20 April 2011 -
In the last post ‘Killing our imagination’ below, I ended saying something about a longitudinal survey carried out on 1,500 children to test their divergent thinking skills. I set the challenge to guess what percentage at different aged scored at genius level. Here are the results:
3 to 5 year olds 98%
They retested again 5 years later
8 to 10 year olds 32%
You can possibly already see a trend here can’t you?
13 to 15 year olds 10%
They finally tested 20,000 adults, just once as a control.
25 year olds and over 2%
One would expect, or at least have some hope that we’d start not being very good and you get better as we get older. So it appears we are all born with the ability to think divergently and it mostly deteriorates. A lot has happened to these children as they’ve grown up; and one of the most important things that have happened to them is they have become educated.
To a large extent, this decline in divergent thinking has to be because children spend and great proportion of their schooling being told that there’s only one answer. The answer may well be at the back of the book, but you can’t look, that’s cheating; paradoxically in the real world it’s called research and ‘copying’ is called collaboration.
I sense a huge dissatisfaction in a great many schools and some schools are in crisis. The problem is that the present education system doesn’t suit the contemporary world or the needs of children. This isn’t because teachers want it this way, it’s because it just is this way; it’s in the gene pool of education. Teachers are forced to teach within a system with inappropriate assumptions conceived during and for the industrial age. Public Education at the time was a revolutionary idea, never before had there been education paid for by taxation, compulsory for all and free at the point of delivery. However there were many cynics in positions of authority who thought it was a waste of time and money and doubted that working class children were capable of learning how to read and write. So the education system had built into it all kinds of assumptions about social capability. It was also designed for purpose, which is why, by the early 20th century, we ended up with a very broad base of elementary education, which everyone went to, followed by a secondary education which some people went to, and a university education that a very tiny minority went to. It was modelled on the industrial and economic needs of the age when we needed a broad base of people to do manual work, who would only need a rough basics of English and Maths; a smaller group of administrators, that’s what grammar schools were for; and an even smaller group to run the country and they were the ones who went to universities. That’s simplified but it’s basically what shaped the education system we still live with now.
By the time children reach the age of twelve their education is not only based on the interest of industrialisation their schools are based on factory lines: ringing bells, separated facilities, specialisation in separate subjects, educating children in batches. Why do we insist they go through the system by age category I can’t see that the most important thing we have in common is our age. Surely our most defining feature isn’t our date of manufacture. Some children are much better at certain things than others twice their age. Some individuals are also better at certain things at different times of the day, or more efficient in smaller groups, or function better at other activities alone. If we are interested in educating the individual, you can’t start with a production line mentality.
There remains the over-riding assumption that real intelligence is an aptitude for deductive reasoning, knowledge of the classics, in short academic ability. And so our education is driven by the perception that there are two types of people, academic and the non-academic, and if you’re academic you are by definition, smarter. The consequence of this is that many brilliant people think they are not because they are being judged against this particular view of intelligence. Whilst this educational model favours some people it has created distress in the lives of many more. I think it’s a massive problem.
If the industrial age, when our present education system was conceived, was a time of revolutionary change it is as nothing to what is happening now. The changes taking place globally now are without precedent in the history of the world. Technology is moving faster than any of us can imagine. In 1949 a headline article was published in an American magazine called popular mechanics made the astonishing prediction that future computers might weigh less than 1½ tons. Who then would have 30 years ago that we would have mobile phones with computing powers greater than that used to manage the Apollo space mission? Much of what the world will be like for our children in fifty years time is unimaginable but the impact on culture promises to be extraordinary.
We can take a stab at envisaging the world in thirty, fifty, sixty years by looking at some trends. Take work for instance. My Grandfather had a job for life, my father had two jobs in his lifetime, I’m one of the baby boomers and we will have had on average 3 or 4 jobs in our career by retirement age. When children who are starting school now reach retirement it’s predicted they will have worked in 18 – 25 different organisations. Soon companies will no longer be looking for committed people to train and manage for life, they will be looking to secure more and more people on short term contracts, working to expand key areas of their development planning then moving on as the company’s plans need change. It’s also worth flagging up that the number of graduates in 2009 still looking for jobs at the start of 2010 was just over 30% and that blue chip companies are increasingly saying that a first class degree is no longer a major criterion for employment selection. These changes alone means we can be certain of one thing, the world of our children will be even more uncertain than our own.
Whether this depresses you or not, whether you like it or not, or however desperately you may wish or hope for a reversal in these trends, the reality is it won’t happen. In many ways the reason the future feels so stark is that we are not prepared for it, it’s a world we would feel uncomfortable in. What’s crucial though is that it is a world in which our children need to feel comfortable and prepared for and whatever it holds there are certain skills they’ll need that aren’t being addressed fully right now. Above all the future is call to be flexible, adaptable to change. They will need to have huge amounts of confidence, and will need to hold onto and develop their natural creativity and inborn capacity for divergent thinking. Increasingly they will need to be emotionally self-aware have consummate social skills, be capable of building relationships quickly and effectively both face to face and ‘virtually’. The spirit of entrepreneurship will be vital, so they will need to be open to taking risks, embrace failure as a vital part of learning, know their strengths and weakness and how to utilize both
Government after government tinker and tweak the education system to respond to voter’s hopes for their children. One problem is they are trying to reform education to make it better version of what it was or is. In other words the challenge seems to be to do whatever it’s doing better to raise standards. And they say we have to raise standards as if it was some kind of break through. Yes really we should – because I haven’t come across an argument that persuades me we should lower them. But to transform education we have to think differently about human capacity. We have to get over this old concept of academic/non-academic and see it for what it is – a myth.
I am a huge advocate of working with groups. Collaboration is the stuff of groups and learning is a natural outcome of collaborating. The education system force schools to atomise people and separate them and judge them separately, and when we do that we form a disjunction between them and natural learning; it’s deeply embedded in the culture of our institutions. Why are we so hung up on a system that disconnects people when we are naturally and essentially social beings? There are a growing number of people who are pushing for an education built on different principles but it means a shift from an industrial metaphor of education to an organic one. Education shouldn’t be about uniformity but diversity. We should customise learning institutions for the individual not systematically for all, value utility but respect living vitality and its potential to be transformative. Whist there is a place for linear thinking we should give greater worth to creative multi optional thinking. Learning should be a fabulous adventure.
When Arnold Wesker researched for Beortell’s Hill he discovered that the children of Basildon went to Stanstead airport with bunches of flowers to give to Asian families exiled from Uganda by Ida Amin. It was an apology for their council and parents who had refused to take any of these homeless families into their community. Why do we present children as our hope for the future yet ignore even their better instincts?