The Problem with Western Education

For fifty years we’ve known that there are serious problems in the Western education system. It does very well for a select few, but fails so many. Countless initiatives and government interventions have attempted to remedy this.

But all of them have failed to turn education around.

Because all of them have fundamentally treated the problems in education as a supply problem. We must attract and retain better teachers, improve teaching, disseminate best practice, improve monitoring and assessment, set targets, improve curricula, upgrade classroom resources, provide extra support for weaker students, improve school facilities. The list goes on and on.

But I suspect that education doesn’t have a supply problem, and never has.

It has a demand problem.

Someone who wants to be able to do something or to know something, will suck in that knowledge or skill at an incredible rate.

The reason it is tough to teach, and teachers so often fail is because they are shovelling truck loads of education at unmotivated ‘learners’ and hoping that at least some of it will stick to them.

Who’s fault is that: apathetic students, uninspiring teachers, or the assembly line model of education?

I don’t know, and I offer no solutions. But it might be worth at least admitting that we’re spending vast amounts of time, money and anxiety solving the wrong problem!


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4 responses to “The Problem with Western Education

  1. Well that was an interesting rant — what motivated that? It didn’t sound like the Ian I am use to reading.

    Don’t get me wrong, I highly criticize education. I taught High School in the USA and Colleges in the US and Japan for over 15 years – not to mention the various institutions I have attended.

    My son and daughter love their schools but we moved to this school district intentionally and sacrificed by being a lower-middle-class family surrounded by the upper-middle-class and rich. Neighborhoods near us are very different.

    I started teaching HS in Chicago and got out of it because of the violence and unmotivated students. But hell, I taught undergrad Uni students for 7 years and it wasn’t till I taught graduate students that I really understood what motivation meant.

    My son (13 yo) is presently studying a college level on-line course with — Python programming. He loves it. Finally he is motivated to work at a level he truly enjoys. He is in all advanced classes at school, but has 2/6 teachers are horrible and protected by the Unions (all parents say they are horrible).

    My daughter is not academically skilled and school is a struggle. She is great at art and writing fiction but that only counts in one class. She is highly unmotivated. If she were motivated, she would be constantly disappointed, so being unmotivated is more comfortable for her.

    So: teachers, students, the-system ….?
    The question seems perennial — my mother was a teacher and her father was a teacher. I have heard these conversations for generations.

    Pay the teachers more? Hell no. I have a friend here who teaches drama to 12 and 13 year olds and makes as much as I do but with 3 months of vacation a year and a sabbatical year every 10 years AND pays into a pension. He says, “Public servants deserve a secure retirement.” He is now also one of the top union officials and I have watches his ideology change as he first just started in the union to help his job security and now moved to a top position. Pensions are ridiculous.

    Should we spread the money out between districts — if we do that private schools would love it, because that is where many of us would then send our kids.

    I think on-line education holds some very strong hope. But all the perennial problems will always persists.

    There, thanx for letting me rant too.

  2. Ian

    You’re welcome.

    It was motivated by reading yet another article about what kind of tweaks to make to the supply of education, and just being fed up.

    My family is quite education oriented too, both my parents were Headteachers (principals), and my wife is a teacher, and I’m a governor of our local school. Salary levels for teachers have improved over the last 10 years, to the point where I’d say they are pretty good (but the perks in terms of holidays and pensions are very good, as you say).

    Here teaching is coming under more central control, to the point where teachers are expected to deliver particular lessons at particular times, using particular resources, and in a very particular way. The aim is to provide ‘best practice’ to all students. But it isn’t making a big impact on the results, of course.

    Ultimately tinkering with money, resources, teaching styles, curricula, all miss the problem, as I said in the post. They are just the only levers that elected officials can pull, so they endlessly fiddle with them, to make it look like they are taking control. But its rather like making a big show of working the controls of an airplane when it is sitting in the hangar. You can pretend you’re a top gun pilot, but the plane ain’t going nowhere.

  3. I think making producers feel the financial impact for the value of their product is helpful. But in education, as you know, that would work very well for some but poorly for others.

    Again, I think the market, if not interfered by governments, may offer some answers through the internet.

  4. aiyemowa bamidele

    western education in Nigeria goes with conjested theoretical curriculum from the foundational primary scool to secondary and tertiary leaving no room for practical vocational training that enables a student to be self reliant after acquiring all this level of education

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