phuu is Tom Ashworth

YRS and Broken Education

22 Aug 2012

Recently I was a mentor at Young Rewired State, a nation-wide event for under-18s with the motto “code a better country”. The kids came together in various centres around the UK, formed groups and hacked on open data to build something entirely new, in a week. It was the most exciting and inspirational thing I’ve done in a long while.

The group I mentored, alongside Laura, was made up of three fantastic kids: Max, Liza and Ed. They are 12 (nearly 13! (in March)), 11 and 10 respectively, and they achieved incredible things. We built marauder.me, a real-time geolocation app that helps you find your friends when you’re attending an event, or see who’s coming if you’re running the event. It featured the Geolocation API, Open Street Maps and the Speech API (after a stroke of genius suggestion from Max), and was built on Node.js. It’s based around the Marauder’s Map from Harry Potter that shows you where various people are in Hogwarts Castle.

After a brilliant presentation from Max & Liza to a small group of other centres, our app, much to Max’s excitement, was nominated for the final in the Best Code category. Max & Liza again nailed the presentation to more than 500 people and the imposing judging panel that included the supermodel Lily Cole, and, while we didn’t win, it made me incredibly proud of them and I hope they they too were proud of what they produced.

I hope that I helped to inspire them build the next generation of incredible products and services that will make all our lives better in the future.

However, this post isn’t about this event. This post is about education, and how broken it really is.

Self-directed learning

Sites like the Kahn Academy have shown us just what’s possible if students are free to pick and choose what they want to learn. They lead to high levels of engagement from students who have the ability to move fast when they want, but go back over something if they don’t, without the potential embarrassment of putting their hand up in class.

I can’t emphasise enough how important I think self-directed learning is.

School is a conveyor belt

The Education System

The education system is broken because it is entirely results led. The government sets targets for schools, like percentage of students that get A-C and percentage that pass, so it’s no wonder that schools teach for the exam.

It’s hard to describe what it’s like to be taught like that, but you can imagine that being told that something you’re interested in is not on the exam, so it’s not important, is pretty soul destroying.

In fact, it’s so ingrained in some people that, even at university level, the first question out of people’s mouths when you start a new topic is, “Is this on the exam?”. If it ain’t on the exam, it ain’t worth learning.

School has become like a conveyor belt, from primary to secondary and on, and for some people (myself included) it seemed as though university was the only option available. At my school no other options were mentioned at any point. University was simply the next thing you did, and then you got a job.

This is important because university probably isn’t right for me; the web industry doesn’t require a degree, yet I felt enormous pressure to get to a good institution because, well, that’s what you did. Similarly, it probably isn’t right for lots of other people.

I know from personal experience that a lot of people go to uni because they have, literally, no clue what else to do. They go because they are told to, and because they know they can get away with two and a half years of drinking before doing any work. When it’s done? Oh, yeah, that’s when they’ll think about the future.

This is getting ranty, so I’ll return to the topic. Self-directed learning.

A project; a proposal; a challenge

As I said earlier, I believe it’s incredibly important, and I believe it’s been made possible by the internet. But most schools have been slow, reluctant even, to embrace what the internet offers.

I want to change this, to re-engage kids by allowing them to direct their own learning and find what it is they love doing.

Education is broken, but I know that a revolution isn’t going to happen overnight. It’s a slow moving machine that’s full of dinosaurs and dust. Things don’t change fast and they don’t change radically. So, in order to enact change, we must rebuild the system by working within it; by allowing the way things work now to continue while also enabling student, and teachers, to learn about what they want and get themselves engaged in a topic.

I wrote, some time ago, about tackling the hard problems. This is a hard problem, but it’s one I want to take on. Luckily, I have a top notch co-conspirator in this: Walter Carvalho. After a period of immersing ourselves in this area to truly understand what needs to change, we’ll begin working on a product that we hope will make a difference, with a sustainable business plan (yes, business plan) and achievable short-term goals.

There’s lots more to say, but this is a long post and it’s time you took a screen break. If you’re interested, or have an opinion, I’d love to hear from you. Email me.