Go big or go home. That seems to be the mentality of society today. We value success according to the rulebook, and pillory those who fail the rulebook or simply refuse to conform to it. In fact, the definition of success may be akin to a robotics factory that creates only one type of robot – the experts of their manufacture are lauded and those who do not make the grade or think creatively are left behind. The sad thing is that this exists - except the factory is the education system, and the robot constructors are the pupils. There is a reason Patrick Pearse’s ‘The Murder Machine’ struck a chord with me. What is often forgotten is that the leader of the 1916 Easter Rebellion (and, depending on what one believes, martyr or troublemaker) was a passionate advocate of education reform in the face of a ruthless education system hell-bent on enforcing conformity. In 101 years, little has changed. 

My Story. I graduated only five years ago, absolutely glad that 12 years of compulsory formal education had ended. For me, it was a relief being a circle not being forced into a square. One of the poignant memories of year 12 was our Headmistress lambasting our year group just because a few students failed to get the marks. She had embarrassed two former students from our school earlier in the year who had represented us simply because mishaps denied them success. That pretty much tells you the pressure we, and the teachers, were under. For the record, I got the required marks for university, but did only what I had to. However, it did require me to move to the other side of Australia to study Law after several failed attempts to study History online.

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My school was (and still is) very science and mathematically focussed, subjects I had very little interest in. These were the ‘bees-knees’ units, units which held much weight to the point where their marks were inflated when they were considered for university entrance rankings. If you were like me, and were no good at these subjects, you were on your own. It was drummed into us at school, likewise, that if you did not do well in your final exams, you were finished, as if life follows a rigid path. Me, because of a mix of optimism and the little bit of the rebel in me, simply tuned out. As I said before, I did what I had to do, but not to the point where I let it engross my life to the point of anxiety. I knew if I took that path, I would get very anxious, so it was the best route to carve my own path in spite of (un)conventional wisdom. That may have been easy for me to make that choice (well, risk), but others are not so lucky. I am a non-conformist when I know things are inherently wrong. Most people aren’t. They have no choice but to be broken down to fit the mould the education system has pre-fabricated for them. To make matters worse, society has become very dog-eat-dog in its thinking. Winners are ultimate grinners. 

Time for change.
 Of course, succeeding is good. Giving everyone the same marks for turning up disincentives those who want to be at school. But the education system, as well as our society, needs to abandon this ‘success or nothing’ attitude to school. One, it is a fallacy. If you have the passion, the heart and the constitution, the narrow path presented to us at school becomes wider with many branches. Two, and most serious, is the mental anguish conformity puts on children. When countries such as Australia, the United Kingdom and America have some of the highest level of anxiety among high school students, combined with an ever-increasing suicide rate in spite of our best efforts, it cannot be denied the whole system is broken. And yet, the proposals at reform are nothing more than white-washing. Some have suggested the Singaporean model, just because of the results they get. But that suggestion is ignorant of the pressure such a system would entail. Others, particularly in progressive circles, prefer the Finnish model. At first glance, it seems appropriate. The my-way-or-the-highway approach is discarded for one which emphasises autonomous learning and personal development. However, considering the differences between countries and their cultures and approach to education, such a system would need radical tweaking in order to work outside Finland.


Now, there is a reason why Sir Ken Robinson's TED talk on whether schools kill creativity continues to be 
one of the most watched TED talks of all time. The reason is that the current system of education, as was the case in my school years, focuses on market demands rather than the nurturing of creativity and personal growth. This unfortunately is a poor mindset. Now, no system is perfect. Talent will always slip through the net. however, with such a conformist system of education, not only will talent fall slip through the net as if it were littered with holes, it will turn off talent. Rather than this statistics-based system (which in most areas doesn't work as it lacks the human element - just look at the failure of US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara's bodycount approach in the Vietnam War), Sir Ken Robinson argues that education should be treated like farming instead of factories. Recognising the failure of conformist education in encouraging the enjoyment of education, he suggests that an approach based on four principles - Health, Ecology, Fairness and Care, forming what he calls 'Organic Education', will be more beneficial than the current system. Like Patrick Pearse, he agrees that children are individuals, and this needs to be the core focus in education. 

Eo Ipso...
 Whatever way you look at it, the system needs radical reform. If we have to re-invent the wheel, so be it. Yet, whatever system we choose, it needs to include two extra things – a strong emphasis on mental health, and a focus on other ways to success. Sir Richard Branson himself was a poor student (who was told he’d either be a millionaire or a jailbird by his headmaster), yet look where he is. He was however one of the lucky ones, gifted with a sense of entrepreneurship. There are probably many who fell through the cracks, lost to the world. Yet, our mentality to education struggles to reconcile this with a demand on conformism. But some students cannot fit the pre-fabricated mould of the education system. It is high time we let them make their own mould.  
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