Seven Tipping Points in Education

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A question often asked is “if there are better ways of educating people then ‘traditional schooling’ why does the same model exist almost everywhere in the world?” Will educational practice continue to develop at a frustratingly slow pace or are we due for the next ‘Tipping Point’?

Before there was formal education

Of course we learn throughout our lives and some argue that all effective learning is ‘informal’. Ivan Illich described the power of these informal learning communities and suggested that we ‘deschool society’. David Thornburg on the other hand, debated bringing these informal settings online and into schools, including ‘campfires’ to share stories, ‘watering holes’ to build social understanding and ‘caves’ to reflect and theorise. There are some great examples but the majority of children on the planet currently experience ‘Formal learning’ using a model which started a long time ago

The first tipping point.... the first formal schools

In the Middle East Sumerians began compiling stories and ideas through writing. They introduced libraries and formal schools for training in specialist skills such as scribes to write the books. Over the next 2000 years key texts were established in Greek and Latin that remained the basis of schools for elite society in Europe well into the 1800s.

The second tipping point... nationhood and common beliefs

Mass education was used politically to spread common language, religious teaching and national identity from pre-roman times, often to the whole population and often based around common stories, songs and interpretations of history (particularly battles). The use of Latin throughout the Roman empire is one such example as is the spread of Spanish through many South American Countries.

The third tipping point... the concept of the qualification and mass examination systems

The Chinese are generally credited with establishing mass education based on Confucianism, literacy, numeracy and ending in a formal examination. They did this in order to develop enough local officials of sufficient and reliable standard to manage an ever growing population. The English did this much later and often describe the education of the civil service as one of the main reasons they were able to build an effective empire. Such skills are still in demand and some counties are openly still focussed on providing an education system along these lines.

The forth tipping point... education to civilise the masses

The work of Locke then Rousseau and Kant suggested the idea of a child’s mind as an ‘empty vessel’ that must be filled at the correct time and with the ‘correct’ contents in order to develop good moral citizens. This work is often quoted as the point at which national governments began funding mass education systems to civilise their people. (It is probably these models of education that are sometimes referred to as 'factory models')

The fifth tipping point... the importance of ‘how you teach’ as well as ‘what you teach’

Challenges to the ‘empty vessel’ model came from educationalists such as Hegel and later Bruner and Vygotsky who suggested not only that learning occurred through active processes but also that development of pedagogy should be informed by research into how people actually learn. Teacher training began to be formalised and many more schools that taught in different ways from the ‘traditional model’ began to emerge. You could argue that despite the enormous leap in understanding, this was not actually a tipping point because, apart from the introduction of systems for teacher training, there were very few national systems that responded with large scale changes driven by research. Until the next tipping point there was no reason for nations to place a high priority on how their schools were actually performing so unregulated experimentation by schools tended to emerge and is still occurring today.

The sixth tipping point... education as a route to personal and national wealth

Finland in the 1970s was described as an ‘economic backwater’. It went back to first principles and used educational research findings to redesign its education system and make itself economically competitive. It invested in the ability of its teachers to understand and use pedagogical research, focussed on the skills students would need to be successful and removed examination systems. It is currently at the top of the international comparison tables for education. The amount of money invested in educational research is growing at an incredible rate as governments now understand the importance of this competitive edge and seek to maximise on this investment. Previous research is being re-examined and tested. This is showing up some serious weaknesses that may explain education’s slow development. Steven Wheeler in a recent post suggested that the reason for us not having made significant progress with pedagogical thinking since Vygotsky is because ideas gain momentum in education before they actually have any research evidence behind them. He cites the adoption of ‘learning styles’ even though the research strongly suggested these approaches are a backward step. Almost every week we have a new educational buzzword causing educational noise through which the clear path to development is obscured. ‘Beyond the black box’ author, Dylan Wiliam is frustrated by this noise and calls for an era of greater rigour.

The seventh tipping point... Personalisation, The internet, Creativity, fear of terrorism ??

What will drive this next tipping point? The enormous spread of mobile technology enabling personalised banking, learning, shopping, charitable giving, healthcare and political activism begins to unleash a whole range of opportunities. If automation continues and all knowledge becomes even easier to search, the wealth of an individual will become increasingly dependent on the skills they have which can’t be gained by other means: Creativity, Empathy, Problem solving, Leadership etc. The next tipping point is likely to come from reliable research showing that such skills really are determining the economic potential of a country and reliable research into how schools can be adapted to develop these skills. Such research has already begun to emerge and is currently driving change in countries such as the United States, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore. As a result of this research, future schools are likely to include...
  • Anytime anywhere access to the internet for learners and teachers
  • Highly trained teachers who are pedagogues and action researchers
  • A teaching profession able to develop a professional body of knowledge based on authentic peer reviewed work
  • Students taking an active role in their own and other’s learning
  • Students engaging in peer review and reflection on each other’s work
  • Regular personalised feedback by peers and teachers
  • Clear goals for learning together with routes for how to get there independently
  • Central importance given to continually developing the skills of learners. Skills such as creative problem solving, reflection, collaboration as a way of learning and active participation in their communities.
  • Use of specific and positive praise across a wide range of capabilities including recognising the attributes of resilience, motivation, compassion and empathy.
  • Systems for praising and recognising improvement in these essential skills

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