Science of Education

Like the rest of you, I’ve covered quite a diverse range of topics over the course of this semester. In this final blog I’d like to reflect on how my views on the future of education have changed over the last 10 weeks.

At the start of this module, I became very disillusioned with the state of the education system after watching a number of talks on the subject.

Although an abundance of excellent teaching and learning resources exist online, they are not being utilised in mainstream education, and I can see that because of the standardized nature of our curriculum, there is little hope of these innovations being used in schools.

However, over the course of this module I have become convinced that the future of education does not lie in traditional classrooms, ranked by age, (and later on, ability) but in multi age, flexible-learning environments.

School models such as the Sunmore Valley School or Montessori schools where children follow their passions and cultivate their own interests, becoming self motivated industrious learners are highly effective, and have a proven track record of producing some of the greatest innovators of our time. Self organized pupil centered learning works.

Undoubtedly, there is a need to maintain a standard of skills in key areas such as maths, reading, and writing. In the future, this will be fulfilled through interactive iPad and tablet applications that utilize the principles of direct instruction (DI), and combine them with practice based progress. This could work in a similar way to the Khan Academy, where students work their way through a knowledge map, and progress and performance is tracked and monitored graphically and statistically. This will also enable students to focus on weak areas, or progress faster through areas they master quickly.

Having DI available on tablet devices such as iPads will give us the best of both worlds. Children in learner-centered environments will be able to follow their passions and cultivate deep learning without intrusions from set timetables, and in their own time they will be able to study the core subjects to the minimum of nationally agreed standard through direct instruction on their mobile devices.

Such apps already exist in some form, but a day will come when the Khan Academy finally releases the software which ties all its resources together into an adaptive package which can be used by all children (a cornerstone of Khan academy founder XYZ’s vision). The result will be that the quality of education which a child can access through this software will be superior to one provided by state funded education.

This will signal the death knell for traditional schools. When it is proven empirically that this model provides children with a vastly superior education to traditional schools, parents will simply stop sending their children there. Schools will HAVE to change, for no reason other than there is no economic sense in paying an army of teachers to provide direct instruction when an app can do it just as well, if not better.

After debating, discussing and presenting for an entire semester, this is the direction I see education moving towards, and I’m all in favour of it.

However, I would love to hear your thoughts. Do you agree with me? If not, where do you think the future of education lies?

In week 6, I controversially (for some) wrote “we don’t need anymore factory workers”, and was criticized for it, with people claiming that we would always need factory workers. I would like to use this weeks blog to justify my perspective.

In 2009, the manufacturing sector only employed 8% of the UK workforce. Between 1994 and 2009, eighteen out of the twenty-two industries within the manufacturing sector witnessed large declines. Only four industries witnessed growth: food and drink; medical and precision instruments; chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and bioscience; and aircraft, rail, marine, and motorcycles. It is a sector in decline. (These stats are from a 2010 Manufacturing sector review).

It is particularly interesting to note that the manufacture of office machinery and computers also saw declines in that period, despite the growing ubiquity of computers, mobile phones and tablets in our lives. This indicates to me that we are failing to capitalize on technological trends, because we aren’t producing graduates capable of making a difference.

Meanwhile, Manchester and London are the two creative industry centers in Europe, and the creative industry in the UK grew at an average of 6% per annum between 1997 and 2005, by which time it accounted for 7% of total UK GVA, while the manufacturing industry accounts for just over 11%. In short, the creative industry, in which the UK is a pioneer, is going to overtake the manufacturing industry.

There’s nothing wrong with not manufacturing. However, what it means is that we are going to have to become pioneers and world leaders in other fields – or risk having nothing to offer in exchange for the goods other countries manufacture (far more cheaply than we can afford to do so), in addition to dealing with high unemployment levels.

According to Fisch and McLeod (2010) the top 10 in-demand jobs in 2010 did not exist in 2004. We are training leaners for jobs that don’t yet exist. We can hazard a guess at some of the technologies that are sure to grow in the coming decade: pharmaceuticals, renewable energy resources, biofuels. However, a blog by Thomas Frey, Google’s top rated futurist speaker paints a much clearer picture of just how many avenues of work lie just around the corner.

According to Frey, one area set to explode in the next decade is data analysis, with the amount of data businesses have access to set to grow to fifty times its current level over the next decade. This will require waste data managers, privacy managers, data retrieval specialists, and will create thousands of jobs for those with the necessary skills.

One things for sure, if we aren’t educating people to be passionate about learning and enthusiastic about embracing and developing new technologies, then they won’t be able to adapt to a job market that is changing rapidly to keep up with technology. However, as Einstein said, “in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity”. Every child is born equipped with the passion to learn and experiment with the world around them, new technology included (just think back Jesse’s video of Cai playing with his iPad).

In my opinion, the way schools are run eliminates this innate and natural instinct, and forces children to conform to what policy makers think they should be learning. I would argue that children who end up working in creative industries do so in spite of traditional state funded education, not because of it. Unless we fundamentally change the classroom, and our perception of the purpose of education, we will continue running ourselves into economic stagnation.

This blog was written after reading Abigail’s thought provoking blog on “Tall Poppy Syndrome” (TPS)

TPS is the behavioral tendency to knock down those who are ‘superior’ to you (Yang & Terjesen, 2007).  As Abigail notes, in a school environment this may result in intelligent/gifted/high achieving children being bullied.

The “cutting down of tall poppies”, and scrutinizing high achievers is synonymous with Australian (Peeters, 2004) and New Zealand culture (Kirkwood, 2007). It is also ubiquitous in Scandinavian cultures, where it is referred to as the “Law of Jante” (Danish and Norwegian: Janteloven; Swedish: Jantelagen; Finnish: Janten laki; Faroese: Jantulógin) 

The law consists of ten rules who’s broad message is: Don’t think you’re anyone special or that you’re better than us.”

Most people in our culture would intuitively see this as a very negative thing, small minded, envious, and petty. How can true individual freedom exist under such a law?

And yet, in a list of the happiest countries in the world compiled by Professor Ruut Veenhoven at Erasmus University Rotterdam, Sweden (7), Australia (6), Finland (5) and Denmark (1) all make the top 10.

So how can countries so scornful of individual success be so collectively happy and successful?

Inherent in the law of Jante is that the needs of the individual are less important than the needs of the collective whole. In all of the countries named above, most public services are high quality and state funded. These countries can afford to spend so heavily on public services because all four are so heavily taxed that they also made the top ten-list in 2011 for the most heavily taxed countries in the world.

All of this can be related back to bullying in schools. Studies highlight that a common cause of bullying is socioeconomic (SE) inequality and deprivation (Wong, Lok, Lo & Ma, 2007). Similarly, Mouly and Sankaran (2000) highlight that the envy and jealousy that accompanies the syndrome is often related as much to the societal status of the bully as it is to the status of the person they are cutting down.

Consequently, it doesn’t surprise me that bullying is so prevelant in U.S schools, as Abigail highlights. This graphic highlights that the U.S (along with many other countries) has high SE inequalities compared to other countries:


Furthermore, compare the SE inequalities of New Zealand and Australia. TPS is culturally ingrained in both countries, yet New Zealand have higher SE disparity (Marie, Fergusson & Boden, 2010) and are reported to have the second worst bullying problems in the world.

The point I’m making is that TPS only seems to be a bad thing when societies are unequal, in which case it can result in bullying, and clearly a negative school environment. My worry is that the way this country is going, we are going to see a reduction in tax funded public services, increasing the socioeconomic gap between rich and poor, which will increase the problem of bullying in our schools. What good will all our innovations and efforts to change education be if schools are full of bullies?

In my opinion, only by providing the necessary state funded public services to reduce the inequalities suffered by socio-economically deprived populations will countries be able to stop the problem of bullying in schools.

I recently watched this fantastic video called “When Ideas Have Sex” by Matt Ridley. It made me question why we even consider IQ to matter in the first place.

He suggests that our entire progress as a species, as well as the astronomical increase in living standards we have seen over the last 200 years rests on our unique ability to exchange both material goods and ideas.

“I’m not interested in the debate about IQ, about whether some groups have higher IQ’s than other groups. It’s completely irrelevant. What’s relevant to a society is how well people are communicating their ideas, and how well they’re co-operating, not how clever the individuals are…it’s the interchange of ideas, the meeting and mating of ideas that is causing technological progress, incrementally, bit by bit, however bad things happen”

So does IQ even matter?

I’m sure that like me you some people who might score high on an IQ text – but they refuse to consider the point of view of other people and remain inflexible. By the same token, other people might score low on an IQ test but remain open to new ideas and can approach issues from different perspectives.

Although there are conflicting opinions in the scientific community about whether IQ tests predict creative achievement (CA), a 2008 meta-analysis found a significantly higher relationship between divergent thinking tests and CA than IQ tests and CA. More recently, researchers investigated children’s ability to create new raven’s progressive matrices (rather than simply measuring their ability to solve them), and found that problem solving ability is not a precondition for creative reasoning, and that these two skills require different abilities.

In light of this evidence, of what value is it to judge or even attempt to measure a child’s IQ? An over emphasis on IQ might even be detrimental to a child’s overall creative and divergent thinking abilities, something that I noticed that Adrian has touched upon this week.

The world we currently live in allows virtually everyone (not just the educated or the rich elite) to share their ideas with the world, collaborate with others, and contribute to this “bit by bit” progression of civilization.

An excellent example of this is, an online community set up by people interested in growing vegetables in the windows of their small city apartments hydroponically (i.e. pumping nutrient solution to the roots of the plant rather than growing them in soil).


Through the process of collaboration, sharing ideas, and a “research and do-it-yourself” ethos, this community progressed from generally inefficient and crude methods of hydroponic farming to developing continuously improving window farming methods.

As the internet changes the way we organize ourselves and interact, projects like and will become more commonplace, and qualities such as openness, creative reasoning and experimentation will begin to supercede the narrow, convergent IQ centered type of intelligence that our current education system places such a high value on. Our education system needs to change accordingly.

I’ve read books voraciously all my life, and I love writing. The first time anyone commented on this in school was when I was 17, and my English teacher said to me, “I’m really surprised. I had no idea you were such a capable student”. Isn’t it strange that by the time my school recognized and allowed me to demonstrate one of my main passions it was nearly time for me to leave?

I would hazard a guess that like me, your real passions when you were growing up were unrelated to the majority of what you studied in class. Imagine how much better you would be at the things you really care about had you been able to pursue them all day, instead of having to sit through hours of classes that meant nothing to you.

Now imagine instead, a school where students are allowed to pursue whatever activity they want, at their own pace, without constant interruptions from the school bell and a myriad of subjects taught to a shallow superficial standard. Such schools already exist. At Sudbury Valley School, students are allowed to pursue their own interests throughout the course of the day. If they want help or guidance from a teacher, they need only ask for it.

The core philosophy behind this school is that the best learning is done when the student is self-directed and is given responsibility for their own learning.

I followed one student’s story throughout his Sudbury experience, and it seemed quite clear why it is such a successful school. In his own words:

“I spent four years at Sudbury Valley…in each one I had a completely different learning experience, and I had a higher order of thinking every successive year.”

During his time at the school, he went through different phases; first become intensely involved in video games, then playing music, progressing towards socializing, debating, writing essays, and eventually realizing that he had an intense passion for cognitive neuroscience, which came out of thinking about how we perceive music. He then realized he needed to work up to a traditional college education to be able to go into this field, and spent time putting together what he would have to do in order to get accepted by a university

Does it sound like he missed out by going to this school? Does he sound like a self-entitled person who believes that the world owes him a living? Or does he sound like a truly engaged, creative and motivated person?

Every week in these blogs it seems that someone addresses the issue of motivation in education. This generally involves some reference to intrinsic motivation, followed by some vague suggestion about how we could promote motivation in schools.

Here’s a theory of motivation for you: If you don’t want to do something, you won’t be very motivated to do it. Sure, there are ways of getting people to work harder even though they don’t want to do it. Competition can improve performance for example (Stanne, Johnson & Johnson, 1999). But it can also increase cheating (Schwieren & Weichselbaumer, 2011), and is only really effective until students realize that they don’t have to play by those rules anymore. Tragically, I’m sure many people continue to live by this ethos their entire lives, never realizing that co-operation enhances interpersonal attraction, social support, and self esteem (Stanne, Johnson & Johnson, 1999) – things that so many disconnected and isolated people seem to lack.

I hope by now we’re all on the same page. We don’t need anymore factory workers; we don’t need any more automatons. The industrial age is over. Stop treating children like they are products to be assembled on an academic conveyor belt. End depersonalized education, and start allowing children to use the information they have at their fingertips to construct their own unique learning experiences. This has been proven empirically to work. (Mitra & Dangwal, 2010)

Most importantly, lets help children learn the most important lesson of all – that they, and they alone are responsible for their own destiny. Better that they learn that in school than be spat out of university at 21 with a pile of debt, a meaningless degree, and the realization that the life and the dream they were told would be theirs at the end doesn’t exist after all.

In my blog last week I criticized the English and Welsh primary school curriculum for being overloaded and too prescriptive. This week I intend to propose changes that I think will improve primary education.

In 2004, the Northern Irish (NI) primary curriculum changed from being subject based (like England and Wales) to being area based, and is now organized as follows:

  • Language and Literacy
  • Mathematics and Numeracy
  • The Arts
  • The World Around Us
  • Personal Development and Mutual Understanding
  • Physical Education

These changes were made after reports found that teaching was being compartmentalized “into a series of subject specific experiences with minimal opportunities for exploring the links across subject areas”. While there is still a focus on literacy and numeracy in this new curriculum, areas such as ‘The Arts’ and ‘The World Around Us’ are designed to encourage pupils and teachers to make links between the topics they learn.

This is a learning principle that has been proven to work. It is analogous to Bjork’s concept of “interleaving”, whereby material and skills are mixed and diversified during the process of learning. This is a superior method of learning to learning in blocks, typified by our subject-based curriculum. The benefits of interleaving clearly apply to NI’s area based curriculum:

“If information is studied so that it can be interpreted in relation to other things in memory, learning is much more powerful” (Bjork)

Some UK schools, such as Bournville Junior School in Birmingham have managed to get around the problem of compartmentalized subjects by combining subjects to create ‘Learning Journeys’, such as the “Where in the World” learning journey, which combines music, history and geography, enhancing these individual topics and enriching the learning experience.

‘I think our Learning Journey is brilliant. Because subjects are grouped together, we don’t have to stop for the next lesson, but can carry on working on a project until it’s finished.’

–   Year 6 pupil at Bournville Junior School

As lcdobson91 highlighted last week, in England and Wales teachers’ lesson plans for children as young as four currently “consist of many little boxes of criteria to fill in for each subject each week”. Interleaved learning in the form of “learning journeys” unlocks children’s’ natural curiosity and enthusiasm for learning, while teachers have more time to help learners form patterns and connections between ideas. An interleaved curriculum, which encourages interdisciplinary engagement, questioning and curiosity, rather than compartmentalization and prescription, is surely more likely to instill in young children a permanent enthusiasm and love for learning.

A number of countries in recent times have moved away from the subject based approach to primary education. As of 2008, Northern Ireland, Scotland Italy, Australia, Spain, France, Germany and New Zealand all had “area” based primary curricula. The overall performance of these countries in the most recent PISA tests, especially in comparison to England and Wales suggests that it’s about time we followed suit.

The state education system in England and Wales is divided into five key stages. The first is key stage 1, which children are required to go through between the ages of 5 and 7. It consists of eleven statutory areas that children and teachers are required to follow:

  • English language
  • Mathematics
  • Science
  • Information and Communication Technology
  • Design Technology
  • History
  • Geography
  • Art and Design
  • Music
  • Physical Education
  • Religious Education

There are eleven subjects on that list. There are 5 days in a week. Children are taught for around 5.5 hours per day, which works out at 2.5 hours per subject per week.

Is it really surprising that so many young children are underperforming? This curriculum is far too general, and it aims to cover far too many bases. Such a crowded syllabus does not allow students to engage with the topics to any meaningful level.

Recently schools minister Nick Gibb suggested a greater need focus and emphasis on the teaching of reading and writing in primary school. How realistic is it to ask teachers to do this when they are already burdened with covering all of these areas in those two years?

In 2008, former director of Ofsted Sir Jim Rose proposed a revised curriculum which places a greater focus on ensuring that by age 7, children have a strong grasp on the literacy and numeracy skills they need in order to progress in their later education. He highlights that a firm basis of language is key to promoting the cognitive capabilities needed for successful learning.

Instead of trying to cover all angles at such an early age, we should be building firm foundations upon which children can develop their existing knowledge and abilities. It is my view that the current curriculum introduces compartmentalized and isolated teaching too quickly, and that this is negatively affecting the quality of education provided by primary schools.

I found this quote from Rose’s report particularly relevant:

“Continuing failure to protect primary schools from curriculum overload will lead to the superficial treatment of essential content, as they struggle to cope with ‘the next new thing’ rather than teach worthwhile knowledge, skills and understanding to sufficient depth and make sure that children value and enjoy their learning.”

Until we address this issue, children will continue to underachieve and fail to reach acceptable standards by the time they reach secondary school, disadvantaging them throughout their academic lives. The real tragedy is that this report was written in 2008, yet the problems raised are still prevalent and the key stage one curriculum still shows no sign of being changed.