The quest to improve education systems has become an industry. Governments and schools promise improved student performance, academic excellence and rigor. Excellence is the key word and many want a broken education system fixed, but is there enough reflection or debate about what excellence means and what education’s underlying problems are? Debates about funding, homework, teacher pay, discipline and test scores will rage on, but do we really think the next generation will flourish on the basis of these issues alone being solved? With all the money in the world, what should student learning look like; how should teachers practice their craft to support it, and how should schools and systems operate to make it sustainable?

It is tempting to propose solutions, including technology, without digging deeper into what actually needs to be solved.

More than one ‘school of the future’ has carried forward unspoken education problems or assumptions of the past; many a well-meaning political leader has championed the need for increased education funding without a clear idea of how it might be spent, and scores of education departments have invested in technology that didn’t make a difference because it automated old approaches rather than transforming them, for example, interactive whiteboards that can in some cases reinforce a teacher’s role as information-giver in a world that calls for information seekers, or computer labs built on the old idea that students need to learn about, rather than with, computers. Here are seven education problems that seek solutions. They speak to the growing demands and sophistication of our global community.

1. Ownership

Ownership, as in who take responsibility for the learning, is a major problem. Across many schools, students are ‘spoon-fed’ knowledge from K to 12 to ‘get through the content’ in time for the test. But who is owning the learning as children grow into young adults? It often appears the teacher works harder than the student, having to ‘perform the lesson’ well beyond the stage when students should be developing their ability to learn independently. In homes too, many parents take homework tasks more seriously than their children. We have a new category of ‘turn-it-in’ software on the market to police a generation of learners who perhaps skimped on information literacy skill development because the teacher needed to ‘give the lesson’ as students sat and received. Another common pattern is where teachers own the learning throughout a unit of study and students take eleventh-hour ownership by cramming.

2. Relevance

Is the problem one of relevance as the world reframes itself in the digital age, yet many classrooms merely tack on digital elements?  Do we interpret the curriculum as a set of topics to be ‘covered’ or are we immersing students in the real-world problems to be solved? When students ask the question “why do I need to know this?” or worse, “do I need to know this for the test?”, are they picking up on the issue of relevance, and how do we fix that?

3. Compliance versus quality

Too often, compliance limits rather than drives quality. In some parts of the world, children study long hours in ‘exam factories’ to support the machine-readable PISA or standardized test goals of their respective jurisdictions. Factory compliance may be good business for text book and testing resource companies, but it is can be at odds with students learning to co-construct meaning and apply higher-order thinking to solve learning challenges geared to today’s environment. This takes us back to the issue of relevance. Successful education systems are self-aware of potential testing pitfalls. Such systems seek to secure good PISA results as a bi-product of students mastering a wider set of soft-skills. In other words, there is an important distinction to be made about PISA success as an indicator of a dimension of a effective education, not the singular goal of an education system. We have to ask ourselves, are we really doing OK as a nation just because a sample of our 15 year old students are good test-takers? Do we need to look at more longitudinal indicators such as university and vocational education completions, employment outcomes and levels of entrepreneurship and patent registration rates? If we seek to make schools accountable, have we fully thought through what are the most important measures of success?

4. It’s political

Perhaps the problem is that the electoral mainstream feel they know what’s best for education. Everyone feels they are an expert on education as most people went to school, though few are formally qualified as educators, therefore, education policy often reflects popular ideas about what makes ‘a good education’, not necessarily grounded in research. More often than not, those popular ideas reflect learning in a world that no longer exists.

5. Leadership

Good leadership makes all the differince. Schools invest in technology plans, exam preparation and curriculum development, but how many leaders are driving efforts to define, enhance and model more effective approaches to learning and teaching? Are leaders articulating and celebrating what truly makes an excellent teacher; clarifying how that is measured and setting incentives and rewards accordingly? Is the status of teachers being promoted by government leaders and the media? Countries such as Finland and Singapore afford teachers a very high status in the community and not surprisingly, their graduates enjoy high levels of academic, social, entrepreneurial and artistic success.

6. Confusing ends and means

Are we aspiring to produce and market ‘modern’ shiny schools with all the latest technology, or are we looking at the quality of the learning environment and learning design, as in what student are actually doing in their day to day learning, how the technology is being used and for what purpose? Some school marketing departments promote IT and sporting facilities to parents to attract enrolments, but the articulation of approaches to learning an teaching can provide a marketing challenge.

7. Are we asking the wrong questions?

Is there no problem at all, just the opportunity to improve? Schools vary. Some are further along in their pedagogical or heutagogical (as in self-directed learning) journey for a range of reasons. Perhaps we need to be more thoughtful as to what makes for a good education; more critical of what makes for a ‘top school’, and careful of what we wish for in education, clarifying real problems before jumping to solutions.

What do you see as the major problems we are trying to solve in education today? Do the ideas above resonate with you?