In any line of business, success or failure will be determined by how closely a business’ offering meets its customers’ needs. If a business does not really understand who its customers are and what their needs are, it is already on shaky ground. This explains in part why national education policy has failed for decades to be fit for purpose – politicians and educationalists, as guardians of the national education system, appear to be uncertain about who their customers are and what it is that those customers need from the education system.
I will be accused of being over-simplistic but in terms of secondary education, the customers are the students – not the universities, not the employers, and certainly not the government education department’s statisticians. In the business of education you are blessed (or cursed) with the most diverse clientele on the planet. Your customers have mixed abilities, interests, learning styles, cultures, aspirations – the list goes on. Despite this, they all have one common need – an education that makes them feel confident and fit for employment. An education system that does not deliver this, simply fails to meet its customers’ needs.
Another complicating factor in the business of education is that many of its customers will not know what line of employment they wish to be made ready for. Some will come with a clear and enduring vision, some with an evolving vision, and some will pass through the system with no vision whatsoever about what they will want to do in the future. Tailoring the education offer to deliver on such a broad and seemingly uncertain mandate is challenging but not impossible.
Most learning is forgotten
I once took a training course for using a well know database programme. The original need for that training failed to materialise and when I next came across that particular database programme I realised that I remembered virtually nothing I learned on the training course. This is true of all education – if the knowledge it provides is not used, it is lost. Some academics have even demonstrated that there is a curve of forgetting, suggesting that within a month of learning something new (that we then don’t use) that learning is forgotten almost entirely.
Herein lays one of the fundamental problems of education. Subjects tend to be taught in chunks, over a number of years and then the student’s memory is tested by an examination. It is hardly surprising that many students will struggle with today’s expansive curricular. Most of what was taught is rarely covered again and review sessions at the end of term and cramming in the run-up to examinations have little real benefit – only regular use of the information learned will ensure the development of lasting skills in a given area. Ask yourself how much you remember of a subject you studied at school but that you have not used since. Even if you passed the exam at the time, could you still pass the same exam today?
Education is critical to success in life. But most of what is taught is effectively useless to the majority of students – it isn’t used and is promptly forgotten. That is why many education systems constantly let down their customers. That is why employers are regularly disappointed by the standards of mathematics and English manifest in job seekers. And that is why new approaches to teaching and examinations are critical.
Part II of this post will consider some relatively simple changes that could make a big difference.