Re-designing Education

Imagine a small circle representing a child’s world; then imagine next to it a much larger circle containing the knowledge that human civilisation has accumulated over the millennia. The accompanying diagram is not to scale: the accumulated knowledge is obviously much larger, while the child’s reality is of an indeterminate size. But the overlap is where the thing that we call ‘education’ must take place.

Education is the interface between the reality of the individual and the wider world.

We can derive some interesting things from this diagram if we accept its basic premise.

The role of a teacher is to stand on the cusp of the overlap, encouraging the child to take on board the accumulated knowledge of the larger circle. This can mean simply transposing data from the larger circle into the smaller circle, or it can mean bringing about an awareness in the smaller circle of what the larger one contains and inspiring the smaller to make the larger his or her own.

We see a similar pattern in both fiction and business: in standard fiction, a protagonist meets a wise old man who introduces him or her to the larger world of the story with all its implications; in business, the marketer or salesperson reveals the usefulness and wonder of the product to the customer. The principle is the same: the colossal is shown to the diminutive; the grown is introduced to the growing; what is already there is revealed to the newcomer. Hence the teacher is a gatekeeper; it is his or her job to open the door to the wider world and urge the student to go through.

Recent research into how children learn gives new insight into this process. Traditional educational methods have students learning straightforward tasks through repetition and gradual extension; according to this view, students first have to master basic skills before moving on to higher-level skills. Schools based on a traditional model are structured around this, with curricula building up knowledge layer by layer, each layer dependent upon what went before. Assessments of various kinds measure whether the basic skills have been learned. Once basics are learned, more advanced knowledge is shown to the students. This is so basic to the school model that we have ceased to ponder it: it has simply become the ‘way things are done’.