Challenging Assumptions about Education by Jane Kirton, Executive Coach

A 1960s school blackboard

How we learned in the 1960s


Since my teenage daughter set off for the first day of the Autumn term at school a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about the shape and design of our education system and the many ways in which it’s changed since my own schooldays, whilst somehow staying fundamentally unaltered. The next four to eight years of her life will largely be focused on acquiring knowledge and qualifications to provide her with what we both hope will prove to be a firm foundation for a happy and successful life – however she chooses to define that.

But what are the assumptions that system rests on and how accurately will they apply to the working lives unfolding ahead of the millennial generation?

Assumption 1 – you can learn most of what you’ll need to know by the age of 21

It seems to me that the most fundamental assumption that our current system rests upon is that we can acquire most of the knowledge we will need for the rest of our working lives before we even start our first jobs! For many people in the UK at least, most of their formal learning is completed by 18 or 21 and added to only through induction programmes and a few short courses when they take on new jobs or responsibilities throughout their working lives (a recent CIPD report suggests that the median number of annual training days is fewer than four). Perhaps they embark on a new hobby from time to time, or a change in their life circumstances – buying a house which needs doing up or having children – demands the acquisition of some new skills but the bulk of most people’s formal learning is done right at the start of their lives. And yet, with the speed the world around us is changing – especially the working world – what we knew at 18 or 21 will almost instantly be out of date. We’re now bombarded with knowledge – the tricky bit is filtering and prioritising and working out the relevance of all that information.

Assumption 2 – you need to decide what career you want to follow as early as possible

I notice the alarm with which some of my daughter’s friends say “I don’t know what I want to do!” because they somehow feel that they should, and they worry that they will be making subject decisions at the age of 14 which may constrain their future choices. But what if you don’t know? What if you’re not ready to decide? Perhaps we should be allowing ourselves a bit more time and space to dream, to experiment, to do all the things that career experts like Herminia Ibarra describe as essential to making good decisions about our working lives. It took me many years to work out what I really wanted to do with my working hours – as opposed to what I thought might be the options available to me.

Assumption 3 – you only get one chance to learn and get qualified

I sometimes catch myself using words I heard as a child with my own daughter now: “Life’s not a rehearsal; you only get one go at this” in my attempts to encourage her to spend more time studying. And this is because our current approach offers a ‘once only’, ‘one size fits all’ opportunity to learn which favours those who are well supported and ready to learn in those early years and whose parents understand the system and how best to help their kids navigate it. In reality, many people find themselves hungry to learn much later in life – when they have a bit of experience to relate it to, or when they’ve discovered what they are passionate and curious about. Sadly, at that point, the system we have designed requires sufficient wealth to pay and/or take time off for further studies and the result is that our society doesn’t have the skills it needs to drive the economy.

None of these assumptions seem to make any sense to me any longer. I don’t have the answers – designing and implementing a new approach is an incredibly daunting prospect! But as we accelerate towards a world in which understanding how to research and evaluate information will be more valuable than recalling historical dates; where we will expect to have at least 2 or 3 careers over a span of up to sixty working years and where we will need everyone to be able to access a way of learning which more closely meets their individual preferences, perhaps it’s time to face up to the need to re-educate ourselves about education…

Jane Kirton, MSc, ACC

Jane and I met on an AoEC coaching course, and helped each other to prepare for the final assessments. We know the truth. Jane Kirton now works as an executive coach and advisor on organisational development. She believes strongly that by deepening our awareness and understanding of ourselves and the environments in which we work, we can strengthen our contribution and performance.

Her consultancy focuses on simple talent management techniques which enable strategic goals to be realised and, having spent much of her career with the UK ‘mutual’, the John Lewis Partnership, inclusive approaches to securing organisational engagement and commitment to change.

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