Schools Are Churning Out the Unemployable

For all the talk of encouraging entrepreneurial attitudes in schools and giving more choice to students, too many schools still hadn't understood what's actually required to do this successfully.
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When I mention that, in addition to working with schools and education departments on their learning policy and practice, I spend at least a third of my week working with tech start-ups, television and film companies, I get more than a few strange looks and raised eyebrows.

People just don't understand why anyone would "make life difficult for themselves" by working in two camps -- business start-ups and education -- which, on the face of it, have little tying them together.

I've spent three years on an occasionally painful journey learning how to structure deals, work out business models and build a business from the customer back. Within two weeks of starting that journey, many of my former colleagues started referring to me as someone who "worked in media." I was no longer "in education." Some, in the past year, have let me "back into education," but trust me: blending two worlds hasn't been easy to explain and, for some, it's been too hard a concept to grasp.

I realized that, for all the talk of encouraging entrepreneurial attitudes in schools and giving more choice to students, too many schools still hadn't understood what's actually required to do this successfully, in a way that benefits society later. I thought that the best way to help schools understand how lessons, curricula or resources could be planned to this end would be to always spend a good part of the week in the sharpest end of that societal and business world.

So what? There's an example of the challenge if we don't get over our reliance on structures and methods of learning of old in a Harriet Sergeant Sunday Times comment piece from earlier this year:

The managing director of a medium-sized IT company explained why. High-flyers -- Oxford and Cambridge graduates -- are still as good as any in the world. His problems come when he tries to recruit middle management. Last year he interviewed 52 graduates -- all educated in state schools. On paper they looked "brilliant students." Each had three As at A-level and a 2:1 degree [ed: a top SAT score and a good degree]. He shook his head. "There's a big difference between people passing exams and being ready for work."

This was obvious even before the interview began. Of the 52 applicants, half arrived late. Only three of the 52 walked up to the managing director, looked him in the eye, shook his hand and said, "Good morning." The rest "just ambled in." When he asked them to solve a problem, only 12 had come equipped with a notebook and pencil.

The three who had greeted him proved the strongest candidates and he hired them. Within a year they were out because of their "lackadaisical" attitude. They did not turn up on time; for the first six months a manager had to check all their emails for spelling and grammar; they did not know how to learn. It was the first time they had ever been asked to learn on their own.

What's so wrong with schooling?

And what are these old structures that lead to the unemployable? I think Don Ledingham's summary of Alan McCluskey from the Swiss Agency for ICT in education sums it up: The 7 Tacit Lessons Which Schools Teach Children:
  1. Knowledge is scarce.
  2. Learning needs a specific place and specific time (lessons in classrooms).
  3. Knowledge is best learnt in disconnected little pieces (lessons).
  4. To learn you need the help of an approved expert i.e. a teacher.
  5. To learn you need to follow a path determined by a learning expert (a course of study).
  6. You need an expert to assess your progress (a teacher).
  7. You can attribute a meaningful numerical value to the value of learning (marks, grades, degrees).

When we're generating fresh ideas for a business and working through how it might work in practice, the process of Design Thinking has become one of our trusty tools. Some ideas around how Design Thinking might be one way of pivoting our practice -- either strategically or tactically within your classroom -- are now up on the Global Education Conference archive of my talk last week.

If you don't have the time to watch the talk, let me summarize the key point: everything being done to formal schooling by the political classes in America and England runs against what business actually requires: self-starting, creative, entrepreneurial youngsters. I realize that this approach alone isn't a savior of schooling, and that there are many other tactics as well as strategic approaches that help move us away from a factory model to a studio model of learning. But the conversation that I find the hardest is with those who don't even see that the model is no longer effective, who believe that "it was good enough for me so...". So help me -- are things so broken that we should replace them with thoughts shiny and used (and very often recycled)? Or can we do a renovation job on what we've got, as many would prefer?

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