How to better prepare students for tomorrow

Schools should be given the time to explore new approaches without the need for constant regulation, writes Michael Lambert

The regulatory environment in which schools operate often induces fear rather than excitement. Delores Johnson / The National
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Yesterday’s captains of industry are today’s creative class. When once students were expected to go to a place of work and produce something tangible, today’s students are expected to hot-desk in global creative spaces and generate ideas that are hyper-flexible. When we live in a world in which we can expect the doubling of computer processing speed every two years (known as Moore's Law) the age old expectation that humans can expect to die in a world similar to the one they were born into is defunct.

This should be the kind of problem that evokes dynamic solutions from the world’s educational leaders. Unfortunately the regulatory environment in which they operate and co-create often induces fear rather than excitement. But why?

Schools have not fundamentally changed over the past 50 years. Sure, teachers are better trained. We know more about how to track data to ensure that students perform better in standardised tests, but the content of the core subjects of English, mathematics and science are broadly similar. Regulation has come to exist purely as a means by which to ensure that we do what we have always done better than we did it before.

Student outcomes in nationalised tests may also have risen over the past 50 years, but can we honestly say that students are better prepared for the ideas economy of today as a result? I only ask these questions because last week I was fortunate enough to spend three days at a conference for headmasters in Stratford-upon-Avon, England.

The theme of this year’s conference was creativity. It focused on the new creative class who will come to dominate our ideas economy over the coming decades and how schools can contribute towards this shift.

Will Gompertz, the BBC’s arts editor, relayed the anecdote of student X who achieved GCSE grades that could spell out BEEF DUDE, compared to his pal who achieved 8 A*s and 2 As. BEEF DUDE is now a successful screenwriter in Hollywood while 8 A*s boy is a relatively depressed solicitor in a rural law firm in Shropshire.

The moral of the story being that good grades do not necessarily lead to happiness or success.

This challenging message was followed by evidence that explicitly demonstrated that the correlation between earnings and fulfilment is negligible. If top grades lead to top degrees, which lead to top jobs, which in turn lead to top salaries but do not lead to fulfilling lives, then what is the point of fixating on grades?

The final panel of the week was perhaps the most uncomfortable for a room full of middle-aged men.

“As a 16-year-old I could not see myself as a 50-year-old man in a suit,” Charlotte Pearce,an entrepreneur in her mid-twenties recalled about her time at school.

Ms Pearce runs Inkpact, a personalised handwritten communication business. She challenged schools to educate students differently in an age when anyone with a laptop and an idea can start a business in minutes. The fact that Ms Pearce is on track to achieve financial freedom within years raised a few questions about how to maximise student potential.

Other female entrepreneurs Lizzie Fane and Phoebe Gormley said that these days saying you have a job on the PWC graduate scheme attracts commiseration rather than congratulation. “It only impresses your friends’ parents and when I found out I said: ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get out soon’.”

When a well-paid position on a blue-chip graduate programme is seen as a prison sentence, we have clearly reached a generational junction.

Millennials want more. They live their lives on Instagram and as a result what appeals to them is the interesting, inspiring, exotic and challenging. When a platform celebrates image above all else it is little wonder that millennials aspire to live creative lives that draw admiring glances from their peers. What now for schools and regulators who would rather see students perform well in a narrow range of standardised tests?

Already schools are embracing collaborative digital learning in their classrooms, fostering the digital spirit through skills programmes that teach them how to be YouTubers or lifelong learners who take charge of their own education through free online learning platforms such as Coursera.

We also need to embed a rich foundation of knowledge so that students have enough material to be creative with. However, if we fail to foster the creative application of knowledge at the same time then we will fail our students.

Both schools and their regulators need to shift their management style from the top-down imposition of standardisation and conformity to the cultivation of grass roots creativity.

Once schools have reached a certain standard they should be given the time to explore new and alternative skills, content and approaches without the need for constant regulation.

Will Gompertz deftly summarised the irony of our current situation by reminding us that today’s students would be penalised when discussing Shakespeare if they even attempted to use one invented word to describe him, when the playwright himself is the contributor of more than 3,000 new words to the English language.

So let’s get creative before it’s too late. As Shakespeare himself said: “The chains of habit are generally too small to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.”

Michael Lambert is headmaster of Dubai College