Are our schools preparing pupils to cope with the workplace of tomorrow or are they preparing them to pass exams today? To succeed in a digital world rich in information and innovation, future skilled workers will need the ability to analyse problems, think critically, think creatively, find new solutions and have the courage to take risks and to cope with failure. But these skills are eschewed in our current education system.
Professor Robert Carpenter of Cambridge University wrote recently in the Guardian, ‘The tick-box mentality underpinning GCSE and A-level rewards reactive rather than proactive responses. Here at university it takes two years to get even our best students to approach problems analytically and imaginatively, rather than expecting us to supply the correct answer to memorise.’
Today’s teaching methods encourage the belief that all that is needed for success is the ability to regurgitate the one correct answer to any given question. If you do that consistently in your course work and exams you will get top marks – and the school will look better in the league tables. But if the history of innovation teaches us anything it is that there is not just one correct answer to life’s real problems. There is always a different way. There is a better way to board an airplane, there is a better way to treat cancer, there is a better way to manage public finances – we just have not found them yet. And when we do implement better ways they will be subject to improvement and replacement too.
Finding an innovative solution for a problem often involves generating a large number of ideas ranging from the obvious to the initially absurd. These are then whittled down using suitable criteria and a selection of promising approaches is identified. Where possible it is often best to pilot these ideas to quickly see which will work and which will not. In order to solve some of the bigger problems in our society we should not put our faith in finding one perfect solution. We should run hundreds of small experiments and learn from the success or failure of each. But one perfect answer is the way our schools teach us to think.
Oxford High School for Girls is treading a different path with a maths test where it is impossible to get 100%. It is designed to show pupils it is ‘fine not to get everything right’. The exam questions get harder and harder until the pupil reaches the top of their ability. She will then be given questions she cannot answer. Chief executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust Helen Fraser told The Sunday Times the idea would help girls understand that ‘being perfect is the enemy of learning’.
Professor Alan Smithers, of the University of Buckingham, said in the Daily Telegraph: ‘Tough tests for both boys and girls to really challenge them are a good idea, and it is good to have questions that only very few – or perhaps none – can answer. The tougher the questions, the more children are likely to develop to meet them, and a by–product of that may be that children learn that you can’t succeed in everything and if you fail, the rational thing to do is ask why.’
Teaching knowledge is a good thing but it is not enough. We need to equip young people to handle the possibility of failure and to realise that there are no pat answers for most tough questions. We should encourage problem analysis and lateral thinking. We have enough Mastermind champions; we need more James Dysons.