education problem

Defining the education problem

Beyond the curriculum there are a wider set of issues relating to change:

Teaching and the work of teachers: How can this be made more effective?  What does effective look like?  How can we better motivate teachers to contribute effectively?  Why does a highly educated workforce  often behave in orthodox highly unionised ways?  Why are teachers often the victims of  change rather than the leaders of it? And why are training models so especially ineffective, yet everyone still follows them?  In a world where knowledge is no longer in short supply is the teacher’s role still to be driven by this particular skill?  The underlying issue here is how teacher work models might be changed to ensure both better outcomes for children as well as a more modern context within which the work of education might be undertaken.  In some ways, of course, it becomes a ‘chicken and egg’ problem: which to change first, the pedagogy or the teachers?

Student Motivation:  It is perhaps unsurprising that the renewed interest in education shown by parents, teachers and the state and the consequent increase in both the scale and importance of examinations, was generally not welcomed by students.  The lives that children lead beyond school have experienced significant change with the arrival of the internet, mobile phone and computer.  This re-shaping of both social and maturational environments for the young has not been matched by similar change within schools. Indeed, the increasingly ‘high stakes testing’ regimes that have emerged have often resulted in more traditional teaching and learning environments for students.

An additional issue here is that students today are different from those of say 50 years ago.  The connected world they live in means that their knowledge and understanding of  a host of issues is far more sophisticated than those of similar ages  in the past.  Their expectations of both school and life may be far greater and in a world that can customise goods and services to their own tastes and desires, they can increasingly see school as an outmoded anachronism.  As one Australian student put it, ‘Going to school is just like getting on an airplane.  Everything is turned off for 7 hours and then you get to resume your life.’

The fact that previous generations learned by rote and in passive ways is not supported by the needs and demands of today’s students, so the question of motivation and personalisation remains a key one.  And in a world where anyone can create knowledge and publish it on the web, how do schools tap into this huge creative upsurge amongst the young and use it to drive improvements in more narrow examination performance?

Technology:  Often seen as the salvation of education, technology has failed to act as an all encompassing moderniser.  In some schools around the world technology is doubtlessly far advanced (see Hi Tech Hi School in the USA) and used in creative and innovative ways (such as Singapore), but in most it is a mere bolt on productivity tool using the suite of Office software to word process, make powerpoints and do some web research.  The question here then is how can schools use technology in more effective ways and generate efficiency savings via its use?  Simply giving students and teachers more laptops does not seem very effective and reflects a model of school change where new items are simply attached to old ones. Rather bit like harnessing a horse to pull a car, the worst of both worlds is achieved simultaneously.

Metrics:  Schools are becoming quite adept at measuring and monitoring student academic progress and targeting students who are not achieving the desired grades, but they remain weak in the areas of assessing and reporting social competences.  Yet, we know increasingly from research, (REF Heckman) that non cognitive skills can be as significant as cognitive ones in terms of improving life chances.  James Heckman argues that  non cognitive skills are critical for both longer term social success and are needed within the burgeoning service economies  then they should be  both actively taught and measured within schools.  It is these ‘soft’ or non cognitive skills that can be influenced and improved through appropriate tuition – unlike cognitive skills which are largely innate.

Management models:  How is all this to be managed? What sorts of management structures might be needed to operate a newly refocused school model?  The rise of the ‘leadership’ cult in recent years has emphasised the need for such skills often depicted within quite complex depictions of management competencies.  Training programmes have emerged to support these,  but the essential point is often missed. That might be defined as what such structures look like.


All of these issues are of course closely interwoven one with the other.  But together they offer a useful agenda of the components of change, the variable factors that together might be combined to reshape educational experience and improve outcomes in a variety of areas.

Given the conservative nature of governments and their addiction to short term electoral cycles of four or five years at most, it is unlikely that any government would ever be able to implement the kinds of change we have written about.  Voters too are likely to be cautious and get caught in a trap of, on the one hand, recognising the realities of the new labour market, yet on the other being fearful of seemingly experimenting with their own child’s education.  So an educational with ‘traditional features’ remains the preferred choice.

But outside policy circles there are some new realities for most countries around the world as the demand for jobs in the service sector  increase year on year.  The shift in employment skills demand is shown in the slide below.  These changes reflect the fact that employment is increasingly located in service industries.

(Ref: Andreas Schleicher; we will need his permission to use this)


Within advanced countries between 70 and 80 per cent of an economy is now devoted to the service sector.  This is defined by the US Census Bureau as comprising thirteen sectors:  Utilities; transportation and warehousing; information; finance and insurance; real estate and rental and leasing services; professional, scientific and technical services; management of companies and enterprises; administrative ad support and waste management and remediation services; educational services; health care and social assistance; arts entertainment and recreation;  accommodation and food services and food services and drinking places. (ref:

Manufacturing although still important increasingly employs fewer people and those that it does employ tend to be more skilled than in previous generations.  The UK experience is instructive: in 1980 6.5 million people were employed in manufacturing.  Today it is 2.5 million, yet output is up 70 per cent.  (p42 Demos report The Forgotten Half)

The issue here is how skills might be both usefully taught and, how the academic curriculum that dominates might be modernised and redeveloped.  A factory education model may well have been appropriate for preparing people for a factory age, but what would a service driven curriculum look like?  And how might skills be assessed alongside or within a conventional curriculum?

1 reply
  1. chris
    chris says:

    Sure that’s possible. I’m glad you liked it. We need to try to engage with teachers to give them a voice with regards to how change might be brought about.

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