The Innovation Gap in Public Schools

There may be two main functions of an educational system. One is about having a certain set of skills: the ability to multiply or list uses for a paper clip.

The other function is about developing members of a society, teaching people how to get on and interact with each other. This way people know how to use their skills to be successful.  So we share stories with the next generation. We transmit culture.

I think this is a useful way to frame the decision-making process: what skills do students need now that the current system doesn’t teach well? And what social values should we be sharing with students that we aren’t now?

Students probably do need to learn more “divergent thinking” skills (problem identification, solution generation, decision-making) and implementation skills. In UK they call these “Enterprise” skills.

As far as the society side of things, I think the system is mostly doing a good job. Students graduate understanding society pretty well. They hear a lot of stories and get a good sense of what they need to do to be successful in life.

The big weakness schools have is also their big strength: they focus on maintaining minimum standards. It’s not sexy, but it’s worthwhile. Schools value students meeting certain minimum abilities in all subjects rather than having a freer set-up where a pupil can, say focus on one area in particular or where a few can become wildly empowered, but some will be allowed to fall through the cracks. Public systems always have this implicit focus on minimum standards (much like quality control in factories, to use Robinson’s analogy). Consequently we spend a lot of time looking out for students who have weaknesses and bringing those up to a minimum standard and we would even force a musical genius to learn how to read.

The school system can seem almost impossible to alter, but actual learning outcomes are not difficult to change. You can easily tweak what or how you assess and that will move the whole system. This happens, in minor ways, all the time. But what is hard to change are the conflicting interests. Parents want their sons and daughters to work towards established, recognized credentials in high school, so they can get established, recognized credentials from universities. And who can blame them?

What do you think?

This entry was posted in Life. Bookmark the permalink.