Why do we educate our students?

You would think that most teachers would be able to provide a robust and thorough answer to this question, that we’d be able to dig down into the philosophy and rationale of education. I would certainly like that to be the case. Yet I am not sure that many (and I definitely include myself among them) can provide a robust or nuanced answer to this seemingly obvious question.

Sure, we could provide an answer such as “to get students a job” or “to help kids become functioning adults” or something equally superficial. I’ve spoken to others plenty of times about the Teach for Australia ideal of education providing students with choices to live a life with meaning.

Many argue that the education of students, and the functioning of the education system as a whole, is about meeting the needs of society – chiefly in terms of the requirements of the workforce. This argument goes that at a purely functional level, we need many different types of people to fulfill the myriad different roles in our society.

This reasoning has a lot of traction in policy and government circles– understandably so, as it is self-evidently true that society needs workers. For this reason, it is worth taking this argument as the starting point when analysing possible answers to our starting question. So let’s take as true the proposition that the twin purposes of education are (1) to provide a ready supply of workers to fulfill society’s needs and (2) to prepare students as best we can to meet those needs and be able to choose the roles they would like to follow in their lives. Acknowledging that this is a gross simplification of the question, how well do we do at meeting even this simplistic version of the purpose of education?

 

The future of work is going to be vastly different to how it has been in the past, indeed even to how we work currently. At least that is what we’re constantly told. The myriad statistics that cycle through the news, pulled from various reports from government and the private sector, tell us endlessly how our world is changing and that work will continue to rapidly follow. From Pricewaterhouse Coopers detailing their modelling that shows almost half of all jobs in Australia are at “high risk” of automation in the next two decades, to the Office of the Chief Scientist’s survey of industry highlighting the increasing need, yet shortfall, of eligible candidates for STEM-skilled jobs.

Manufacturing is always the first industry that springs to mind before the tide of automation– and rightly so, given the trend over recent years. As a resident of Geelong in Victoria, I am well aware of the impact that changes in this industry have had on that community. Yet, this automation and workforce casualisation is not a manufacturing-specific phenomenon. Professions previously thought of as safe from this tide are not. Positions in higher education are now notoriously insecure, flexi-lawyers are becoming more and more common and recently the online medical service qoctor launched in Australia, creating a new casualisation of even the medical profession.

Students and workers in all fields are going to be dealing with this. Are we preparing them for this reality?

Educators and those in the education system all seem to agree that we need to change teaching and learning in our schools to meet these challenges and help our students succeed in having a meaningful and fulfilling working life. I recently wrote that schools need to embrace change in their curriculum and the focus of learning, a “reboot” of sorts. I don’t believe that they are meeting this challenge, despite the advertising or rhetoric that can come from individual schools and education departments. We reward memorisation and being able to “navigate the system”, rather than the process and ability to use information learned. When push comes to shove, despite their rhetoric, schools and curriculum still default to the memorisation and recall of facts and pieces of information, rather than the thinking skills of students.

This leads to a total disconnect between what we are seeing in the data and requests from industry and the programs delivered by schools. As teachers, we are almost universally well-intentioned and motivated to try to do the best for our students. However, the data is clearly in and we are not doing that. Even when we are just focusing on the single facet of education in preparing students for the workforce, we are not doing what we need to do.

But criticism is easy, finding solutions is hard. These solutions will need to be both small and large in scale, actioned by both system leaders and individual teachers. The system needs to seriously reevaluate its endpoint. The senior school system places a priority on the completion of exams and rankings, rather than student ability to think and create. Schools and classroom teachers need to focus on the development of key problem solving and collaborative skills. Industry is crying out for graduates with strong skills in these areas, yet we don’t have a system that meets this demand. Teachers have the great opportunity to also show students the modern careers available to their students in their field. The simple exposure to what is possible can be an empowering thing for students.

I have massively oversimplified the answer to our initial question, chiefly to illustrate the current system’s inability to meet the needs of our increasingly dynamic working needs. Nothing that I am advocating for is new or groundbreaking, but we need to change the focus. We need to prepare our students for the casualised, automated and increasingly unclear workforce of the future. We can’t simply focus on the old ways of doing things and expect different results. Our students will not be ready for the workplace that we have created for them if we don’t create a new learning environment for them to go with it.

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