Why our education system needs to change

I was recently asked to write an opinion piece for a national newspaper about the future of exams… here is my response…

The world is changing and our education system needs to evolve with it.

Our current education system was established to create employees, from the manufacturing model of the nineteenth and 20th centuries. The 21st century requires a rethink of this. Dr Bena Kallick, Co-Founder of the Institute for Habits of Mind and EduPlanet21, talks about the world being VUCA: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and full of Ambiguity. Change is happening fast and our students are growing up in a world where jobs are not certain or guaranteed.

Carl Frey suggests that up to 60% of the jobs of the future have not been developed yet and that 40% of the five year old students in schools today will need to be self-employed to have any form of income. Dylan Wiliam, British educationalist and Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment, states “the purpose of education is to prepare students for a world we can’t envisage, so when they are stuck, they choose to think, instead of remember.”

Much of what is taught in our current education system is either not relevant to students lives today or can be googled. Being able to memorise the formula for working out the circumference of a circle has little value for most professions and if required can be googled.  Thinking must therefore become the centre of our curriculum – not memorisation of information to be forgotten the day after the test.

Traditionally the ‘soft skills’ have been mostly avoided in schools because they are harder to measure. These soft skills include persistence, flexibility in thinking, the ability to listen with understanding and empathy, metacognition, resilience, creativity, communicating with clarity, self-management, and being open to continual learning.

Tony Ryan, author of The Next Generation, makes a strong case for developing empathy in young people. He argues that when artificial intelligence, robots become more common place, the need to explore and deepen our empathetic connection with others as well as refine our social capacity and respect for different cultures and beliefs will be paramount to the human experience.

Our education system needs to change because whilst the system still holds an unofficial pass rate of 50% the need for accuracy in the 21st Century is much higher than this. What accuracy rate do you want your hairdresser, builder, mechanic, doctor or pilot working on? This new age sees the need for higher precision than that which is generally accepted by our school system.

After traveling to and presenting in schools on 5 continents I see a huge trend towards personalised learning and ensuring students are prepared for the future world. Khan Lab School works on the bold premise that students work towards mastery, not test scores. Students stay on the same content until they demonstrate mastery in relevant real world contexts rather than working in three week content blocks.

Our current exam system is a classic example of what Sal Khan calls “Swiss Cheese Learning.”  If a year 11 student passes with an average of 75% at level one we celebrate their success. The challenge is the 25% they don’t know. Each year the curriculum builds on the knowledge from the previous years. Now a student enters Year 12 with one quarter of the foundational knowledge missing. This missing lack of foundation compounds as the student progresses through the system. Hence our students may experience failure and a loss of self-confidence in their own abilities. There are too many holes in the cheese to continue learning.

To pass the current system means being able to hand in assignments and pass exams which show little room for individuality. Furthermore, passing prescribed tests does not guarantee students have practical application in the world or workforce. There are currently 150 schools in the USA which have negotiated to provide portfolios of evidence to top universities and employers, rather than a GPA: Grade Point Average which does not guarantee the skills required for success later on in life. Project based learning is becoming more common place in schools as it provides a platform for students to demonstrate the knowledge and skills they are learning alongside the future skills.

To create a progressive and future focused education system I believe it needs to be centred around the life skills required to be a contributing citizen of the world, have a focus on thinking, and practical applications of knowledge and understanding. This will require a rethink of everything we know and understand about schools.

Business consultant, Peter Drucker, says “One does not begin with answers. One begins by asking questions.”

Here are some of my questions. Why is school 9am-3pm? Why do we split learning into subjects? What is the role of a teacher? How might the learning journey be personalised? How could the evidence of understanding be shown? In what ways might we show progress of understandings? How might we teach and reinforce the future skills?

Our students today deserve an education that will be an integral part of the potentially challenging life long learning journey of living in the 21st Century and beyond. We are not there yet! If we are bold enough to do things differently it is possible.


Karen works with school leaders & teachers to help them re-imagine education and implement provide practical pedagogies to ensure students are prepared for the ever changing future. To chat more about this, please email karen@spectrumeducation.com

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Published on Tuesday, September 4th, 2018, under Curriculum design

Karen Tui Boyes is a champion for Life Long Learning across nations, industries and organisations. Winner of the NZ Educator of the Year 2017 and 2014 and the NZ Speaker of the Year award in 2013 & 2019, Karen is a sought after speaker who continually gets rave reviews from audiences around the world. Her dynamic style and highly informative content—which turns the latest educational research into easy-to-implement strategies and techniques — sets her apart from others in her field.

13 Responses to “Why our education system needs to change”

  1. Superb, perceptive and absolutely right Karen. However, we need to break the cycle of traditional assessment so that it is what students bring to class that counts most. Strategies such as Team Based Learning are extremely strange in a world where end-game assessment is what counts. Teachers will need a huge mind-shift if we are to transition to include more strategic, procedural and capability based assessment. Further, each cohort of students and families will include a range of achievement levels so that several different learning and assessment structures will be needed and many families will require huge consultations. A review of current NCEA assessment frameworks is not enough. Major changes in teacher PLD, teaching and learning structures, and assessment structures are needed now! Will we be brave enough?

    • Karen Boyes says:

      Totally agree Graham 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to comment 🙂

    • Marcus says:

      Excellent analysis Graham. Thank you for posting. It is important that the the format of NCEA assessments change before we can start with PLD. Present forms of assessment both internal and external are becoming less and less compatible with the evolving IT environment found in most of our classrooms today.

  2. Brad Friis says:

    Thanks for the great article. As far as Im concerned it’s bang on point and the questions you raise are the conversations I’d love to see being had out in the open:
    Why is school 9am-3pm?
    Why do we split learning into subjects?
    What is the role of a teacher?
    How might the learning journey be personalised?
    How could the evidence of understanding be shown?
    In what ways might we show progress of understandings?
    How might we teach and reinforce the future skills?

    I’m at the coalface myself with a world-leading LMS called Schoology that can literally change the way schools and their learning communities function – more connection, modern, socially driven communication, more empathy, more mastery, more personalised and differentiated instruction – incredibly intuitive platform – yet feel I am up against lack of time, tech stress, disinterest in learning new things (teachers) and a whole lot of fear and uncertainty around a lot of the above questions and many more I could add. So much so that a think tank is being pulled together to try and get some traction on ‘what do we do first to transform schools’ form the traditional model to the modern learning environments you describe above.

    In your view Karen, what’s the first thing you’d suggest one focuses on in a school to start the train of change on its way?
    For me its leadership teams coming together and creating a ‘WHY’ and then the almighty timetable is changed to support teachers with time to learn a new tool and pedagogy (personalised, station rotation etc).

    One thing I do know is digital based tools and our rapidly transforming world is not going away or stopping any time soon.

    • Karen Boyes says:

      Yes Brad – leadership finding their clear ‘Why’ is the first step – and then having the courage to invest time to ensure their teachers buy into the vision and provide top quality PD and support for teachers to learn, grow and change. I believe this must involve coaching, feedback and an openness of teachers to want to learn.

    • Karen Boyes says:

      Brad – I have been reflecting on this further – whilst the idea of time to learn and process new ways of teaching might be ideal – without the luxury is not an excuse not to change. Sometime, once the vision is bought into, baptism by fire works. It creates the need to change rather than just being comfortable with the status quo. What it does require is a safe environment for teachers, students and parents, to make mistakes and learn from them. I guess a research project in action. If all stake holders feel safe to be vulnerable, make mistakes and show the willingness to be coached, learn and grow that would make a huge difference. So in answer to your original question, I would also add to create a safe environment for learning for ALL.

  3. Mark Heuston says:

    Great article Karen,
    I am the AP at Croydon Community School. We are a Big Picture Education Australia school. Checkout: http://www.bigpicture.org.au
    We have been on this journey for nearly 10 years and it has transformed our school and more importantly, given our young people an opportunity to engage in learning that is relevant and rigorous while being supported by strong relationships. The BPE model is supported by 12 distinguishers that aren’t unique in education but when used as the focus for the school provide a solid base and structure to build the culture and practice of the school.
    If anyone is interested in learning more about our program they can contact me at the school which is in Melbourne Victoria.

  4. Jim Baker says:

    Absolutely right Karen.
    I have been saying the same for years. Educational systems worldwide are not fit for purpose. They focus only on what is quantifiable and can be measured but it is the unquantifiable that is important.
    That is why we need more Mavericks in education,who challenge where others fear to tread. After 48 years at the ‘chalk-face’ of education I’m still passionate about repairing the nonsense many call education.

    • Karen Boyes says:

      Kindred spirits Jim – I’ve been in this for 24 years – hope it doesn’t take another 24!! Thanks for taking time to read & comment 🙂

  5. Noel Makwinya says:

    Dear Karen,
    What is required is largely said by the previous contributors of this topic. I am of the opinion that policy makers know a great deal of it. The only problem is, as Jim Baker mentioned above, that we are worried to go away from quantification of education. Our assessment practices is the poison!

    Give teachers and students freedom to work on knowledge and interest, all will go well

  6. jack bell says:

    Thank you Karen, this is very helpful for my college research project. when i read this, my mind opened to many ideas, and many other beliefs

  7. Thanks for sharing this valuable content for us.

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