November 25, 2010

Schools are churning out the unemployable

When I mention that, in addition to working with schools and education departments on their learning policy and practice, I spend at least a third of my week working with tech startups, television and film companies, I get more than a few strange looks and raised eyebrows.

People just don't understand why anyone would "make life difficult for themselves" by working in two camps - business startups and education - which, on the face of it, have little tying them together.

I've spent three years on an occasionally painful journey learning how to structure deals, work out business models and build a business from the customer back. Within two weeks of starting that journey many of my former colleagues started referring to me as someone who "worked in media". I was no longer "in education". Some, in the past year, have let me "back into education", but trust me: blending two worlds hasn't been easy to explain and, for some, it's been too hard a concept to grasp.


Churning out the unemployable

I realised that, for all the talk of encouraging entrepreneurial attitudes in schools and giving more choice to students, too many schools still hadn't understood what's actually required to do this successfully, in a way that benefits society later. I thought that the best way to help schools understand how lessons, curricula or resources could be planned to this end would be to always spend a good part of the week in the sharpest end of that societal and business world.

So what? There's an example of the challenge if we don't get over our reliance on structures and methods of learning of old in a Harriet Sergeant Sunday Times comment piece from earlier this year:

The managing director of a medium-sized IT company explained why. High-flyers — Oxford and Cambridge graduates — are still as good as any in the world. His problems come when he tries to recruit middle management. Last year he interviewed 52 graduates — all educated in state schools. On paper they looked “brilliant students”. Each had three As at A-level and a 2:1 degree. He shook his head. “There’s a big difference between people passing exams and being ready for work.”

This was obvious even before the interview began. Of the 52 applicants, half arrived late. Only three of the 52 walked up to the managing director, looked him in the eye, shook his hand and said, “Good morning.” The rest “just ambled in”. When he asked them to solve a problem, only 12 had come equipped with a notebook and pencil.

The three who had greeted him proved the strongest candidates and he hired them. Within a year they were out because of their “lackadaisical” attitude. They did not turn up on time; for the first six months a manager had to check all their emails for spelling and grammar; they did not know how to learn. It was the first time they had ever been asked to learn on their own.


What's so wrong with schooling?

And what are these old structures that lead to the unemployable? I think Don Ledingham's summary of Alan McCluskey from the Swiss Agency for ICT in education sums it up: The 7 Tacit Lessons Which Schools Teach Children:

  1. Knowledge is scarce
  2. Learning needs a specific place and specific time (lessons in classrooms)
  3. Knowledge is best learnt in disconnected little pieces (lessons)
  4. To learn you need the help of an approved expert i.e. a teacher
  5. To learn you need to follow a path determined by a learning expert (a course of study)
  6. You need an expert to assess your progress (a teacher)
  7. You can attribute a meaningful numerical value to the value of learning (marks, grades, degrees)


One part of the solution

When we're generating fresh ideas for a business and working through how it might work in practice, the process of Design Thinking has become one of our trusty tools. Some ideas around how Design Thinking might be one way of pivoting our practice - either strategically or tactically within your classroom - are now up on the Global Education Conference archive of my talk last week.

I realise that this approach alone isn't a saviour of schooling, and that there are many other tactics as well as strategic approaches that help move us away from a factory model to a studio model of learning. But the conversation that I find the hardest is with those who don't even see that the model is no longer effective, who believe that "it was good enough for me so...". So help me - are things so broken that we should replace them with thoughts shiny and used (and very often recycled)? Or can we do a renovation job on what we've got, as many would prefer?

Pic of a young suit fast asleep from Amir Jina


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As ever Ewan you are spot on. After being an employee, employer and investor I finally learned that 100% enthusiasm is far better than 100% qualifiied.

The first thing I tell all my staff (and anyone who will listen) is that they should learn how to read upside down. By doing this I can often get a head start on what the other person I am meeting with really wants . Sure it's only one thing but it's simple, practical and almost anyone can learn it (if they want to).

Great post Ewan. When I meet young people who are looking for a job one of the questions I always ask -(for it is a common interview question) - is why would I hire you - with the emphasis on the "you". And so often they don't have a persuasive answer. Somewhere along the line we have to work with young people to help them discover, value and - crucially -talk about their personal skills for the reason Richard mentioned above. Success in life is down to more than passing exams.

It has long been the case (in the UK at least) that state education has been nothing more than training to pass exams. This tendency has been exacerbated in the last decade or so with the introduction of school league tables which rank schools in terms of how many people get the various grades which are handed out for these exams.

I remember when I first went to university almost 15 years ago that the first thing the mathematics lecturer said in the very first lecture of the course was this: "Forget everything they taught you at school, it is of no practical use whatsoever. We're going to start from scratch."

I would go further and say that not only does the UK's state education system 'churn out the unemployable' it also churns out the nigh on unteachable. By teaching discreet 'facts' that are either 'right' or 'wrong' it cements these facts in students minds making them very difficult to replace later on with more useful 'rules of thumb'

Not only do the methods used in state education simply train students to pass exams, they also fail to actually teach students to think.

I think it's broader than schools. Our education system as one of the major instruments for the maintenance of both the positive and negative aspects of our culture. Our society’s cultural system perpetuates power relationships and holds people (and groups) in place like an invisible web. trend in education to deliver on cognitive and intellect (documents, policy, frameworks), but to merely debate social and emotional influences (are mobiles bad, is Facebook evil etc.,) Focusing solely on cognitive or intellectual development (the body of the 7 points) and ignoring social and emotional influences on the learning process reduces the effectiveness of teaching. After all, being in a room and exposed to information – does not mean we are motivated to ‘learn’ or participate as such.

It is undoubtedly bang on, and something I have believed in for a long time. I was lucky enough to go through the private system and I have long believed that this is what private education buys you - the confidence and ability to adapt to new situations and to learn quickly and effectively for yourself. Having recently moved to work in a different (state) school, I am pleased to report that there are schools in the state system where education is more than just exams, and learning - in the real sense of the word - is given a really high priority. It is an inspiring place to work.

My children both went to public schools and it seemed as though the teachers were very conscienscious and really tried hard to promote confidence and ambition to both children. The soccio economic group they were educated with certainly had an impact on their perception of success. They still had to survive socially in this environment which did not always help with getting good marks.

This is really one of the best blog and very likable at all.Our education system as one of the major instruments for the maintenance of both the positive and negative aspects of our culture. This is very useful for me and one of the very helpful blog. Thanks for making such a useful blog for us. Keep blogging..

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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