The future of education: putting an end to homework and compulsory schooling?

31 October, 2018

By Koen Maris,
Chief Technology Officer – Cyber Security at Atos

In recent years, the education sector has worked on the “modernization” of schools and teaching. However, modernization does not mean that you should make iPads or Microsoft Office mandatory. On the contrary… To prepare for life after the school bench, we should invest in other competences, such as flexibility and autonomy. Perhaps, we should also be questioning homework and compulsory schooling until 18 years.

Let’s start with the choice of a specific technology: It makes absolutely no sense to make specific devices mandatory as teaching material. It reminds me of the education of yesteryear (and unfortunately sometimes even of the education today): on the first day of school, each student received a list of mandatory course materials they had to buy, such as a pen with erasable ink, and a lined Atoma notebook. And if you had the misfortune to arrive with a graph notebook instead, you would get bad grades, and a new mandatory passage to the store! But what if I would work better with a notebook that makes use of a grid? Or if I found another brand that offers the same kind of notebook? The answer typically was… not negotiable!

We can compare this situation to the mandatory use of an iPad or Microsoft Office. Teachers and management think it’s a wise choice to encourage a uniform computer park. As far as support is concerned, that can be correct, but it is an illusion to think this is helping the students. The technology we use today will be hopelessly outdated when they enter the labor market and we can only speculate what will be the most used technology by that time. Besides, if we still impose a technology, why do we not instead opt for an open standard, or a document format, rather than for manufacturer or publisher specific solutions, which are often incompatible to each other?

Flexibility as final objective

It would be much more beneficial for students to have a technology offering in school that changes frequently: by doing so, they cultivate the flexibility they will need throughout their working lives in our “ever-changing society “. That might sound like a cliché now, but it is no less relevant. For example, I often wonder what the course program for automotive mechanics looks like nowadays. Once they graduate, the students following this course probably won’t have much mechanical parts to tweak anymore.

Flexibility as a final objective seems to be a good idea in any case. But it also means a thorough review of the educational offer. Gone are the days of small exercises of the kind “sort your column in chronological order and calculate the average of this column”, made in a specific program. Long live the course where students learn how this can vary from one program to another, or even depending on the version of the same software.

Speaking of final objectives: perhaps we must dare to question the importance of the degrees in a context of rapidly aging knowledge. Do we really need a degree in higher education or even secondary if its value completely faints on the labor market after six months? I only obtained my university degree just a few years ago. And I can assure you, there is absolutely no course you can follow that would prepare you for my job. It’s probably better, especially for certain categories of students, that compulsory schooling up to age 18 is thoroughly questioned, or at least the way it is interpreted. For many students, practice is the best way of learning.

Homework? You decide!

Finally, I would also argue for a better division between work at school and at home, that relates more closely to the business realities of today. Working from home is increasingly becoming an acceptable alternative to working from the office, from 9-5, from Monday to Friday. As long as the work is done within time, and meets quality standards, the place and time where the work was carried out is of little importance. If we apply the same reasoning to education, it becomes an excellent argument to abolish homework. If you ask students to complete a task by Friday morning and if they get an hour off on Thursday afternoon, they can choose whether they want to do their task as homework or whether they prefer to finish this during class hour. This means that the right to work from home for employees leads, quite ironically, to the right for absence of homework for students.

Of course, I realize that this will not be resolved within a single school year: combining new tools, new course programs and, above all, a new teaching methodology naturally requires adjustments on all levels. But the longer we wait, the bigger the gap between what and how our young people learn and the reality where they step in after graduating. It is time for government official to get started. And, if necessary, let’s make it a homework assignment!

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