Thursday, December 3, 2009


I spent yesterday at Slough Borough Council delivering a training session to their apprentices. The SBC apprentice programme is a fantastic programme that takes school leavers and puts them through what is effectively an apprenticeship for office administration. Every year in September the council takes on about 20 apprentices who are then attached to various departments throughout the organisation, they do real work and also receive lessons on english, maths and various other developments, ultimately obtaining qualifications as well.

Now I'm not going to lie to you, I found yesterday's training session one of the toughest to deliver in a long time, their attention spans were low and also their behavior wasn't the best (I think being sat around tables like they were in a classroom defaulted them to classroom like behaviour, talking whilst other people were talking, not paying attention etc), certainly not what you would expect from employees, but they are young and new to the world of work so you can forgive them.

Effectively "teaching" them for the day though did make me think about the current state of education. Their ability to discuss abstract concepts and in fact to just discuss what they thought of something was severely limited, however when I gave them what was in effect a worksheet and they had to answer some clearly worded questions they had no issues.

All of these young people had finished at least basic education (GCSE's) although I don't think there is a hard and fast grade requirement to get onto the programme. However hardly any of them seemed to have critical thinking skills, or the ability to articulate their view on a subject and debate it with others. I should have thought that these were basic skills that should come about in education, however their ability to answer questions in written form when they were presented straight to them, I think tells us the problems with this government's approach to education.

For the last decade the solution to continued underperformance of schools and the education system has been to either target schools and pupils more thoroughly, leading to teaching to the test and the key being getting the right answer, or to suggest that young people need to be in formal academic education for longer. Either starting school earlier or finishing it later.

In the type of training I generally deliver the important thing isn't getting the answer, it is talking through with other people, engaging with others to hear their views and debating with them. The realisation moments are what's important, when someone challenges your opinion and you see things with a different set of eyes. When I was at school quite a lot of focus was put on showing your workings, that getting there was just as important as the result. At the time I thought this was stupid, if you got the wrong answer who cared if you got it by the right method, but now I see that this is actually very important.

In a modern world our complex problems can only be solved by complex solutions that involve creativity, and shared development. The issues of tomorrow and indeed today be they related to energy, technology, the internet or human interaction won't be solved by one person working through a work sheet answering clearly defined questions with clearly defined answers. They will be solved by teams collaborating, challenging each other searching for a solution to a problem that is ill defined and indistinct.

Sadly it seems that isn't how our education system prepares people, we read constantly of organisation's complaining that school leavers lack the basics and are not ready for the world of work, our universities complain about the lack of critical thinking in their intake students. In education the current goverenment has become obsessed with the idea that what you can measure is important and anything else is unimportant, they have forgotten or perhaps never heard Esinstein saying "“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts”.

So what is the solution, education needs to be looked at thoroughly and with a new set of eyes, yes concentration on the basics is important, science, maths, english. These are vital skills fo the economy of tomorrow and not one of those in my training yesterday knew for example why ice floats, but they are not the only thing we need to concentrate on. Schools need to train students to think critically and to be able to debate and discuss ideas, not just come up with answers, and alongside this the obsessions with making everything academic needs to be dropped. Not all careers need to be academic, there is nothing stopping someone following academic study in a subject if they want to, but to make it compulsory for nurses to be degree level qualified or teachers to be educated to a master's level misses the point of education and what it is about.

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  1. I absolutely agree with what you say here, Simon, and I feel for you - that session must have been painful!!

    However, there is another variable which needs to be taken into account, I think, and that is one of confidence. In my own practice, I have noticed that reticence often occurs as a direct result of lack of confidence - it is not that people don't have the ideas, it's that the feel unable to express them. Of course, my experience is with adults in the public sector, rather than teenagers, and generally speaking adults by and large have come to a place of acceptance with themselves that teenagers are not anywhere near.

    So it follows that, if adults who don't respond in workshops fail to respond due, in part, to lack of confidence, this may also be true of teenagers. Take yourself back to that time, and remember that dynamic - there you are, in front of your peers, with an idea in your head that you think is worth expressing. You think about what you're going to say... you look around... you see your best mate examining his fingernails and yawning... you see the girl you like writing notes or looking hostile... suddenly, speaking seems like the most terrible idea you've ever had! You'd be crucified if you even opened your mouth! So, you may know exactly why ice floats, but there is NO WAY IN HELL that you are going to admit to that! NOT cool!

    So, what is the solution here? Build confidence. How do we do that? By actively encouraging exchange of ideas in a mutually supportive environment where respectful debate is encouraged - where views, rather than people, are challenged. How can we create this environment? By holding debate class each week, in the school curriculum, for 13-16 year olds. At the end of each debate class, a new topic is floated and speakers and positions are assigned; they go off and do their research and come back next week for the debate itself. Everyone gets a chance at this, over the course of the year.

    Having a formalised debate forum builds:
    1. analytical skills
    2. communication skills
    3. respect for others' views
    4. respect for own views
    5. confidence in expression
    6. all of those work-ready skills which are currently so sadly lacking in school leavers today.

    What do you think?

  2. Agree totally, the lack of structured approaches to discussion and debate is the issue.

    I also find that confidence is an issue with adults all the time, if you are training a group of people who have just been thrown together for the first time then the first half of teh day is them getting comfortable enough with everyone else in the room to share their own opinions.