The school curriculum: limiting the evolution of education

School. Some of us love it, some of us hate it - and most of us just have good and bad days. Whatever your preference, globally it is still widely accepted that the most beneficial way to teach our children about the world is to send them to school. It’s the done thing, and most of us send our kids away to school without asking too many questions. And while there does exist a bit of freedom in choice of which school we send our young people to, what they get taught there is almost entirely out of our hands.


I’m sure I’m not the only person who used to question things about the syllabus at school. Take History for example. By the end of Year 6, we were able to reel off the top 5 World War I poets, intricate detail on the conditions of the frontline, and how likely a soldier was to get trenchfoot. World War II? Absolutely nothing. Other periods of (by the way - almost exclusively British) History also stuck out in my mind. Henry VIII and his 7 wives was a particular favourite, with the song of ‘Divorced, Beheaded, Died…’ etched forever into my memory. Meanwhile, a coherent timeline of how we got to where we are today, what happened in the Industrial Revolution and how technology has evolved since the invention of the Internet, is completely absent. Who is it who decides what, when and how we teach the next generation about the fundamentals of the world?


One would have to assume a long, lengthy process, with long discussions, debates and fierce arguments on what should make it to the final curriculum and what must be cut. Panels of top educationist experts supplemented with feedback from teachers, parents, and children must be central to the process. And regular updates from the fields of psychology and neuroscience of learning of course, to enable our young people the best possible chance of springboarding into life. One would also imagine that the curriculum would offer a rough guideline - perhaps with some connecting dots of essential learning - for teachers, but leaving space for the individual teacher to carve their own take on the factual information, and deliver it in new, innovative and creative ways.


In fact, this ideal picture couldn’t be further from the truth. Here in the UK, the ‘National Curriculum Document’ is published annually from faceless, authoritarian figures, and it seems that its content can be heavily swayed by the whim of a couple of people at the top. Officially, we have the Minister of Education to hold accountable. Teachers, parents and children are considered too low in the food chain to have any contribution. So the people deciding what we learn at school are likely not to have been in a classroom for at least 10 years, and may have never taught a lesson in their lives. It’s ludicrous, when you think about it.


The curriculum boiling down to just a handful of people’s opinions creates a network of information and subject matter which is inherently unstable. It could be liable to fluctuate according to a small group’s opinion, which would then hugely influence the opinion of our next generations. Just consider this: in the United States, almost half of the Senate doesn't believe in human-caused climate change. Imagine if those in charge of influencing the curriculum happened to fall in that half of Senate members. Our next generation of thinkers, leaders and engineers would be growing up to face our ecological crisis, but in the dark about the causes, and deep flaws of society that have got us into this mess.  A curriculum that could be crowd-sourced, and peer-reviewed, and responsive to feedback, would have the potential to evolve into something truly beneficial for both students, and the world at large. Furthermore, it could be tailored to students learning styles, interests and needs - and if allowed to have more flexibility and ownership by specific teachers, be a joy to teach too.


But it’s okay, because teachers can take these kind of documents with a pinch of salt, right? Not quite. The format of of this curriculum is essentially a list of orders at teachers: perhaps most telling is that its most common word is “should”. The message is clear. If you want to be a good teacher, then follow these instructions. Stray too far from the recipe, and risk repercussions if your class doesn’t pass rigid exams which are looking for the swallowed and regurgitated answers. I can’t really think of a worse way to prescribe learning. If our education ministers have so little trust in the ability of our teachers, then maybe we should be asking ourselves whether our entire education system needs an overhaul. When I was growing up, it was clear to me that you could only become a teacher if you were truly passionate about three things: your subject, learning, and young people. How do teachers get to exercise any of these passions if reading straight from a prescribed recipe?


On the alternative education project I have been co-creating, 225 Academy, we offer a radically different approach to learning. Instead of being tethered to a prescriptive curriculum, our Mentors have the freedom and license to teach what they know, and like, best. Their teaching methodologies are cutting edge and come in a colourful spectrum of techniques. Walking through the sessions is enough to demonstrate that: whether you happen to walk past Tom and participants pointing imaginary weapons at each other in confidence-boosting exercise ‘Samurai’, or my group using their hands as models of the brain during a Neuroscience of Mindfulness session, no session is ever the same. What’s also exciting to us as Mentors is our freedom to teach a limitless curriculum - one that is not bound to what we learned in our formal education, but one that includes what was unfortunately left out. What we teach is supplemented and informed by real-life experience, and our own creative thought. We also maintain a very flexible timetable, and one that evolves and responds to the interests and learning styles of our participants. This is one luxury of having small groups to teach, and Mentors/Teachers who are confident, passionate, energetic and capable in their subject areas.


Our ethos also revolves strongly around a culture of autodidactism: self-directed learning. Therefore, our logic is that by teaching young people how to learn, we can gift them an exponential learning experience for life. With resources like the Internet and tools like Google, the question is no longer ‘do you know the facts?’, but rather ‘how do you think?’ and ‘how can you learn?’ The CBRE report on the Future of Work suggests 50% of jobs that exist today will have disappeared by the year 2030. In a rapidly changing world, we rank it as more important to have the skills, flexibility and mindset to be able to explore and try out all that is possible.


I never imagined myself as becoming a teacher; although I love working with and mentoring young people, I could never visualise myself in a classroom. But what I've come to realise is it's not the classroom itself that is limiting education. It's not even the teachers, although sometimes I did question why certain teachers ever decided to go into teaching... No. I truly believe everybody has it inside them to make a brilliant teacher. All of us have something: a skill, or a story, or a world-view or life-hack to pass on.


What surfaces as the most important factor for humans to achieve their potential, to express creativity and to embody abundance, is context. Just take Burning Man, for example. Every year, thousands of people turn up in the desert and create the most beautiful art, installations and structures many of us feel we have ever seen. Human creativity flourishes, whether it is in the small, hand-painted detail of a bike bell, or the man covered in a paper-clip jacket, or the huge light installation beaming into the desert sky. The festival creates an atmosphere of safe self-expression, freedom and collective ownership. But the programme, or 'curriculum', is not decided by the festival itself. It is built, from the bottom up, by its participants, adhering only to 10 commandments that create the context.


If we want our schools to be hubs for creativity, why don't we take a leaf out of Burning Man's book, and give our teachers, and students, the freedom and license to create the programme themselves. Perhaps instead of having a national curriculum, there could be published guidelines, or target points or skills - but the detail and methodology left up to the teachers themselves. That way, teachers may also inject their own enthusiasm, passion and flourish with a sense of ownership over what they are teaching. 'How can we trust teachers with that kind of responsibility?' might be a predicted response from the government. It certainly seems that by publishing rules and strict regulations constraining what can be taught in our schools, they don't hold much trust in the ability of our teachers. If that is the case, then indeed a whole educational reform is in order - and teachers need to be hired, trained, honoured and trusted with the huge responsibility they hold, in cultivating the minds of our next generation.