James Belchamber

A Liberal education must be centred around the individual

In a previous article I was scathing about this government's approach to education - a regressive insistence on churning out compliant automatons while employers demand creative, self-directed and specialised workers. But in their approach is a logic - that learners all need to be calibrated to a common criteria. This plays out in a national curriculum - literally, everyone learning the same things at the same point in their lives - and comes with the values (uncritical obedience and an unwavering respect for authority) that are required of any system that tries to achieve this.

I no longer believe that should be our goal.

It would not surprise you to know that, as a Liberal, I believe everything starts with - and comes back to - individuals. But education should not just be focused on the individual based on an abstract idea - we need to ground it in the practicalities and intent of education.

So let me convince you of an alternative goal: a much expanded "national curriculum", that every learner progresses through at their own pace and in their own order - and that no one person should ever come close to completing.

The history of education: measuring up

Education is about ensuring everyone has the knowledge and skills we need to "survive" - for any given definition of "survive". At one point, this would have been passing down literal survival knowledge - "don't eat this mushroom" - and a strong argument could be made that it wasn't necessary to individualise this. Sure, different learners may remember things differently, but as a society the intent of education was to ensure everyone knew the same basic knowledge.

This mushroomed in the industrial era, as individuals were recruited to be paid muscle - almost part of the machines they built their factories to shelter. Indeed, industrialists often tried to treat their labour like machines - disposable, fungible automatons - and mass education grew off the back of that labour needing common knowledge to be able to operate. Soon enough most of the economy required basic literacy and numeracy - and so, we batched up our children and put them through the process of all learning the same thing.

Today we have hit a point where no one curriculum could prepare learners for all they need to "survive" - that is, hold down a job. Work has become super-specialised, and the average learner leaving school at 18 will not have many opportunities available to them that pay a decent wage - almost all modern careers require years of further education.

What's fascinating about this post-education "education" is that everyone is able to build only the knowledge they need - but as they grow, they find themselves building common understanding across fields.

Teaching fish to climb trees

I am not a naturally good writer. Whether you think my writing is good or not, I can assure you it has been much worse. At school I thought I'd "cracked" writing, by writing the same story over and over again. My teacher soon told me that not every story could be about a boy that found a rocket ship and flew it to the moon. For others, creative writing came really naturally - but I didn't have a story to tell, I couldn't come up with one, and so this just became an abstract and alien subject for me - I was bad at English.

I was, however, fascinated by computers - I just wanted to spend all my time ripping them apart, using them, absorbing everything about them. I chose my secondary school (insomuch as I had a choice) based on how many computers they had in the library. But largely, my computing education was under my own steam and in my own time.

The point: as part of my interest in computers I naturally became very interested in communicating what I know, and what I've found out - and that required writing ability. So I started to learn more about how to write, and how to keep it interesting - short sentences to build momentum, building up to long sentences that try to create an almost eureka-like crescendo of understanding. I was suddenly so interested in how to write, in a way my teacher could never get me to learn because I just didn't care - there was no point to it, no connection to my internal goals and no natural ability they could bring out.

I finally "got it".

Peaks of knowledge, expertise and ability

A modern education system should embrace the idea that not all learners should learn the same thing at the same time - and not all learners should learn the same things full stop. We should build a system that allows learners to start where they are most interested, and build individual "peaks" of knowledge within the curriculum. The great thing about peaks is that they cannot grow without foundations on their periphery - knowledge that learners aren't directly interested in but need to know to support their journey through their interests. This will mean that some people learn trigonometry very early on in their education, with some not building that knowledge until they need it later in their career - and some people will never learn how to work out the area of a triangle, and that's fine too. We didn't need everyone to know that.

If we get it right then learners will leave school with strong self-direction, and the skills to keep learning for a lifetime - something modern society strongly needs of our citizens. It will mean that everyone can leave school with the abilities they need to pursue rewarding careers, without first having to extensively re-train in apprenticeships and university courses. And it will mean changing the world-view of school-leavers - from a belief that life is set out in common timetables and people are rewarded for quietly moving between classes, to an understanding that life is an individual journey that everyone must seize if they want to thrive.

How do we do this? I have some ideas, and I'll endeavour to lay these out at some point in the future (maybe in another article, maybe in some other form). But this isn't the intent of my article. I want to convince you that this is what Liberals should be aiming for: an education system that develops every individual, individually - and enables every learner to realise their potential.

Like many Liberal ideas, it might feel like I'm laying out an impossible ideal. Take solace in the knowledge that, one step at a time, we can turn "impossible" into "inevitable".

We always have.