The Brainy Brunch: Disrupting Education
Originally posted on Pioneer Pitstop by Anna Levy, Founder of Brainy Brunch
What are your memories of school? Sneaky cigarettes behind the bike shed? Overcooked school dinners? Hardened lumps of chewing gum under the desk?
Whether or not you enjoyed your school years, the chances are your experiences would have shaped you in ways that are not all positive and conducive to personal growth.
Now don’t get me wrong, I know that those of us brought up in England today are very very lucky to have the access to education we do. It wasn’t that long ago in this country that children were leaving school at 12 to go work in the mines, and today more than 72 million children of primary school age around the world aren’t in school, the majority of whom are girls.
But… grateful though I am for my education, I also feel very very let down by it. And looking at what’s going on in schools today, thanks to dear Mr Gove and the endless extra pressures and target-setting imposed by policymakers, our education system is not, I believe, on an upward trajectory.
On Sunday, I hosted another Brainy Brunch event at Impact Hub Islington, this time on the topic of Disrupting Education, which attracted a great bunch of people many of them teachers or involved in education through their work. Inspired by some amazing TED Talks, including one by Charles Leadbeater who described our current education system as “hitting the targets but missing the point”, we shared our concerns and imagined how schooling could be completely re-invented.
Weronika and Paul from Equal Education
But what’s wrong with the current system and how might it have shaped us in ways we’re barely even aware of? Here’s how I see it…
It put us in a box
– whether that’s ‘special needs’, ADHD, top set / bottom set or even ‘gifted and talented’, giving people labels at such an early age does not help them to develop their own sense of self and places unnecessary limitations on how we see our potential. As Sir Ken Robinson says in this mindblowingly brilliant RSA animate talk on changing education paradigms that we watched on Sunday, the ADHD “epidemic” that is sweeping across the Western World is penalising children for having different kinds of minds and medicalising them up to the eyeballs on dangerous drugs instead of taking a long hard look at why their education system is failing them. Even for those of us lucky to fit one of school’s more positive labels, being told we’re bright, gifted and full of potential from an early age is potentially not all that helpful, when you consider Carol Dweck’s work on the fixed vs growth mindset. One of her findings (check out her great TED talk for an introduction) is that if we reward children for achievement rather than for effort, we instil in them a fixed mindset, i.e. that their success is inherent rather than earned. This can lead to problems later in life, especially when things don’t go to plan, as I see from my work with graduates from top university UCL, who find it such a shock to the system to leave education and not immediately walk into a highflying job. Which leads me on to…
It failed to teach us how to fail
– anyone like me who has worked in the start-up world will know how important failure is and what a necessary step it is on the way to success. They say half of new businesses fail within five years, but what scaremongering headlines like this fail to show is what then rises from the dust of these unsuccessful first attempts. When things don’t work out first time, this is such fertile ground for growth and learning. Just ask any of the incredibly successful people who initially faced failures, from Oprah Winfrey who was fired from her first TV job, to Albert Einstein who couldn’t speak fluently until the age of nine, leading his teachers to think he was slow and later getting throw out of school for his rebellious behaviour. The trouble is, with the way learning is assessed in schools, we get it drilled into us that we either pass or fail, and that failing is catastrophic. Even schools themselves get branded as failing, courtesy of OFSTED and left to squirm humiliatingly at the bottom of league tables, creating a culture of fear and huge anxiety…
It taught us how to be stressed
– The constant testing that young people have to endure in school – especially today now that children are having to take their SATS tests from the age ofseven in the UK – puts so much unnecessary pressure on them at a very formative age. The emotional habits we pick up as children continue on and deepen as we move into our adult lives as we become more and more trained for stress, work deadlines replacing essay deadlines, and important client meetings instead of exams. Putting so much pressure on teachers must surely also transmit to the children, however wonderful they are as teachers (and, don’t get me wrong, there really are some fantastic teachers out there who are able to bring out the best in childrendespite our oppressive education system.) Why aren’t we teaching children skills like resilience and mindfulness for dealing with the inevitable challenges of life instead of putting so much pressure on them? What is education for anyway?
It didn’t prepare us for the modern world of work
– As a career coach, this one’s close to my heart. As I mentioned earlier, I see bright young people leaving our education system at the age of 21 and not understanding why their glittering array of A*s don’t immediately (in every case at least) lead them into hot-shot graduate jobs. The thing is, employers aren’t as interested in school qualifications as they are in work experience (which is why half of all students now take internships during university) because they know that our schooling fundamentally doesn’t prepare us with the skills we need for work. From the British Chamber of Commerce to the CBI, the past few years have seen several reports the business world complaining that our education system doesn’t make young people fit for employment and warning that we’re failing a whole generation. Meanwhile, recent government interventions seem to be taking us backwards rather than forwards, with even more emphasis on academic achievement and traditional subjects, rather than, say, project work and the chance to tackle real life challenges in groups, which would help young people develop skills such as teamwork, leadership and communication, rather than simply learning the tunnel vision required to cram for exams. Which leads me on to my final point…
It crushed our creativity
– theres’s another great Ken Robinson TED Talk on this in which he argues for a transformation of our school system to nurture creativity and engage learners who don’t fit the standard model (leading back to my first point). Personally, I remember in Art classes at school that if you weren’t one of the teacher’s favourites and seen as naturally gifted as an artist, you were simply encouraged to project pictures onto sugar paper to then trace and colour them in, which lead to work that didn’t look that bad, but also didn’t have an ounce of self-expression or soul. What a perfect metaphor for how our education system works! Ken Robinson’s RSA Animate, which I mentioned earlier, has one truly heartbreaking part where he talks about research showing how innovative thinking diminishes throughout our childhood; probably, he suggests, as a result of our schooling. Rather than teaching children the tricks to get by and scrape through, we should be opening their minds and allowing them to play and experiment, to mess up and try again, and to find their own self-expression and place in the world. We should be building into them a sense that whoever they are and however their brain works, they’re fundamentally okay and have something unique to offer. Education should be a chance for them to discover and build on their strengths and to work out what it is in the world they truly care about, so that when they leave education they’re raring to go out there and make their mark.
Brainy Brunchers getting deep into conversations
We don’t just owe this to the young people going through school now, we owe it to the world. Now more than ever, the planet and our populations and societies are in desperate need of fresh thinking, frugal innovation and genuine, authentic and empowered leadership. Unless we were very lucky we probably didn’t learn this stuff at school, and may have even had it drummed out of us, so it’s now up to us to recognise were we may need to develop and empower ourselves to grow in those areas.
Some of the social entrepreneurs I meet at Impact Hub Islington, like Paul Singh from Equal Education, who curated Sunday’s Brainy Brunch, and are doing this already. Paul broke free from the defined path his Engineering degree had prepared him for to create his own business (still in his 20’s) tackling educational inequality for children in care. I also met someone at the brunch called Roxana who is starting an organisation called Enrol Yourself, which is all about enabling people to design their own adult education, creating a personalised curriculum and finding the support they need in peer-led groups.
So, we don’t need to let our experiences of education hold us back, but it’s good (I think) to be aware of how we may have been shaped by them. Would love to hear your thoughts and also any examples of GREAT schooling, to counteract all my whinging!
Pippa & Anna
The Brainy Brunch is a regular event at Impact Hub Islington that has been serving up bagels and banter since 2013. Each event takes a different theme and is curated by volunteers from our brainy and brilliant community of brunchers, who choose video TED Talks and other short films and animations to inspire the conversations. In the past, we’ve covered topics from digital distraction, to gender norms, money, kindness and authenticity. If you’d like to keep updated, you can join the Facebook group, and do get in touch if you’ve got an idea for a theme and would like to curate a future brunch!
Anna Levy, Host of the Brainy Brunch