Five remarkable conclusions from questioning our education system

The thing that really intrigues me is that many people say, when talking about changing/ reforming/ revolutionizing education, to please “keep what is good”. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water and to (especially) not experiment with children. All these assume that our current systems and habits in education are very well thought through and are well substantiated by scientific evidence. We at œ Operation Education have been researching this over the past year in our project #onderwijsvragen (“education questions”/ questioning education).

Every two weeks, we looked into education habits such as: Why do we have long summer holidays? Why classrooms? Why do children need to sit still? Why do we give grades? Why repeating a year? etcetera. We do this according to a fixed format: history (how did it end up this way), advantages, disadvantages and alternatives. We have now researched 13 of these questions and have a fixed bi-weekly radio show on Dutch national radio (BNR Nieuwsradio) in which we discuss the outcomes. These are the 5 remarkable conclusions of the first 13 questions:

1) There is little to no (scientific) evidence that what the way we have set up our education system is the right thing to do for learners and for society.

2) In some cases there is a lot of (scientific) evidence that what we are doing is bad. For example repeating a full year – it happens everywhere (45% of all students in The Netherlands double at least 1 year) and science consistently proves that, especially on the long term, it is bad for learners.

3) Some of our educational habits improve inequality. For example long summer holidays create a ‘summer learning loss’ – a dip in learning results. This loss is bigger for children from lower SES families – therefore contributing to increasing the inequality gap. But also habits such as homework and final/ standardized exams have, as a side effect, created a whole industry of commercial tutoring which are not affordable for low SES families. Again increasing inequality.

4) The optimistic conclusion: there are lots and lots of examples of schools and educators doing it differently – sometimes only a little bit and sometimes radically different – and still doing very well within the system. AND they can prove that what they do is very well for both their learners and for society. Most of these great examples are not well known, and some of them create a shortcut in many people’s brains because they are so different from what we are used to.

5) The most difficult conclusion perhaps: it is so incredibly difficult to get the system out of our system. The system, that’s us. It’s not (only) the politicians, the teachers, the administrators, the inspection etc. We are the system, and with our decisions – as parents, leaders, educators, employers, learners etc – we influence the system. But we were all born, raised, educated, trained and we worked in this system that we find it hard to get out of our matrix. Because our education has also brought us where we are today, and we did pretty well, right?

But if I asked you: what is the purpose of education? You might have an answer that surprised you…

Let me give you two options: The purpose of education is:

A: to meet the norms and score as high as possible, so we can earn an (as high as possible) diploma and be as profitable as possible for society and score well on rankings.

B: to unleash each person’s unique and infinite potential and learn how to use this potential to create a more peaceful, healthier, happier and more sustainable society.

An overwhelming majority of people’s personal answers are closest to option B. But when I ask people what they DO in reality – most people admit that their actions and decisions are more in line with option A.

So we are facing a huge disconnect in ourselves: a gap in what we feel, think and sometimes also know what is good for people and society, and our actions. It’s time to ‘mind the gap’ and become aware of it, and to close this gap in ourselves.

If you want to read more about the research behind the conclusions above, please refer to this article (original, in Dutch), or English version via Google Translate.

Older publications in English by œ Operation Education can be found here.

2 thoughts on “Five remarkable conclusions from questioning our education system”

  1. These answers are well known for decades. It is time for a major shift to a different level of impact. Disrupt the system! There’s more than enough experience, knowledge, evidence, material to do this.

  2. You suggest to pose original and new questions about education. What about humanistic educational writer Carl Rogers “Learning in freedom” and Peter Senge with his focus on learning organisations and learning / education itself. Learning / education can not be approached without a vision on social change and social innovation. Just mention the view and approach of Theory U (Otto Scharmer) on social innovation.

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