An education system in crisis

What is the purpose of education, and how can it best be achieved? Many centuries ago, philosophers attempted to answer this question.


The Prussian education system of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was designed to instill blind obedience to authority while also reinforcing class and race prejudice in children. The factory model remained virtually unchanged in the majority of the developed world until the end of the twentieth century. Only 16% of 30-34-year-olds have completed some form of formal education. This foreshadows the future of education: informal, on-demand, skill-based, and lifelong. Is our educational system in crisis?

Maker education revolution

Conventional education is struggling to provide the learning environment necessary to help raise the future innovators, problem solvers, and entrepreneurs that advanced societies need. Maker Education offers a model for education in the 21st century.

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.“

— Albert Einstein

This book is about education. As responsible parents and guardians of children, we must ask ourselves: what is the purpose of education, and how can this purpose be best fulfilled?

This is a question that philosophers tried to answer, many centuries ago. Aristotle wrote extensively on this topic. In his book “On Education”, while only a small part survived to our days, we learn that for Aristotle, the fulfilled person is an educated person.

This leaves the question on the purpose of education somewhat open. But in answering it, perhaps we should first try to agree on what a ‘fulfilled’ and ‘educated’ person is. Then, we can explore the next logical question, which is what an education that enables a person to be fulfilled looks like.

John Locke, like Aristotle and many others, left significant works on education. In Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Some Thoughts Concerning Education, he argues that “education makes the man”:

“I think I may say that of all the men we meet with, nine parts of ten are what they are, good or evil, useful or not, by their education.” (1)

What are the core characteristics of a fulfilled person? Let’s flip the question and ask the opposite: What are the characteristics of a person whose life is not fulfilled? Perhaps a life full of fruitless struggles, difficulties, mediocrity and sameness, dependant consistently on externalities? A life that feels confined to the rules and wishes of others, trapped and disappointed with the system?

Contrast that to the life of a fulfilled person, who welcomes struggles and difficulties as they, more often than not, lead to personal and collective growth and progress. The fulfilled person welcome struggle because it is an opportunity for learning. Through these struggles, the fulfilled person becomes a better version of themselves.

A fulfilled person enjoys the endless vitality and diversity of life, the freedom represented by the opportunities to produce value, whether this value is material or spiritual. A fulfilled person feels safe because of their ability to adapt and respond to the unavoidable risks of being alive.

These are some of the characteristics of a fulfilled life.

Aristotle, Locke and many others discussed all this in detail, and they also suggested a method and an outline of what kind of education can help people attain fulfilled lives. They argued that an education should emphasise a holistic and balanced development, from a young age. Play is a big part of such education, and so is physical training, music, debate, and the study of science and philosophy. This kind of education develops both body and mind, equally.

And lastly, learning happens throughout life, adjusting for the different stages that a life naturally goes through.

What is the experience and outcome for most of us as graduates of formal, traditional education? Boredom. Seemingly pointless struggles. A feeling of being trapped in a system tuned to churn out graduates. In many of us, these feelings only got stronger as we grew older in this educational system. Finding a way out, towards fulfilment, become continuously more abstract and elusive.

Modern schools, with their underpinning in the Industrial Revolution, were shaped in the early 20th century after the Prussian education system of the late 18th and early 19th century. This system was designed to service nation-building at a time of significant upheaval and social restructuring. It was optimised towards teaching children blind obedience to authority, and reinforcing class and even race prejudice (2). In the US, the Prussian system was particularly influential in the mid-1800s, when it was used as the model for creating a similar system in Massachusetts. The primary driver behind the adoption of the Prussian model was the latter's emphasis on social cohesion, a very important outcome for a young nation.

The factory model in schooling, another attribute of the Prussian system, emphasises efficiency, uniformity and standardisation as paramount principles. The factory model survived almost unchanged in most of the developed world until the end of the 20th century.

The Prussian system was engineered for a specific purpose, and it was very successful at that. That is why it is still entrenched in modern national educational systems. However, the primary purpose of the Prussian system was not to help its graduates achieve fulfilment in their lives.

Today, schooling is undergoing change towards a more student-centric approach, but this change is slow, and understandably so. A system that has endured for centuries cannot be replaced within a few years or even decades. It is encouraging to see that there is recognition for the need to change and adapt to the new realities that societies face today across the spectrum of stakeholders. From students to teachers, and to the government officials and executives that make policy decisions and implement such policies. For example, in the US, the core purposes of K-12 schooling include civic, emotional and cognitive development. In the 2009 document, ‘The Shape of the Australian Curriculum’, policy makers pledge their commitment to “supporting all young Australians to become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens” (3).

Do these pledges materialise in the actual schooling system? In Australia, using participation in lifelong learning activities as a metric, we know that just 16% of 30-34-year-olds have participated in some form of formal learning. People in the 60-64-year-old bracket had a participation of just 3%. Participation in informal learning is much higher in all age groups. People in the 30-34-year-old bracket participated in informal learning at a very high 75.2%, and even people in the 60-64-year-old bracket participated at 64.2%.

One way to think about these numbers is that people will naturally learn what they want, outside of formal institutions. This is indicative of what the future of education may be: informal, on demand, skill-based, lifelong. As soon as people leave behind the burden of formal education, they abandon it. In Australia in particular, and this is probably true in other developed countries, people with higher incomes and higher educational qualifications are more likely to participate in both formal and informal education.

Interestingly, people who are unemployed had a participation rate in non-formal education at a very low 11%. Perhaps these people are excluded from learning opportunities because they have no workplace with the policies and systems in place to manage their personal development, or because they never gained the appreciation for it during their schooling years.

Is our educational system in crisis? The evidence seems to suggest yes. Is it changing in response? The evidence, again, seems to suggest that the answer is yes. Are people thirsty for non-conventional education? Again, the statistical evidence suggests that the answer is yes.

The change is not fast enough though. The world changes at a much faster pace than what the system is able to absorb. The good news is that, thanks to advancements in communications and educational technologies, and developments in many related fields of technology, we can all participate in high-quality and enriching, lifelong learning, starting with young children. Let’s look at the good news next.

Interesting readings

  1. Locke, John. Some Thoughts Concerning Education and of the Conduct of the Understanding. Eds. Ruth W. Grant and Nathan Tarcov. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., Inc. (1996), 10; see also Tarcov, 108.
  2. Compare Central Society of education, Volume 3 Taylor and Walton, 1839
  3. Review of the Australian Curriculum: A statement by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority

Maker Education Revolution

Learning in a high-tech society.

Available in PDF, Mobi, ePub and paperback formats.

Using Maker Education as a model for education in the 21st century, Dr Peter Dalmaris explains how teachers, parents, and learners can apply the educational methods of inventors and innovators for the benefit of their students and children.

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