After all, knowledge has been democratised; we live in the age of Google, YouTube and experts aplenty who, at the push of a button, are able to answer our most arcane questions and provide us with all the information we could ever hope to require for almost everything in our lives. So it would be a logical question to ask what, in our schools, has replaced this once-upon-a-time preoccupation with the storage and retrieval of facts – much of which are considered dull and lacking in immediate utility – from the dark recesses of the human brain?
Since the mid-1980s we have gained greater understanding of the functions and structures of the human brain through advances in brain imaging, and the one thing that should have been abundantly clear is that the brain is continually shaped by experience. Not only this, but the most critical periods of brain development are in the first five to seven years of life and then during early adolescence. During both stages, rapid synaptic development and crucial ‘pruning’ of neural connections takes place, and as such these have a profound effect upon later life itself, shaping the values, habits and attitudes that create character.
In school terms, this places the Early Years and the Middle School as the most critical periods of development, and arguably where our pedagogical energies should be placed. Yet how far education seems to be from that reality.
In a world where much is made of the fact that jobs are no longer for life, and where greater emphasis seems to be upon creativity, communication, flexibility and the crucial ability to transfer skills as context demands, schools are still wrapped up tight in the inflexible requirements of university entrance. It is not surprising that parents are anxious – 13 years of formal education is reduced to three or four weeks of intense pressure and memorisation, where a handful of marks can determine destiny and where failure may be tattooed indelibly upon the collective consciousness of entire families.
Little wonder, then, that it is the relentless emphasis upon examination results that bedevil the real educational needs for the 21st century. Regrettably, this will not change for some time to come, but in good schools examination success is a consequence of a good education, and not the purpose.
Schools that deliver a holistic education and provide the right type of educational support where it is needed, and a broad curriculum of opportunity where it matters most, but particularly in the Middle Years, will lay a strong foundation for success later in life. They will also be happy schools – a condition that should never be underestimated as far as learning is concerned. Of course, examination success still matters, but it is an education for living that will matter more...
– Neil Richards
Neil Richards is the Headmaster at British International School, Phuket. For more information, visit them at www.bisphuket.ac.th