James Belchamber

While schools seek compliance, employers demand disruption

Lesson: Educating our Children
Reading time: 5 minutes
Required watching: This chilling little video from the Department for Education, where this quote in particular stands out:

"Our silent corridors, where we transition around the building in silence, and having our equipment out ready to go when we arrive at our next lesson - all just helps get us focused and keeps us in that working set of mind when we arrive in our lessons"

Ignore the dystopian chill that just ran down your spine  - just for a second. Ignore the inhumanity of expecting children to be silent in the small periods of free time between classes (socialising, one assumes, being limited to three "meals" a day). Just have a think..

..does anyone work like this?

Well, actually, yes - there is one class of worker that would be expected to work like this - but we're rapidly making them obsolete.

"Work", for most of human history, has consisted of a lot of manual and monotonous labour - but this came to a high water mark during the industrial revolution, where huge amounts of labour were required to mobilise great masses of resources. Coal needed to be moved from mountains to furnaces, roads and railways needed to be built, ships needed to be loaded, unloaded, and sailed.

But this revolution had another side to it - industrialists didn't just need muscle to move resources, they also needed trained minds to operate the machinery. Basic literacy and numeracy started to be seen as something most workers needed - and so, they turned their mind to creating schools.

It's not by accident that our modern schools still look and function like factories in many ways. Educational institutions did exist before then, but most people were taught by their parents (usually their mothers) or got their training on-the-job (jobs which were much more communal in nature). But modern schools were developed by and for industry needs.

One thing industry needed? Compliant, obedient workers.

Corporal punishment, long since banished from British schools (to the grumbles of conservatives), still holds a strong association with education - and while teachers are no longer able to reach for the cane or the ruler, for many good education is still infused with an intense amount of discipline. After all, if you want them to be employed when they come out of school, you need them to be the compliant and obedient automatons an employer craves - right?

Here's the thing - employers haven't really needed that for a long time now.

Since the invention of the computer we have been slowly chipping away at the traditional workplace. Many jobs that employed millions are now done by "dark warehouses" - literally, warehouses that don't need lighting because nobody's working in them. If you think that's weird then go look at your local telephone exchange - probably built to house hundreds of operators, but now humming along entirely on auto-pilot.

Of course, work didn't collapse. The telephone operator has been replaced by the telecoms engineer, and the telecoms industry employs more people now than it ever has - they used the automation to scale from a novelty (for an upper middle class home) to a phone (in every pocket).

Automation doesn't destroy work, it just ups the skill level required to enter the workplace. But computers are just better than people at a lot of things - a computer can switch thousands (millions!) of connections per second, doesn't make mistakes, and doesn't need a break. So we don't need workers to compete with computers - instead, we need them to do all the things computers are bad at, and a big part of that is creativity, curiosity, thinking outside the lines.

Creativity and free-thinking that our education system is designed to break down and banish from the minds of our workers, right there in childhood.

I've held back from a discussion on the ethics of forcing children to be stamped out into conforming little moulds, drawn up to meet the needs of an elite and excluding of anyone that doesn't measure up to these narrow parameters of achievement. Of course it's wrong - but now it's not even justifiable on employability grounds.

Employers don't need automatons - they have computers for that. They need creative workers - workers that value persistence and growth, and are willing to step - thoughtfully and carefully - out of line to challenge the status quo (which investors gleefully term "disruption" - literally, they want disruptive people! Tell that to your teacher).

We have moved past the need for humans as automatons; we need disruptive students now more than ever.


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