Lockdown has caused the most dramatic change in education most of us have ever seen. As one of the parents suddenly expected to be teacher as well as mum, I was definitely daunted by the prospect, and it’s safe to say I miss the luxury of sending my kids to school. But recent weeks have given us all a chance to reflect on what is and isn’t working when it comes to traditional education – and it’s a discussion well worth having.
Just over a week ago I joined the Tortoise Media Education Summit, entitled ‘Is it time for a revolution in learning?’ The Summit brought together academics, teachers and students to discuss thorny issues such as ‘what should we teach?’ and ‘should we abolish exams?’ On the latter, the consensus seemed to be that exams have their place, but that we should look for a broader way of assessing capability and aptitude that would allow more equitable access to further education and career opportunities.
I was particularly struck by an example given by Dylan William, Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment, UCL. He explained that in 2001, Kings College London, one of the largest medical schools in Europe, was not receiving applications from three London communities. They opted to take a different approach to assessment, using science reasoning tasks to identify potential students. Those joining via the science reasoning route were then given some additional support to plug any gaps in science knowledge normally gained through A levels. By the end of the course, these students were indistinguishable from those that had followed the traditional academic route. This suggests that sticking rigidly to a ‘one size fits all’ approach means some talented young people are being overlooked.
This goes to the heart of what Digital Innovators is all about. Our course isn’t open to everyone, but neither is it accessed via academic qualifications. We are interested in an individual’s potential, which is why entry to our programme is based on psychometric-style questionnaires which look at innate skills and preferences. Are you open to ideas, willing to engage, keen to progress? Can you learn from and support your peers? Are you willing to fail as you learn to succeed? As it happens, many of the students on our courses have tended not to be the top academic performers, and yet they show their genius on a daily basis in how they approach the tasks we set.
Tapping into innate skills and interests
During the Summit, it was encouraging to hear so many people talking about the benefit of project-based learning and the importance of enabling learners to tap into their own interests to capitalise on their education.
Spoken word artist, George the Poet, talked passionately about how, when studying for his GCSEs, he brought some of the content he was learning into the raps he was writing. He believes this contributed to him achieving straight As, despite lower grades for his mock exams. Certainly, embracing a more flexible, student-led approach is something I am learning to do during this period of home schooling. Getting my children to engage with a lifeless task in which they have little interest is an uphill struggle. But when it comes to topics they enjoy, or a teacher’s approach they respond well to, they’re producing great work independently and have the self-motivation to complete the task.
So, how much of a student’s success is down to what we teach and, how much is down to how we teach it? With that in mind, as the government grapples with plans for education from September, are we focusing enough on how we could use social distance challenges to reinvent some of our teaching methods, rather than simply focusing on how we ensure students catch up on what they’ve missed? Could we even be so bold as to question whether some of this missed content is still relevant today? As journalist and lecturer Peter Gumbelpointed out, our curriculum and teaching styles need to move with the times – learning facts and figures has its place, but it’s life skills, specifically social and emotional skills such as judgement and discernment, that will become increasingly important as automation grows.
How we apply what we learn is another way that individuals can set themselves apart. That’s why the Digital Innovators Skills Programme puts so much emphasis on an eight-week live business project which allows students to test what they’ve learned and demonstrate their abilities directly to potential employers in a genuine work context. This is different from the standard approach to work experience, which, though positive, is sometimes unstructured or relies heavily on a company to find and manage suitable tasks on top of their busy workload. This can prevent both the employer and the student from fully reaping the benefits intended. Instead, Digital Innovators invites businesses to share a real project or challenge with us, and our students work in project teams to tackle those challenges, with a clear brief, timeline and set of outcomes. It’s a concept that is proving popular and has led to many students securing roles with the businesses they’ve completed projects for.
Revolution or evolution?
Should we abolish exams? Is the education system broken? These are not questions with yes or no answers, but they are important issues to debate. There is still much that is positive about the national curriculum, and exams do teach important skills, but both have limitations and we should not be afraid to challenge convention.
What the pandemic has taught us is that the skills we need can change dramatically overnight. We owe it to our young people to teach them resilience, adaptability, and flexibility, and give them more opportunities to demonstrate what they are capable of. That way, they will be better equipped to help our economy pivot and thrive whatever future challenges we may face.