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Beyond Binary Thinking. Education: Can we flip the system?

Beyond Binary Thinking Private Vs Public Education. Investment in education pays.

Typically we spend most of our childhood and adolescent lives in some form of education system. Education also holds the key to the future evolution and adaptation of our species, and our very survival in the rapidly changing modern world. It gives us knowledge of the world and skills that we can apply throughout our working lives. It inspires us to become autodidacts - lifelong learners with boundless curiosity about the world around us.. Or at least, these should be the ideals of a good education…

The difficulty in ensuring education is as good as it can be, often comes down to pragmatic differences. Should taxpayers fund public schools, or should there be a range of private options, with different prices on offer to those who can afford to pay more? Should what is learned be standardised or should students be able to decide for themselves what they want to pursue so that they are as engaged as possible in their studies? This is a classic example of ‘binary thinking’, which is so common in public and private discourse nowadays. Our aim is to go beyond binary thinking and delve into other possibilities that provide alternative answers.

One key issue is that of private vs state education. It is good to have variety, but hard to get investment in education if high rate taxpayers don’t use the service. Nevertheless, investment in education benefits all, from crime reduction to boosting the economy. This makes a strong case for a public/ state education system[1][2]. Investment in education pays off in terms of savings at a ratio of 8 to 1[3], and is therefore one of the key areas to invest in. Who wants to live in a world where there isn’t a basic level of dignity for the poorest and most marginalised in society? If we want a better world, we should want it for everyone, not just those closest to us. Wanting the best and giving equal opportunity to everyone (even those we may fear or despise) will ensure a better overall standard of living for those we love.

Private schools are seen by some as elite and by others as a personal choice concerning what is best for their children. Why shouldn’t someone who works hard, be able to make this investment in the future of their children? There is certainly a strong case for private and alternative schooling, especially in terms of syllabus and flexibility as will be mentioned later, yet there are also drawbacks. Private schools tend to take children from richer families, who have usually invested more into their children in terms of private tutoring and extra-curricular activities (music, sports, clubs, etc) and this means that there is a ‘brain drain’ for local state schools, who tend to end up with students from poorer backgrounds. They can be less engaged and more prone to discipline issues for a variety of reasons.

It would therefore make sense to create community dialogues, exchanges and co-operation between private and neighbouring state schools in the future[4]. In some countries, such as the UK, private schools receive tax relief meaning they have higher amounts available to spend. Some of this could be invested in in communal projects that would bring together students from richer and poorer backgrounds alike. This would make meaningful connections and break down perceived class barriers, bringing an exchange of ideas and viewpoints that students might not usually encounter. This could be done via practical projects such as building and construction challenges, musical collaboration, communal gardens (as a way for them to learn about vegetables and home-grown produce) or sports competitions and events (without segregation between schools, as this could lead to the opposite of the desired effect). This is just one idea to address an imbalance in the current UK school system. State schools must follow the National Curriculum[5], whereas private schools are not obliged to and have more freedom to teach any kind of religious education, and teach a range of viewpoints.

Should there be a National Curriculum for all schools, whether private or state funded? There’s a danger in not standardising education. For example, some secondary science teachers struggle helping homeschooled and liberal arts school students with basic science, which is no longer compulsory at a primary level. It would seem that basic maths and science subjects are two essential candidates for inclusion in a standardised system, for any type of schooling. They are verifiable, testable and fundamental to understanding the world around us. They are some of the most essential tools for life in the modern world. Moreover there are no contradicting points, not at least until the very highest levels at the frontiers of modern theoretical science, yet this is covered at postgraduate levels and goes beyond the scope of this blog post.

Which other subjects should be standardised? There are a range of opinions on this but one clear essential is a kind of ‘social studies’ that includes basic sexual education, money and law. It seems that these issues are not often taught in schools (some argue it is a parental responsibility) yet how can a child become a responsible adult if they are unaware of the laws of the society they live in? Indeed, in the UK the law applies to all equally and ignorance is no defence, which makes this a state responsibility. Sex education has also been consistently proven to lower rates of teenage pregnancy[6] (e.g. recent studies in the Netherlands[7], where there is a comprehensive national sex education system have shown this to be the case). It seems that some conservatives are against this idea as they feel it would lead to increased sexual promiscuity, but such systems have been shown to have no such effect on promiscuity, nor on the rise of sexually transmitted diseases.

Other subjects that could be included are basic geography, languages (native and an additional language[8]), along with playing a musical instrument[9], which have been shown to have many long term benefits on brain/mental health. Cooking[10], diet and physical exercise are also fundamental topics that children must be educated in if they are to be healthy[11]. This is another example of investment paying off in the long term and seems to have been neglected in the USA [12] and the UK [13], given the extent of the obesity and mental health problems in both these countries[14].

The key advantage of a standardised syllabus is ensuring that the very basics are taught, consistently, to all students in the world, to ensure that they have the best opportunity to live a healthy, happy and well-rounded life. It should provide them with the tools they need not only to survive, but also to thrive. The advantage also extends to teachers, who shouldn’t need to continually reinvent the wheel. Time-saving is also a huge benefit, reducing administration time which is the bane of many teachers, and means they can spend more time with students. This needs to be implemented in a flexible way, however, because a strict syllabus and curriculum can be oppressive and prescriptive. This could mean that teachers wouldn’t be able to adapt the material to their students and help fill gaps in their knowledge. In our opinion, a skeleton framework of topics, including some content and key points, yet with scope for this to be adapted by teachers, would be the most efficient and flexible approach.

One big criticism of schools in non-secular countries (or those that claim to be), is that their ‘religious education’ is essentially the religion of that country (e.g. Catholicism in Spain, or Islam in Indonesia) and teaches only that religion. This means that many students leave the school system with little to no knowledge of the different religions in the world and may not have been exposed to alternatives, such as atheism, pantheism and Taoism. In some cases, students choose to change their religion or opt not to follow it and this then means that most of their class time spent learning about that religion would have been wasted. Time is spent studying texts of the national religion at the expense of other topics that would prove far more pragmatically useful for students. This is not to say there is no place for religion, but in our opinion it should be an impartial, fact-based subject, which aims to promote cultural global understanding, something which is becoming more and more important in a globalised world. Religion is also an issue in schools when it comes face-to-face with science and evolutionary theory. In the USA there are creationists who strongly believe that evolution is not true and teach their children a literal interpretation of biblical events. How are science teachers able to mark essays on whether a child understands evolutionary theory, if they reject the theory and state the world was created in 7 days? Episode 2 of the Beyond Binary Thinking Podcast features an interview with an anonymous USA teacher who goes into more detail on the issue.

What of the future of education when combined with technology? The Khan Academy[15] is an approach that favours the 'flipped classroom' approach, turning the traditional model of education on its head. The idea is that students learn the material at home, watching videos on platforms such as YouTube on for example the topic of single digit addition. In the classroom they do further practice and the teacher is able to help those students who did not learn the matter fully or struggled with understanding. High performing students are also able to help those who are struggling, further enhancing their own knowledge. The system runs alongside an online model which features a 'knowledge tree' meaning that once students answer 10 questions correctly they can move on to the next branch of the tree (e.g. single digit subtraction or double digit addition).

The key advantage of this is that there are no students that have gaps in their knowledge at lower levels, making it hard to study more advanced topics (e.g. algebra or calculus). There is also an element of gamification, giving students awards and trophies for breaking certain personal best records or achievements, which has been shown to be more motivating than traditional marking systems [16][17].

Could this be the future of education? It would give teachers the ability to apply themselves more directly with each students and adapt to their needs. Moreover it would allow teachers and parents to have a fully transparent oversight of their children's education, also enabling them to help their children with more difficult topics.

Let's flip the system!



1.) - The Crime Reduction Effect of Education - Machin, Marie and Vujić, 2010

2.) The Effect of Education on Crime - Lochner and Moretti, 2003

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