Lack of problem solving at schools? I think not.

Here’s the thing. On my travels I have spent a reasonable amount of time with academics and industry leaders, in the course of which on various occasions they have bemoaned certain faults in our education system. It has been worrying, to say the least, to consider that the kids coming out of schools today lack the skills they need to play a full part in our society in general, and to act in technological and scientific roles in particular. Being a parent as well, I have been feeling a certain implication – my kids are in their teens, which puts them in the centre of the debate.

Quite deliberately, then, I have been asking their teachers and other parties what is the truth of the matter. To work back from the answer: industry and academia may have had a point. But there was never a golden age of education either – as one person put it, “I don’t think the education system of the past was ever designed in any way other than to get people through exams.” It may be – and this is an area I haven’t yet fully investigated, so consider this uncorroborated – that it was the elitism of universities in the past that served to minimise the impact of what was an education system for the academic few. Who knows.

But to bring things up to date, you will notice I said, “may have had a point.” From my dealings with schools as a parent, and more recently as a governor, I have seen a very different picture. The teachers I speak to in general are using a language and teaching style which is totally at odds with the idea that school is exclusively about passing exams – they describe different methods of learning, the importance of investigation, looking for alternative solutions and so on. Furthermore, they do so across the curriculum – from English and Design, to Maths and Geography.

So, where’s the truth? When I put the question, bluntly, “Are we failing our children, and potentially our society,” I have been informed that such practices are really, quite recent. Young teachers – those only two years into a career for example – confess that the way they teach now is very different to how things were even when they were at school. All the same however, the way they go about their business does seem to be infused with what can only be described as teaching problem-solving skills.

There are still challenges. Yes, and there remains unanimous agreement on this, our schools are still struggling when it comes to serving up budding scientists. Elsewhere, the side effect of all this educational positivity seems to be a veritable flood of jargon – perhaps a side-effect of quite rapid, and what has probably been workshop-driven change is that for the outsider, it can be difficult to engage without first knowing what is being talked about. This may seem a trivial point but it is important – our school system may be undermining its own credibility with the average parent, or indeed industrialist, by cloaking itself in terminology.

All the same, there is positive news to be had. Let nobody be unconvinced that there is a struggle taking place, to improve the educational lot of our kids. However it is one that the new educational approaches do look in danger of winning. And indeed, the recent demise of KS3 SATs (there’s some jargon for you) may have unfortunate side-effects in the short term, but may well act as a further catalyst to progress. We may be yet to see the benefits of what’s already been achieved, but the future looks bright.

Lack of problem solving at schools? I think not.

2 thoughts on “Lack of problem solving at schools? I think not.

  1. Fraser says:

    Encouraging stuff, Jon!

    It reminds me of something the physicist Richard Feynman remarked upon in his autobiography ‘Surely you must be joking, Mr Feynman?’. He’d been teaching Brazilian kids and was shocked that although they could answer their examination questions perfectly, they were utterly incapable of applying the knowledge to any other situation to that which they’d been taught.

    He later said, “I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding, they learn by some other way — by rote or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!”

    (One of my heros; I recommend ‘Surely You’re Joking…’ unreservedly)

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