Teaching methods today are no longer appropriate. The reasons are twofold. First, schools do not teach children how to think, they teach them how to parrot back the right answers. Second, exams define children’s futures. They tell them who they are, what jobs they can get and what their prospects in life will be. With such a narrow path to success, and deprived of cultivated reasoning skills, it’s little wonder that so many pupils are anxious and depressed.
How did we end up here? The chemist and Nobel laureate (and inventor of the PCR test for Covid) Kary Mullis believed that schools today are a consequence of the space race. ‘In 1957 the Russians launched the space race by putting Sputnik into orbit around the Earth,’ he wrote. ‘It was only 23 inches in diameter but it revolutionised the American educational system. The government poured millions of dollars into science education. It was a fortuitous time to be young and in love with science.’
That system completed its mission when Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon in 1969. The rest of the world wanted to compete with their own homegrown scientists — and Britain was no different.
Fifty years on, however, we have outgrown this system entirely. People have their own talents, and not all of us are astrophysicists. What if we used technology properly, so our children could feel Sputnik-era support to excel in life? What would they be like? Might Covid give us a chance to find out?
As a mother of two children under ten, I dread the soul-breaking exams they have to face. And as a lecturer in neuroscience, I pick up the pieces at the other end when students get to university. It is blindingly clear that we are failing our children by continuing to propagate a failing educational system. And now we have fooled ourselves into thinking we are advancing because we are doing it digitally.
Like so many parents, I wrestled with online learning and homeschooling during lockdowns. When Covid first hit, my children’s state school gave us no curriculum for months, so I just did things my way. I didn’t focus on spelling, grammar or vocabulary. I built up their capacity to sit down and focus. I asked them to push their own limits — to show me how today’s work was better than yesterday’s and to raise their own standards.
I put the children in charge of managing their own growth and their freedom to play — a careful balance between goal-directed learning and the daydreaming that creativity demands. I stopped teaching them what to think and taught them how to think. My nine-year old boy wrote stories about video games and chicken nuggets. My six-year-old girl wrote about pixies and art. There was some cajoling at the start, but there was far less pushing once they discovered how to pull themselves into learning.
When the school’s digital curriculum finally arrived last May for homeschooling, it demanded that the kids revert to relying on an adult scheduling their day and battling with their attention, only this time in front of a screen at home instead of a whiteboard at school. This wasn’t a digital revolution, it was a substitution, with millions of parents unwittingly drafted in as untrained supply teachers, desperately trying to juggle their own work, too.
Pre-Covid, our education system was already last century’s rusty railway tracks. Post-Covid, I find myself shaking in anger: why are we ignoring the science of learning, and misusing technology and teachers? Today, we know so much more about how the brain works than back when the Victorians began corralling children in schools with long hallways, strict schedules and loud bells. Our learning infrastructure is desperate for change.
Teachers are wasting their time ‘delivering knowledge’. That is what YouTube is for, and Covid has successfully ushered in more of it. Even before Covid, we had ‘flipped the classroom’ (as we say in the ‘ed biz’) at Imperial by abolishing 70 per cent of medical school lectures in favour of practical tutorials. We’d already begun to operate on the modern insight that learning is the output, not the input. Rather than demand one right answer, we invite students to ask great questions which stokes their natural learning cycle. Students watch videos beforehand and in classthe teacher is there to propel their curiosity and help them care about the material.
Technology is more than Zoom calls and YouTube. It’s not hard to free up teachers’ time, for instance, with artificial intelligence that can track and test children’s knowledge to find their gaps and highlight their strengths. We have this. AI can provide rapid feedback and guide next steps while leaving valuable humans to do what only humans can: tweak, personalise, inspire and care. After watching videos, software can guide students through practice tests and give immediate feedback, while alerting the teacher to individual needs, flagging students who are stuck or excelling. AI can enhance this by getting to know individual students, their weaknesses, strengths and preferences.
Every child has different talents and thrives in their own way, and can become invested in learning according to their own interests. Teachers can see nuance, and understand and reach students as individuals. But right now they are caught up in paperwork, in proving that the class as a whole is reaching a minimum standard (only 35 per cent of secondary school teachers’ time is spent in the classroom). And we all suffer because we are missing out on excellence: we don’t get to find out how astonishing our children can be.
Basic technology, deployed well, can help focus the precious attention of the parent-teacher partnership to meet the exact needs of each child. What we want are attentive adults who can help turn children’s dreams into concrete aspirations, then guide and walk their journey with them — toward a future that will undoubtedly have many more paths to success than the ones marked out by examiners and, later, corporate HR departments.
We need to decide again, for a new period of human history, what school is for. Is it to give children wings — or tie them to a chair? To chase metrics — or to cultivate their characters? To achieve a minimum collective standard — or to find out how great a child can be?
In 1957, it was a 23-inch steel ball that forced our hand. This century’s educational Sputnik moment has come to us in the form of a 0.5 micrometre viral bullet. Let’s not waste it.