On Rebuilding an “Inadequate” System: A Conversation with Priya Lakhani | Tim Logan | 6 Min Read

What is it really that we are talking about when we speak of “the education system”? Surely, you and I, educators around the world, students, school leaders are the system. We can act to make small but impactful changes every day to improve the learning experience for our students and our colleagues.

While this may be an empowering thought, this is but one part of our reality. We work within a context of constraints, incentives, policies, and accountability measures. We come up against this every day in our classrooms, meeting rooms, and boardrooms. Maybe this too is “the system” that we speak of. And this is harder to change.

In her damning critique, British technologist and entrepreneur, Priya Lakhani OBE highlights with me how this system of perverse incentives is taking us all down a path that doesn’t meet the needs of anyone — learners nor teachers! Maybe we’re following the wrong North Star.

Priya Lakhani:

Our present education system is just simply not fit for purpose. And the chief victims of this are not just the children in the schools, but the teachers as well. Teachers are there serving the children and their natural passion for education — why they actually signed up to teaching in the first place — is so often stifled from day one of entering the classroom.

Now there is no simple and easy fix to this, and it will take a long time and some really serious concerted efforts involving the government. But it’s not just limited to government action. We all have to get behind this as a social movement, which is why I wrote the book. And the book was a rallying cry to that end.

In the book, I discuss five main goals to bring our system up to speed and they are that we really require:

  1. A vastly slimmed-down curriculum. A smaller curriculum, if you like, will liberate teachers to focus on the knowledge and skills required to thrive in a rapidly changing and very uncertain world;
  1. We need to replace the exam system. So I talk a lot in the book about how we treasure what we measure and high stakes exam systems. And we need to replace that stressful system with lower-stakes tests that can be enabled by technology that already exists today. That will help to provide a far greater and detailed picture of an individual, rather than just summarizing an individual’s entire formal education with nine or 10 numbers or letters.
  1. Trusting teachers is absolutely critical. We need to trust them with the freedom to do what they actually joined the profession to do. When they signed up to teach and nurture young minds, they signed up to inspire young people, to impart knowledge of a subject that they are truly passionate about. All of that actually needs to come across in the classroom day-to-day, and we need to trust them enough to give them the freedom to be able to do that. Because at the moment, what they go through is a highly prescriptive system, particularly in the U.K.
  1. Students and teachers need to be mentally healthy. They need to be motivated and supported. … There is a growing conversation, thankfully, about the growing mental health crisis. While we wish there wasn’t one, at least I think that stigma seems to now be detaching somewhat and people are talking more about it. But we need to make a concerted effort to ensure that we continue to invest in ensuring that people are mentally healthy, both students and teachers alike.
  1. The last and final point is that we need to ensure that the process of teaching and learning is based on the latest advances in neuroscience and that it’s augmented by advanced technologies like AI…  When it comes to neuroscience, there are academics all over the world that have worked and researched how the brain learns. And we all know that we’re as unique as our fingerprints. But there are theories out there that can be embedded and can be core to pedagogy. And we need to ensure that our teachers and our learners benefit from that.

So all of those five goals to bring the system up to speed have very much been focused on creating a system that’s far more fit for purpose than what we currently have today.

Tim Logan: Absolutely… it’s so timely and so important, but yeah, I love the focus that you take quite intentionally on the fact that it’s just not working for anyone. Very often we talk about the needs of the students. Of course, that’s the object and that’s why we work in this profession. But actually, the system’s not working for the teachers either.  And I think that’s a really important aspect of what you’re talking about.

Priya Lakhani:

Well, what I should add to that is, you know, there are schools out there that are outstanding when they’re regulated, they are receiving great grades or great progress and added value. So maybe a student from an economically disadvantaged background or a student with special needs or a student where English is their second language. You can see that actually, they are adding that value. So there are some that might say, but it is working for some.

Actually, what we generally find having worked with thousands and thousands of teachers, let alone the students, directly is that that’s happening despite the system. So… you have to question, well, what are the grades actually telling us about the student? Is that actually what we need to know? When we look at reports by some of the biggest consultancy firms in the world that have then worked with some of the biggest employers in the world… are the students who are leaving formal education today leaving equipped with the right skills that they need to go and then thrive in the workplace. And the answer generally is no, they’re not. So even though these measures look very successful for some, the question is, well, are they really? How do we measure success is a really big question that needs to be answered.

Tim Logan: Yeah, absolutely. As you say, the system is full of so many perverse incentives… those metrics that we use but actually, as you’ve shown in the book really clearly, those measurements have just been inflating and inflating over the last years. So we create this self-justifying picture that actually doesn’t benefit the students or the teachers. And you also make a very strong case that the educational attainment gap for students from different socioeconomic backgrounds, that’s not been closing either. So, yes, we are adding value on, certain metrics and there are phenomenal teachers doing incredible work all over the world.  But there’s a kind of systemic perverse incentive to keep creating the data, to justify the system as it keeps going on.

Priya Lakhani:

It’s a loop. And I think the main point is that as long as we have measures in place that we’re constantly trying to meet, we’re going to then be continuing to develop that system that fits the needs of those metrics. Because you know, in any industry, in any sector, you’ve got to think about your goals and then you’ve got to measure those goals if you want to see how effective you’re being. And that’s very natural and not necessarily a bad thing to do. But if the goals seem misaligned to the metrics, which I think is the main point, then we’re just following the wrong guiding star that we’re trying to get to at the end. So the guiding star itself needs to be shifted!

Listen to the rest of the interview above on the Future Learning Design podcast.

Priya Lakhani OBE is the Founder CEO of CENTURY Tech, the award-winning artificial intelligence education technology company. She is the author of the book, Inadequate: The system failing our teachers and your children (John Catt Publishing, 2020). Priya was awarded Business Entrepreneur of the Year by the U.K. Chancellor in 2009 and Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2014. In 2018, Priya co-founded the Institute for Ethical AI in Education. In 2018, CENTURY won a prestigious MIT SOLVE (Education) award.

Tim Logan

Tim Logan is an experienced school leader and curriculum designer, with a passion for connecting and facilitating global networks of innovative educators. As well as being a member of the BU Agile Innovation Lab, Tim works with the world’s top international schools, as part of Notosh strategic design consultancy, and produces the “ground-breaking” podcast, Future Learning Design.

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