The current system

“Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth learning can be taught.” (Oscar Wilde)

The present education system fails because it continues to focus on practices that served well in the industrial model but are now obsolete.

Traditional education focuses on teaching not learning with a misguided assumption that whatever a teacher teaches, a student will learn.

Coupled with this is the misnomer that “the real important learning” can only happen in a classroom with a teacher – what about all of the learning that happens before and after school outside of the school setting without a teacher being present?

Do we not learn from the day we are born until the day we die? Far too much importance and the emphasis is placed on the value of formal learning (taught by a teacher) and not enough on informal and experiential learning (where the teacher is life).

‘There are many different ways of learning; teaching is only one of them. We learn a great deal on our own, in independent study or play. We learn a great deal interacting with others informally — sharing what we are learning with others and vice versa. We learn a great deal by doing, through trial and error.’ (Barr and Tagg, From Teaching to Learning,

While the national curriculum is designed to articulate learning outcomes that students should achieve, it has been repositioned more as a guide for “what teachers should teach”.

The true nature of learning and an emphasis on capturing the learning journey of students has been ignored in favour of compartmentalising learning into subject silos created as an expedient way to manage curriculum delivery and capture ‘evidence’ that the curriculum is ‘working’.

Subjects are taught in isolation where teachers focus on the outcomes they have to “teach” their students with little regard for the rest of the curriculum and the nature of true learning or the skills needed in life. The focus is on how to pass the exam which can be gamified by intelligent teachers and students.

What is the Problem – The Car Analogy?

Let’s use an analogy of a car as a “curriculum box” which contains all the parts necessary to build a car. Traditionally one would suggest that by ensuring that the ‘car parts’ were in the curriculum there would be a guarantee that the car would be built and would run perfectly. In theory, this makes sense but the reality is very different.

‘To say that the purpose of colleges is to provide instruction is like saying that General Motors’ business is to operate assembly lines or that the purpose of medical care is to fill hospital beds. We now see that our mission is not instruction but rather that of producing learning with every student by whatever means work best.’ (Barr and Tagg, From Teaching to Learning,

While the curriculum supposedly identifies essential learning outcomes (the essential parts needed to run the car) there is no guarantee that everything that is specified as to be taught, will actually be delivered by every teacher.

Similarly, there is no guarantee that every student will be in attendance or be paying attention at the time it is taught. Even if a student is attending, are they paying full attention and there is absolutely no guarantee that the student internalises what is taught into what is learnt.

Also, there is no real check on how well the teacher delivers the content. Some may be experts in a subject and some may not be.

This is where we see the need for a radical shift from focusing on what is taught to what is the essential learning.

This learning becomes the basis for the essential car parts. This then means that there is a shift in emphasis from what is taught to essential learning. This shift has huge implications for curriculum delivery as the focus is now on ensuring the student collects the essential car parts to run the car regardless of how they get them or what they are.  

At the beginning of mechanisation, Henry Ford discovered that by building a standardised car he could reduce the price of the product and the Model T was built. He famously said ‘you can have any colour you want as long as it is black’ (Henry Ford)

Our education system which was designed to produce workers for such a system was designed with similar principles.

Just as today car design and manufacture is more about market share and profitability instead of aesthetics and the driving experience, teaching has moved away from the notion of the “Master Teacher” (Aristotle, Socrates, Jesus) who espoused wisdom and challenged people’s way of viewing the world to one where test results and league tables are the focus.

Part of the reason for this is the creation of mass education brought about because of the First Industrial Revolution where skills and knowledge had to be defined and standardised with a systematic way of checking (testing that everyone had learned the skills).

This is really when the notion of the teacher narrowed to one where their sole responsibility was to produce compliant workers to feed the industrial machine. Information was narrowed and standardized in the form of textbooks and pedagogy was defined through a single stand and deliver methodology (where one assumes teachers ‘taught’ the content and students learned it by osmosis.

Education is currently at a crossroads with two conflicting scenarios:

  • The first is where schools and colleges are ruled by standardisation and an industrial “institution” strives to turn out students as products prepared to face the 21st century.
  • The second is the world of information, knowledge and wisdom in which real learning takes place in spite of schools out in the ‘real world’.

The Instruction Paradigm and the difference between teaching and learning

The Instruction Paradigm, where the focus is on instruction and imparting knowledge is being challenged by what is being called the Learning Paradigm in which the focus is on producing learning for every student regardless of the teaching method.

Using the car analogy instead of having an assembly line where every vehicle is produced using the same parts and with the same method, a car’s will be created in multiple ways with multiple features.

The Instruction Paradigm rests on conceptions of teaching that are increasingly recognized as ineffective. As stated by Alan Guskin (1994) pointed out “the primary learning environment for undergraduate students, the fairly passive lecture-discussion format where faculty talk and most students listen is contrary to almost every principle of optimal settings for student learning”.

In many schools, rote learning is mistaken for learning.

Rote learning, according to Bloom’s Taxonomy is the lowest level of cognition which requires only the ability to recall facts. In the Industrial Model this worked well to produce factory workers who could remember which button to push and the order to assemble products but in today’s information and the global economy where the focus is on critical thinking and other higher-order skills, it is not enough.

How do we measure teaching?

One might argue that by assessing what the student knows that this is a way to ensure that ‘all the car parts’ are included so the car would run, but if we examine the assessment methods, most examinations only sample a small part of the content that was specified.

How can we guarantee that all of the ‘car parts’ will be included in the assessment?

Normally, over five years all of the content will be covered in the tests that take place.

Unfortunately, the student only takes a test once a year, so no single student will ever be assessed against all the content. Furthermore, the actual content assessed for an individual student is never made public so we do not know what they understand and what they don’t and nor do the students. They know what grade they got but not which questions they answered correctly. So, nobody knows in the end what has happened and what was learned.

In the car example, it is like the car being built and sold but the buyer does not know whether it will work or which parts are working. So it might be blisteringly fast but there might be no brakes.

We can add many more dimensions to this.

For example;

  • the subject knowledge of the examiners,
  • the accuracy of the marking,
  • the suitability of the questions in the test to solicit the correct responses.,
  • the frame of mind of the candidates taking the test,
  • the time of year which could lead to health problems restricting the ability of the candidate
  • the ability of the student (or their teachers), to predict what will be in the test and thus revise the correct topics.

Related abilities would also affect the outcome of the test, such as the language used to ask the questions for example if it is English, the student’s English-language levels. Not counting the ability of the student to remember things (or other personality profile issues).

All of these aspects influence the reliability and validity of any testing regime.

So, the student’s knowledge of unspecified parts of the curriculum, selected at random, is assessed and turned into a number but the number does not mean anything and the information on how that number was reached for each individual student is secret!

The student is unlikely to get a hundred percent on the test. They will answer questions and what they remember. A correctly prepared student will gain marks due to their exam technique.

The marks are student gains will be converted to grades and this is all that will be publicly available.

So now varying degrees of numberbased marks for unspecified content based upon the student knowledge and memory recall, which in turn is based on a random selection answers, are averaged together in order to achieve a mark and allocate a grade.

This is made even worse as examination grades are usually determined statistically using standard deviation. There is actually a big difference between the number of pass grades and the subject examined. For example, subjects such as Latin have a very high pass rate. You may be asking what relevance is this as Latin is harder than many other subjects?

The issue is, pass rates are controlled, so they remain almost static irrespective of the overall ability of the cohort taking the exam. After all, the general public would believe that the standards of the test must be easier if there is a higher pass rate.  The system is therefore secretly fixed where awarding organisations are not allowed to vary the percentage pass rated grade levels by more than a couple of points. Of course, if everybody decided to enter all of his or her students for Latin, it means a number of the students would have to pass the exam even with no knowledge of Latin.

So a student will have a grade on a specified subject. They will receive their certificate. But by looking at the certificate there is no way of telling which parts of the specification they were examined in, which parts of the specification they gained their marks from, and what they actually learnt about the subject.

It is like doing a road test on only one aspect of a cars performance, say fuel efficiency but not sharing the detailed conclusions just saying is fuel efficient and expecting that to be information to be enough for people to be able to choose whether the car is suitable for a farming family of 6 living in the Pyrenees mountains of France! .

In the analogy of the car, you don’t know what works, if it does not, how to make it complete it, even where to buy the parts or how much they cost. Yet, you still pay the full price for the car and they all cost the same amount! Also, despite the many fatalities and complaints, nobody can work out how to change the system!

The evidence for this catastrophe is within every student’s life and the search for suitable employment when they have no idea what they can do or how then match a particular set of needs expressed by an employer in a job specification.

This is the Skills Gap and it is estimated to be a $19 trillion economic waste (UNESCO). Should we not be changing teaching to learning?

By Chris Heron and Steve Cushing – Vivagogy –