School system needs revolution, not evolution

workers in cogBill Gates has been causing a stir with his recent “schools are obsolete” speech. Now I realise that our South African schools are of a much higher standard than America’s, but we still haven’t escaped the cog mentality of the industrial age. We go through school learning how to fit snugly into the system, to not challenge authority, and to work within well defined roles. But as soon as we leave school we have to spend at least a year or two unlearning all that, because the real world doesn’t work that way anymore. Now we have to learn to be creative, adaptive, and flexible. So why do we spend 12 years of our lives learning skills that we won’t use the rest of our lives?

The Shuttleworth Foundation has been investing a lot of money in school administration and computer labs. Both of these projects are worthwhile efforts. The former allowing teachers to spend less time administrating and more time teaching, and the latter allowing kids to get involved in computers which are a critical aspect of nearly every high paying job today. But more money needs to be invested in creating engaging learning materials and in creating an environment to help students learn real life skills.How many kids don’t make it through school or aren’t bothered to go to university because they had such a bad experience in school? I don’t think these kids aren’t smart enough to get through school, they’re probably just not motivated enough. I know when I was in school I just did the bare minimum to get good grades and matriculate, but my real passions lay elsewhere. I invested huge amounts of time and energy into learning and experimenting with computers, psychology, etc. and these skills are paying off handsomely now, while all the crap I learnt in school is useless.

My favourite part of studying at university is the wide range of subjects available. Even if you’re majoring in computer science and psychology, you can still take first level modules in archaeology or philosophy just because you’re interested in them. The only way you’re going to get this kind of flexibility is if you send your kids to a private school, which is far too expensive for most. The government should spend less money on subsidising university students (who’ll probably just strike anyway) and more money on revolutionising our public school system.We need to give teachers the freedom to customise learning programmes to each student, instead of focusing on processing kids as quickly as possible. Teachers need to take the time to find out what the student is interested in, and wrap the standard subjects of maths, science, language, etc. in this delivery vehicle. A spoonful of medicine goes down better with sugar.

If we can teach kids to be creative, adaptive, flexible, and to understand the value of communication, then most of them will be hugely productive without needing a university degree. Right now a matric certificate isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on, and that needs to be changed. Kids need to be taught to think for themselves, to question their elders’ assumptions, and to express themselves well. They do not need to memorise dull textbooks, we have google for that.

2005.03.07