What Wikipedia Teaches Us About Education

Our model of education is broken. In most countries schooling is based upon a model developed during the agrarian era and adapted to produce workers for factory production. But most people now live in knowledge economies and the speed of change is such that much of the knowledge acquired by students is out of date by the time they leave school. But there’s a bigger problem. In the future, smart machines will complete with clever people for jobs, so if a job is based upon a set of rules or is dependent upon the accumulation and distribution of fixed knowledge it’s probably history in the future.

What can we do about this? I’m not for one minute suggesting that facts are unimportant. We need to learn historical facts because in so doing we learn how and where to find what we need.  This method also provides rules, context and questions (i.e. how to think).  Equally, I am not questioning the need for physical schooling. Distance learning is a fantastic development, but it’s an added bonus. Physical schools provide socialisation and a sense of community.  What I am arguing is that our education system is good at providing many of the basics, but we need to provide something else on top.

Once we have taught the basics, we need to spend time teaching students the things that smart machines cannot do. We need to teach students how to find problems (needs) and then teach them how to invent highly creative solutions. We also need to teach people how to interact with human beings and get the best out of other people.

Second, we need to redesign a system that is restricted by funding. Education is probably the most important factor influencing outcomes. It largely creates or restricts individual opportunities and it more or less defines national economic performance. So why do we continue to pay teachers so badly? If teaching is one of the most important jobs there is, why do we not pay teachers accordingly?

Moreover, if your aim is a fair and just society, asking people to pay large amounts of money for tertiary education doesn’t make any sense. If tertiary education is expensive, what happens is that individual students will naturally pursue courses that prepare them for the highest paying jobs in order to recoup their costs. In other words, costly education will result in large numbers of highly paid bankers, lawyers, doctors and accountants, but very few teachers, nurses, writers, artists, policemen and firefighters. Free or low cost education, in contrast, would result in a more balanced society in which individuals are more able to pursue their particular passion or work in professions that are poorly paid but which have a high societal value.

Third, current educational systems are too restrictive in the sense that there are too may rules and outcomes are too biased towards narrow measurement. Furthermore, the users of the system (i.e. the students) do not have enough say.

Consider the case of Wikipedia versus Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica is written by experts and the information contained within is fixed in the sense that it is not easily altered, especially by those using it. It is also expensive to originate and to disseminate.

Contrast this with Wikipedia. Here we have a set of standards – an ethos and a set of values more than a fixed product. It is open, both in the sense that anyone can contribute to it, but also in the sense that it is an experiment that is not especially focused any particular outcome or metrics. There are very few layers of measurement, control or accountability, but it somehow works. Not only does Wikipedia contain more information than Encyclopaedia Britannica, it is also more accurate according to some studies.

So here’s my idea. Instead of prescribing a set curriculum, we should put in place an overall philosophy and let good teachers get on with it. We should remove many of the measurement systems and focus instead on the creation of an ethos or set of values that clearly describe what education is for.  Personally, I think that the purpose of education should be to make people think for themselves and to think empathically about others.

Second, instead of paying teachers the least possible amount of money we should pay them as much as we, as societies, can afford, but root out and remove any teacher that is not dedicated, talented and generally an inspiration to the young people they teach.

Third, instead of charging students large amounts of money to continue with their education, we should do the very opposite.  We should make quality education free (or cheap) at all levels, but remove any student – or parent – that does not support the idea or does not take the privilege seriously.

Finally, schools, colleges and Universities should become generative spaces where a generosity of spirit means that outcomes are measured not at five, eleven, sixteen, eighteen or twenty-one years of age, but over a whole lifetime.

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2 Responses to What Wikipedia Teaches Us About Education

  1. Two of the most important professions are among the lowest paid – teachers and midwives. A midwife is one of the only types of doctors that 99.999% of the country’s population comes into contact with (when we’re a baby, not necessarily as adults!), and they are one of the only medical professionals who do not have close doctor supervision for hours on end.

    On education, it is important to grade students or else schools will become too subjective (“that’s a good school”). Marking 5 year olds is rubbish though, because some children don’t develop learning skills until much later on.

    A good primary school is where children learn social skills and understand that learning can be fun. Secondary schools are where they develop their academic intelligence, and yes it should be graded. Universities should be where that academic intelligence is tuned and post graduates should be the creativity bridge with academia.

  2. Mark says:

    The higher education system seems very broken. At a time when more and more information and resources from books, university lectures and supporting material are available online – the universities are asking students to pay increasingly high amounts (9000 UK pounds per year). The value of doing the course at college is then networking (which is why business schools exist) or for lab / tutorial guidance and for an authoritative piece of paper – the degree certificate – but is it worth the money? The UK prices are now very close to US for the same state students and with fewer scholarships available. Self-learning has never been easier and the universities seem to be very slow at acknowledging this or integrating it. I would have thought new business models could exist that exploit the webs resources and test students’ abilities in what they have learnt – perhaps with projects where they actually apply their learning’s to realistic situations and problems.

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