Advice Column, Child, Education, Parenting

COVID19 could be a turning point for education

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The definition of insanity is ‘to do the same thing again and again and expect a different outcome.’ With this in mind, we need to ask; what outcome are we expecting to get when we send children to school? The business sector complains that their new employees lack essential skills when they arrive from school. They are expecting a person who can think critically, solve problems, work in teams and learn from their mistakes. The universities also complain. They want students who can learn independently, express an opinion in an essay or discussion and know-how to distinguish a good source from a bad one. 

I am astounded that these two sectors have these expectations. These expectations are not the designed outcome of our schooling system. We reward compliant children. We give them marks for being able to tell us when the 1820 settlers landed and knowing the atomic weight of potassium. We tell them that if they learn definitions off by heart, they will be prepared for the future. Worst of all, we create the impression that there is a correct answer to all questions, and we always know what it is. The point I am making is that the “institution we call ‘school’ is what it is because we made it that way.” (Postman & Weingartner, 1972 p5) 

Postman and Weingartner go on to say that education is not doing what needs to be done if “it is irrelevant, as Marshall McLuhan says; if it shields children from reality, as Norbert Wiener says; if it educates for obsolescence, as John Gardner says; if it does not develop intelligence, as Jerome Bruner says; if it is based on fear, as John Holt says; if it avoids the promotion of significant learning’s, as Carl Rogers says; if it induces alienation, as Paul Goodman says; or if it punishes creativity and independence, as Edger Friedenberg” says.” (Postman & Weingartner, 1972 p5) 

I was once asked if children could cheat in an exam by using an Apple Watch. Apple had just released these devices in South Africa, and I was sitting in a meeting of the IEB (Independent Examination Board) curriculum advisory committee. My short answer was “Yes!” “A better question to ask”, I went on to say, was “why are we still asking children questions in exams that they can look up the answers to?” We are giving marks and matric certificates to students for the wrong reasons. 

 I came across a remarkable technology recently that could transform how we interact with the world around us. ( (It is a contact lens with a screen the size of a grain of sand and the ability to connect to your phone via Bluetooth.) Wearing one of these would make it possible to get real-time information about the objects, people and text you are looking at. The use of these lenses will include being able to look at a word or picture and get a definition or explanation of the thing we are looking at. Soon there is going to be an interesting collection of items sitting on a desk in front of the class during a traditional test. Now imagine how a child might earn an income in a situation where we are all wearing one of these. A student who learned to code at school may develop an app that shows you the prices of a product that you are wanting to put into your shopping basket at the two nearest shops selling the same thing. You would save a fortune by only buying the items at the lowest price. (Now I wish it was possible to patent an idea). Ask a teenager you know or live with to consider this technology and come up with three different uses for it. You will be astonished by their replies. 

I am not arguing against the teaching of facts and core knowledge. Daniel Willingham points out that: “Research from cognitive science has shown that the sorts of skills that teachers want for students—such as the ability to analyze and to think critically—require extensive factual knowledge.” (Willingham, 2010). The problem is that we mostly assign marks for knowledge and not the skills. 

The way we have had to respond to the challenge of C19 in the education sector has created a situation where all teachers are having to rethink their teaching strategies and are having to focus on the core. The Department of Basic Education is distributing materials and allowing schools to reduce their content and testing. The implication of this is that there is a lot of content and testing that is not significant enough to the progress of children that we cannot do without it. Suppose we decided only to teach this revised curriculum next year. In that case, we could spend the rest of our time developing the skills that our students will need in the workplace or to succeed at university that would be a seizing of the moment. 

As Winston Churchill was working to form the United Nations after WWII, he famously said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. We should apply this maxim and do all we can to ensure that, when our schools can operate fully once more, we do not simply revert to what we were doing before we went into lockdown. We have exposed the creativity and resilience of our teachers. “The difference between school and life? In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.” Tom Bodett. C19 has given us the test. We need to learn the lesson.

Colin Northmore – August 2020


Postman, N. & Weingartner, C., 1972. Teaching as a subversive activity, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Eng.: Penguin Books. P5

Willingham, D.T., 2010. Why don’t students like school?: a cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. Kindle Edition, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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