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Change needed!

Monday 27 August 2018, by JMC


the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting” Plutarch (from the Essay ‘On Listening’ in Moralia)

Not so different from ’modern’ industrial education ...


Today most schools still follow an old-fashioned model of learning designed in the 19th century. In nearly every respect education has barely changed since the system was designed to produce workers and managers for the industrial age. But this system is no longer fit for purpose, for a number of reasons:

a) A globalised world requires greater emphasis on social and emotional skills (Millennial competencies). We now live in the Age of Technology, a globalised environment characterised by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity (VUCA) (Rodriguez & Rodriguez, 2015, p. 855). New challenges such as worsening inequalities, climate change and growing multiculturalism will require people from different cultures and backgrounds to work together creatively, critically and collaboratively - skills that are poorly prioritised in industrial models of education.

b) A changing labour market is requiring new types of knowledge, skills and dispositions. Learners today face a rapidly evolving labour market, where increasing numbers of jobs are threatened by automation or other technological solutions . As the World Economic Forum (WEF) recognises, “technical skills will need to be supplemented with strong social and collaboration skills” (2016, p. 3). In this environment, the opportunities are increasingly going to those who have strong social and emotional abilities, who can approach complex challenges holistically and who are able to manage their own learning (EU Council, 2018, pp.4 & 15).

c) The desire to control education is stifling risk-taking, criticality and creativity. The standardization of curricula and emphasis on formal assessment has resulted in education becoming a machine for the production of a small set of ‘learning outcomes.’ The consequence is a narrowing of learning that rewards and encourages conformity from both learners and teachers, rather than producing “free subjects” (Biesta, 2013, p.140).

d) The marketization of education has de-professionalised and demotivated teachers. Over the last 30 years neoliberalist ideas of free market ideology, individualism and competition have increasingly been applied to education. The consequence is a greater emphasis on standardization, competition, teacher accountability and formal assessments of a narrow range of subjects. As a result, teaching is de-professionalised and reduced to an instrumental process, taking away teachers’ autonomy and requiring them to follow a one-size-fits-all approach that is demotivating and leaves them even less able (or willing) to take risks (Biesta, 2013, p.1; Robinson, 2017, p.9).

e) Education needs to focus on developing the self, not just gaining qualifications. Conventional industrial education is increasingly a mechanism with learners as objects to be moulded and produced, with a school structure that rewards conformity and obedience over risk-taking and initiative, and individual advancement over collaboration and cooperation. The product, or ‘outcome’, is a learner who can pass a test by recalling information or demonstrating a fixed set of skills. What is missing is the focus on bringing people to as full a realization as possible of what it is to be a human being, that develops each into the best that they can be, whatever direction that might take.

f) Industrial education is damaging to learners’ personal wellbeing. The modern focus on high-stakes assessment is unengaging, stressful for many and increasingly irrelevant, as it serves only to sort learners by their ability to pass exams. An overemphasis on tests and narrow curriculum knowledge is leading to increased stress, isolation and disengagement. Conventional lessons are too often removed from real life and prioritise reproduction of knowledge over understanding, application and socio-emotional competence. Finally, the emphasis on testing is leading to “qualification-inflation”, whereby more and more learners are acquiring higher and higher level qualifications, just as employers are preferring those with better socio-emotional skills (see point b above).

In short, as the WEF concludes, we “need to re-consider fundamentally the education models of today” (2016, p. 7). It is time to move away from an antiquated 19th century system that too often prioritises individualism over collaboration, that sorts learners into winners and losers rather than maximising everyone’s potential, and which is failing to develop the social and emotional skills necessary for learners to thrive in our globalised, digital world.


Bell, S. (2010). Project-Based Learning for the 21st Century: Skills for the Future. The Clearing House, 83(2), pp. 39-43.

Biesta, G. (2013). The beautiful risk of education. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

Robinson, K. (2017). Out of Our Minds: the Power of Being Creative. 3rd ed. Chichester, UK: Capstone.

Rodriguez, A. & Rodriguez, Y. (2015). Metaphors for today’s leadership: VUCA world, millennial and "Cloud Leaders". The Journal of Management Development, 34(7), pp. 854-866.

EU Council (2018). Council Recommendation on Key Competences for Lifelong Learning. Retrieved from https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CONSIL:ST_9009_2018_INIT&from=EN on 29/07/2018.

WEF (World Economic Forum) (2016), Future of Jobs report Executive Summary. Retrieved from http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_FOJ_Executive_Summary_Jobs.pdf