Thoughts On Education

When I started secondary school, I quickly started to become aware of the sort of teaching methods and environments I liked best, as the result of having no choice but to experience those, and only those, which I disliked at my State school.

At my school, which was a typical state school, we were taught in groups of at least 30 and in classrooms large enough, and sometimes more than large enough, to accommodate that amount. Each lesson period was 45 minutes long, or double that for a double period. The teacher would almost always stand by the blackboard at one end of the classroom, explain what was required of us, and then visit each group of students table by table as the lesson progressed. The fact that all teachers taught this way was not a reflection of their or the students’ preferences, or indeed a reflection of that method’s proven superiority to other methods, it was simply a result of the fact that no other method was feasible in groups that size and/or in lessons of 45 minutes. With only one teaching method feasible, only those teachers who had the necessary character and attributes could teach me effectively in the state school environment, which as it turned out was only one or two of them.

Most of my teachers failed to provide me with an enjoyable, enriching and effective learning experience; that I didn’t learn as much as I could have learnt from these intelligent and knowledgeable adults is a great shame. But this wasn’t because they weren’t passionate or didn’t care about educating me, I felt convinced all of them were and did, but because the ‘one size fits all’ state school educational structure couldn’t accommodate my preferences for small groups, one to one learning, and demonstration – and prevented those teachers with the particular attributes to meet my needs from doing so. Like I said, a couple of teachers (who happened to excel in that environment) did succeed and I had a great learning experience with them, which I will always remember, but they were the exceptions.

The vast majority of those teachers endowed with the character and attributes well-suited to giving the best possible learning experience to me couldn’t because the inflexible state school structure could not provide the environment to enable that to happen. In fact the best it could do was to provide an environment that roughly suited someone like me, but not me. Attending any other state school would have given me the same experience, of course, because they are all tightly structured according to the ideas of a small group of people. This, we are told by government, is what’s best for everyone and therefore that is why State Education exists. For this to be true we must believe that the people who work for the department of Education know what educational environment and teaching methods are preferred by each individual, of which there are millions, who each have different preferences, goals and desires. Quite how they are able to acquire knowledge that no other human beings can has never been answered. We must assume that they are some form of higher beings who exist in some platonic realm of perfect knowledge. If you still believe in Santa Clause, you might believe this.

Education is a product and service that anyone who wishes to trade, think critically and interact with other human beings in an intelligent way must have. But not everyone wants the same education delivered in the same way. Some children may love learning in large groups, they may be energised by that environment, but some, like me, may not be. Some may prefer collaboration and learning by teaching to other teaching methods, and so on.

I found learning in large groups stressful due to my introverted nature. I also found it very frustrating due to how much time was often wasted as a result of a teacher desperately struggling in vain to get the attention of a group of 30 students or more. Even then as a child, I felt the teacher’s despair. My coping mechanism was to start doodling on the cover of my book or on the desk and silently wander off into my imagination until the teacher actually started teaching. Often it would take teachers 20 minutes or more to gain control or to quiet down a particularly chatty group of students. All the while I sat there, waiting for something interesting or productive to happen. In the beginning I used to get annoyed, but after a while I realised there was no point, there was nothing I could do. This was what school was and I just had to suffer it for the next five years.

Overall, my state education was not an enjoyable experience for me, nor was it particularly productive. My English skills aren’t bad, but my general maths skills are lousy. I know this isn’t because I’m ‘inherently’ bad at maths because I did two years of degree-level maths as part of my Computing Science degree. My basic maths skills are lousy because all I had to learn maths was a ridiculous maths ‘system’ whereby the student grades his own answers by looking them up in the relevant answer book stored in a filing cabinet. I can only imagine the theory behind this system was to enable students to work at their own pace, but its effectiveness as a maths teaching method depended on the teacher being available to assist you whenever you needed them to. In reality this was not the case, however. More often than not, only the loudest and most insistent students won the attention of the teacher. Quietly spoken students like me got tired of holding their arm in the air, ended up guessing, then looked up the answers, and then changed them in order to move onto the next ‘level’ (the incentive to not fall behind my peers was strong). I estimate that on average I got to spend no more than a few minutes directly interacting with my maths teacher each lesson. And that was on a good day. Even if the teacher could have evenly divided his time amongst 30 students each student would only have got one minute and thirty seconds of direct attention. That’s seven minutes thirty seconds a week for every three hours and fifteen minutes in maths lessons. Half an hour a month for every 15 hours spent in maths lessons.

Imagine a world where you could take your 12 year old child to a local school and the head teacher would ask him or her questions about whether they preferred working in groups or one to one, whether they liked a hands-on approach or to listen and think, what time of the day they think they learn best in, etc. Imagine a world where a myriad of schools offer such a wide variety of educational environments, curricula and teaching methods that an education highly suited to your child’s preferences could cost as little as an iPad or as much as a nice sports car, and everything in between. Imagine a world where schools don’t all teach the same useless historical trivia and make their students sit pointless exams to test their ability to recall it. Imagine a world where bad teachers actually get fired. Imagine a world where schools that don’t serve anyone’s needs particularly well go out of business, and the schools that do thrive. Imagine a world where schools don’t shut down for six weeks in the summer because a century ago there was a good reason to do so. Imagine a world where people who are passionate about teaching do so and people who just want long holidays and pensions don’t. Imagine a world where you can take your business elsewhere if your child isn’t satisfied and doing so would actually matter to that school’s future.

Imagine a world where you can get the education you want, and not have forced upon you an education that someone you don’t know thinks you want or should want.

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