Wee Scoops

Measure for Measure

How can we improve education for young people?

Don’t blame me for this topic. Someone asked 😉

Of course I should be an expert on this, living in a certain educational utopia – where the only thing we have left to improve is the errant tie-wearing styles of the West-of-Scotland equivalent of the Brodie set.

It is great in Scotland. A Curriculum for Excellence is excellent. Breadth, depth, challenge, personalisation and choice…. all good. Different learning styles encouraged, independent learning, active learning yada yada yada. But the question is not “How good is our education?”  (Answer: Fabulous. *tries not to think about the inability of EVERYONE in the country to spell “definitely”* …) The question is “How can we improve education for young people?”

What we really need is about a century’s worth of hindsight. And then use it to retrospectively plan what to do with the young people.  What kind of jobs will they end up with? What sort of businesses will they start? Will there be a green-energy revolution? Will there be more manufacturing, more industry, more services…. or will we be back to subsistence farming after economic meltdown? We could be – and we will never know. Until it has happened and the future has become the present – and we were, or were not well prepared.

Because hindsight is not a commodity available to us, we need to generate an every-eventuality skill-set. We need to think of best and worse case scenarios and bear in mind that there are scenarios that are beyond our current imagination  – and plan, plan, plan.

So, what should be in this skill set? A Curriculum for Excellence goes for Literacy, Numeracy and Health ‘n’ Wellbeing. Which I suppose is a good start. And there are other subject areas too, to fill out the knowledge and expertise we want to pass on.  A Scottish education is supposed to be individualised, purposeful, planned and reflected upon.

I remember once reading about “The Sabre-Toothed Curriculum” where (fictional) stone-age children were taught how to defend themselves against sabre-toothed tigers – and as the civilisation moved on, there were no sabre toothed tigers to fend off – but the subject was engrained and they couldn’t stop teaching it because it was so core to the culture. Education should be relevant – but, with the hindsight thing – how do you know what was going to be relevant until it was too late….?

In Scotland CfE has decided to major on skills over content, with the hope that skills are transferrable and therefore more useful. Instead of fending off sabre-toothed tigers, they would perhaps teach all the physical skills in constructing the tiger traps… or something…

But what does need improving in Scottish Education? What is wrong with it?

Here’s what’s wrong: no one can spell “definitely” or “beginning”. Most people think “alot” is a word. Don’t start me on apostrophes….

But really, what is wrong is that, although we know that one size doesn’t fit all, we start off kind of hoping that it will, this time. There is personalisation and choice, but it is not infinite. Schools are such synthetic communities – hundreds of people the same age banged up together all day.

No wonder peer pressure is such a big issue – that is who they spend time with. And when they are not surrounded by their sympathetic friends, where are they? Are teenagers actively engaged in real communities – or are they in their own bubble of music and entertainment? Are they shut in their own bedrooms watching inane garbage? Eh… yes. Mostly. That’s a generalisation. Sorry. Loads of them have proper interests – but most of these are with their peers: clubs, sports, music etc. It takes a long time for them to arrive at a point when that are a full member of a club, a valued member of a real league team, in a band with people of different ages and at different stages.

Not that they are not nice people. Not that they don’t have community interests – but there is some kind of educational vacuum between the family home and the world at large.

Again, in Scotland, through CfE, the out-of-school life is valued. Home is expected to count for a lot (did you see what I did there?). Real life experiences are as valid and ‘count’ for as much as the closely monitored schoolwork. As long as they are “evidenced”. Pah. But anyway.

With a community/teenager divide, a young person may only see that “Everyone, apparently,  is fifteen and the world owes me a living”. In this case, the “point” in education is perhaps lost. With a wider world-view, our young people may have more reasons to want to learn.

As it happens, I want to learn German. I want to learn German so that I can get around parts of Europe  without relying on the success of the European schools at teaching English. And order food…  By going to Austria, I saw that speaking European languages would be a useful life skill. But how many teenagers enjoy studying Modern Languages? Do they see the point? There is one – but many of them don’t see it. They therefore lack motivation, which, over time, gives way to failure.

Failure. Ooh. Is that even allowed? Is it not “deferred success”? *checks PC manual*

Handily, we now have personalised goal-posts. You can put them where you want, decide what constitutes a goal and kick away. Hey! Success! Result!

But do you want a person with subjective goalposts to qualify as a doctor, dentist, refuse collector, post office worker? I would hope that at some point, there could be some kind of robust standard to use to figure out who can do what, and how well. Exam results get better and better every year, but the young people do not seem to get more and more able. It doesn’t take much to perhaps suspect that there is jiggery-pokery afoot with the pass marks. Not that I am suggesting that there is jiggery-pokery afoot with the pass marks, you understand.

If standards were robust, I think people would put more effort into… well… spelling “definitely” correctly and knowing that “a lot” is two words.

But then some people would FAIL.  And that would then put a dent in our golden cup of SELF-ESTEEM, which would then beget future FAILURE. And a deepening spiral of low self-esteem and failure is not “a good thing”.

Anyway. I feel I need some conclusions. To improve education for young people:

1. Have them move to Scotland! Yay for CfE.
2. Look again at any sabre-tooth references in the curriculum and tease out the core skills and teach those.
3. Try to see past the strategy of corralling teenagers in an institution. Have them engaging practically in their own families, communities and society. Let them out. Let them go to the beach, eat chips and see a sunset. Let them grow their own veg so they will be able to revert to subsistence farming should the service industry go phut. Let them study the sabre-toothed curriculum if they want. Let them read everything that society has found useful up to this point. Teach them those things you don’t learn in school. Stop seeing them as young people. Start seeing them as real actual current people that are lovely and exist now and are a privilege to know, meet and work with.
4. Allow failure and success against given standards. So at least we know who should be pharmacists. And who should be … not pharmacists.
5. Teach parenting by having teenagers placed with families of young children one day a week to help out.
6. Move away from the “looking for work” mentality and instil a “looking for opportunities to create opportunities” mentality.  Allow people to feel they can create jobs and businesses, not just find existing ones.
7. Encourage travel.
8. Have young people teach younger young people. Hey – this would work well in families! (Go home-schoolers!)
9. Parents should parent their children… and instill in them a love of books and learning.
10. Oh. Nearly forgot. Life-long-learning. We’re into that.

Failing that…. make sure your local school has a free-and-easy photocopying policy and budget. And shiny books. And interactive boards. And geeky teachers who know all the IT jargon. Ooh, and more staffing… individual tutoring… an ipad each… and an online learning community that is slick and instinctive…

If you have made it this far, please leave a comment – answering as pithily as you can:

“What would improve education for young people?”


*straightens the last slovenly school tie in the district. Sighs smugly, content that educational utopia is now a reality*

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10 thoughts on “How can we improve education for young people?

  1. I really liked your post and your ideas are really excellent. My best friend and I used to say that children need to be taught basic financial skills such as balancing a checkbook, how credit cards really work, how the banking system works from within etc.

    • Yes, I agree. We need to be taught about loans and debt, that’s for sure! I skipped numeracy as it is not my strong point. But yes I agree that knowledge of basic practicalities of money are essential.

  2. I’m sorry you mentioned home schooling in your post.
    Because that means you beat me to it.
    Everything you mentioned above is available and usually provided in a home school.
    Home’s cool.

  3. Scotstig on said:

    Er……… A wee bit complacent?

    What would improve education for young people?

    If we assume as you have rightly pointed out that every eventuality has to be covered then should young people not be prepared for life as a Scottish person. For example, the subject English should be changed to Scottish with the emphasis on Scottish literary figures such as Burns instead of Shakespeare and Ian Rankin as opposed to F. Scott Fitzgerald? Instead of teaching “foreign” languages what about promoting Gaelic instead?

    I believe Scottish education is good but is it as good as you say? MPs/Councillors and teachers seem to have a mutual disrespect of each other. If both sides could try and understand the needs of each other then education for young people would improve. Sometimes money is not the answer, if you gave every student an iPad a black market would open up. The best thing in my opinion for students is enthusiastic educators who care about their students and their subjects. Nothing is more contagious than a well taught (sold) subject. However I feel the teaching profession has been very slow and insular about preventing unenthusiastic pay cheque teachers who are more interested in blaming everyone else for their shortcomings. The same attitude could be said for many parents.

    • Scotland is a part of the global market place and we should be promoting people to participate in the world and not revert to the current worrying fad for an insular Scottish bubble. If we are preparing our young people for the next sabre tooth then a focus on Mandarin or Hindi and the associated cultures and history would not be bad preparation.

      (note this not a lets forget where our own Scottish heritage has come from post)

      • Scotstig on said:

        Thanks Adam for that, I guess I was being independence’s advocate. I agree with everything you have said however I do believe we may be in the minority.

        When I have travelled I have always realised how big the world is and how small Scitland is in comparison. To get back Sanstorm’s point it is better to teach students to be global citizens in a global market than to be insular as you say.

    • Hi Scotstig- the next two posts are my answer to your comment.

  4. Some terrific ideas. Could I add one more? Yes, we need basic skills, and it is generally useful to know how to spell “definitely.” But too great an emphasis on just getting right answers can dampen down creativity. And if there is one thing we will need for a world which is going to develop in ways we cannot foresee, it will be creativity and a capacity for innovation. Japan and China are both having to learn this lesson. Once they have adapted all the innovative techniques already being used in the West, they are discovering a need for a home-grown vibrant source of new ideas too.

    I could not agree more that we need many more opportunities for age groups to mix with each other. As it is, young people too often think that the elderly are out of touch, using up too many government resources, and basically get in the way of progress while the elderly return the compliment with the view that young people are self-centered, think the world owes them a living, and are massively discourteous. It’s amazing what a little mutual acquaintance can do to change those distortions.

    I have the feeling that this is one of your posts that will run. Thank you.

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