In ye olde school days of yore, we were told to ‘sit down, shut up and listen’. Lessons dragged on at a glacial pace while pupils, brains like cotton wool and eyelids droopy, read Shakespeare by rote or copied text from the board.
Teaching has moved on since then, but the profession is set for another sea change if our kids are to be equipped to deal with the brave new world. Nowadays, you could be stuck in the middle of a field and able to find out the date of the Norman conquest on your mobile phone; so when junior argues that the chap spouting forth at the front of the room is surplus to requirements, he may have a point. ‘The role of the teacher has changed completely,’ says Sir John Jones, a former headmaster and school governor now working at the UK’s Centre for Educational Leadership (CEL). ‘Whereas it used to be the sage on the stage, it’s now more the guide on the side.’ A rhyme always helps, eh?
The reality is the world is changing fast, and our kids will quite possibly grow up to have careers that don’t even exist yet. Plus, the smartest kid in class hasn’t necessarily got it made. ‘Many businesses are now saying that they won’t employ the A graders,’ says Ian Gilbert, author and founder of Independent Thinking Ltd, a UK-based educational innovator. ‘Our current economic crisis was brought about by clever people… We’ll need to think differently to get ourselves out of it. There are huge challenges facing the world: terrorism, epidemics, water shortages, oil shortages, global warming, and it is young people who are going to have to sort it out.’ No pressure, then.
So, it’s no longer about teachers cramming your brain full of information just for it to be regurgitated in an exam and then forgotten about. Instead, experts reckon it’s time to switch the focus away from teaching and towards learning. ‘Teaching children how to think is very different from teaching children what to think,’ says Gilbert on his website, www.independentthinking.co.uk. The first step is to ditch the old ‘reluctant learning under pressure’ technique, he adds. ‘You want the kids to be having fun, for them to be challenged, for time to fly and for them to want to carry on when the bell goes,’ says Gilbert. This way, they’ll not only absorb information without realising it, but they’ll also learn to take responsibility, be creative, think innovatively and develop a good attitude.
That also means tests and exams, the bane of every student’s life, should take a back seat. Instead of fretting about proving a kid’s knowledge, says Gilbert, we should focus on improving it. ‘Exams are not replicated anywhere in life. This whole idea of writing on your own in silence for three hours is archaic,’ he says. Sir John agrees: ‘You don’t sit on your own struggling with an idea, you throw it out there and get some help, find some answers. We call that cheating in today’s system.’
So, it would seem that teachers will need to change, too: ‘Teaching used to be easy compared to the demands of today. They would use the same textbook year in year out and get nervous if the publisher printed a new edition,’ says Erika Elkady, deputy head and coordinator of the international baccalaureate middle years programme at Uptown High School in Muhaisnah. ‘Now they have to come up with authentic lesson plans that have meaning in today’s world. They have to be constantly on their toes because if they aren’t, the kids switch off.’ If you’re thinking this sounds like the teachers do all the hard work while pupils just press the ‘search’ button on Google, Elkady reassures: ‘We demand much more from our students than we did in the past. Students today have to be able to find the information themselves, question the reliability of their sources, and use the sources to support or reject their point of view.’
‘But the old system worked for us,’ we hear you cry. Maybe, but how much of what we learnt at school was deleted from memory as soon as we left the exam room? We parents have to stop dismissing online research as ‘playing’ or verbal presentations as ‘chit-chat’ and jettison the idea that school should be like medicine – ie ‘it tastes awful but it’s good for you’.
And parents can do their bit, too. Talking to our kids, taking them on outings, visiting places and people and nurturing their curiosity can work wonders. Also, it’s important to lead by example: let them see you involved in your own learning, asking questions, reading and so on. As Sir John says, ‘If you’re a parent, you’re a hero in someone’s life, so step up to the plate.’
For more on Independent Thinking, see www.independentthinking.co.uk