning of what it is to be educated. The formal institutions in which some of our learning may have occurred are a subset of the wider narrative that is our story. This wider narrative now assumes greater significance due to the democratisation of information and knowledge through the internet. The exoskeletons are being permeated and are dissolving as a result and as often is the case with change on this scale, children hold the key in their hands.