Is education really broken?


I recently viewed a TEDx talk titled ‘The surprising truth about learning in schools’. Other than the talk having an eye-catching title, there was nothing really surprising about it, as I think Will Richardson hits on a number of things that have been said before by other researchers. Of course, the talk is a timely reminder about things in education that are not changing, or perhaps they are but we are not recognising it enough?

Three things, in particular, got me thinking:

Richardson, provides a list of ‘Conditions for Powerful Learning’, which, when presented, he states “We know what deep and powerful learning looks like because we are learners as well… This isn’t rocket science when we talk about what learning requires. We know that…”

If we know that, then why is there the disconnect that he speaks of between what we supposedly know and what we practice? This is a huge generalisation to make, there are a number of teachers and educational leaders, whether they be in formal positions of leadership or not, making significant progress in their schools and with their students. On the flip side, there are classrooms and schools where there has not been much change or progress and we need to look more closely at why.

A little further in the talk, Richardson mentions that “Schools aren’t built for learning.” He states that “most of us know it but maybe don’t want to acknowledge it.” He points us to the words of Scott Looney, emphasizing that education is fundamentally broken.

Again, blanket statements that fail to recognise the progress that is being made. Education is certainly not broken but there is room for improvement. As Richardson points out at the end of the talk, albeit very briefly,  there are examples of schools making headway to change educational practice away from more traditional models. I am sure that there are many more, though perhaps not enough for the education revolution that many are calling for. Then again, if we want a revolution that is rushed, we could create significant problems for ourselves, as reported in some Melbourne schools that have recently tried to change. We need an education revolution to move us forward rather than send us around in circles.

A Gallup poll about a drop in student engagement is presented. It shows a drop in engagement as student progress through school. Note 76% of Elementary School students report to be engaged. So, is the problem schoolwide or one that rests more with Middle and High Schools, or even universities for that matter? What would the engagement figures have looked like in 1920, 1950 and 1980? Were we doing things better then? What would students say about their different classes? I know my son hated music last year and loves it this year. Why? Tarring all schools, teachers with the same brush does not help, it only hinders.

The key message of the talk is about the disconnect about the things we believe about learning and the practices we have. It is true that there is a disconnect to some extent and a great place to start would be in understanding and addressing the differences between our teachers, giving specific feedback and requiring purposeful action to improve what we do for our students.

Most likely, those who have watched Will Richardson’s talk are not the ones who we need to convince to fix the problem.

Connect with me @richard_bruford

Originally posted at EdLeader


  1. Hey Pal,

    I actually DO think that education is broken — at least here in the States. The learning that kids do in schools is completely disingenuous — built around nothing other than mastering a required curriculum because there’s a test coming at the end of the year. Little time is spent on anything that doesn’t prepare kids for that test, and when the test is given, everyone moves on to figuring out how to get kids to do better on next year’s test.

    It’s heartbreaking, to be honest. Making progress towards something different requires teachers and school leaders who are willing to subvert the system and take professional risks. That’s SO flawed. Policies and practices should promote meaningful learning, not need to be subverted in order for meaningful learning to happen.

    Are good things happening in schools? Sometimes — but not nearly enough.

    Anyway….dug this post and been enjoying reading your work.

    Rock on,

    November 27, 2015
    • Hi Bill

      Thanks for reading and following the blog.

      I think there are definitely some fundamental things wrong with elements of education and I think the experience very much differs from country to country, state to state, school to school and most importantly classroom to classroom.

      I am a little tired of sweeping generalisations made about education, as it is part of a bigger whole – society.

      There are calls for sweeping changes such as education to move away from an industrial model, society has not completely done that. So many still work the 9 to 5 day.

      We are not comparing the current data to anything over the past 50-100 years. I’m interested in whether engagement has changed and what lies behind it.

      I do think that the amount of testing and data driven expectations, as opposed to us being data informed, along with a hopelessly crammed curriculum in many western countries, at least, are having detrimental effects.

      The role of universities in how they impact on high schools it not examined anywhere near enough – they set the expectations, course requirements and admissions procedures.

      I think great school leaders manage to shield their staff from some of this mandated stuff really well, allowing them to look closely at how we genuinely improve student engagement and learning.

      Best wishes

      November 29, 2015

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