How Best to Educate Our Children

I must apologize to regular readers of this blog as I have not been updating content and keeping you informed. As I mentioned earlier, this is largely due to my commitments to deliver the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, “Meet Your Brain” to audiences in Japan and Singapore. Today, I deliver the final lecture in Singapore that will be filmed for their television.

I have a couple of hours to kill and rather than spending them sightseeing, I thought I would take the time to update this blog. Despite the exhausting time spent traveling, as you can see from these photographs, I think the effort has been well worth it. Here is the crew in Japan…


Japanese Crew at Sendai

And here are two fans from the Singapore shows.

It is sometimes hard to take an objective view of public engagement of science when the benefits are too long-term to see. We need science to get humanity out of the hole it is digging itself into but still governments are being very short-sighted in how we promote and value science. Even then, the focus is on applied science and technology which of course is how science becomes useful, but ultimately science should be guided by theoretical curiosity.

I think my travels in the Far East have brought a few points home to me. In particular, I am concerned about education and the way it is heading. In the Far East, education is seen as the pathway to individual success and so there is an incredible pressure on students to succeed at school and enter University in order to enter a profession.

In the UK, we are treading down the same pathway to a similar model where the emphasis is on streamlining into professions rather than training children in critical thinking and a general appreciation of the diversity of human interest. To give credit to Japan and Singapore, these professions include engineers and scientists. I was also surprised to learn that many of the Singapore politicians have science backgrounds, which reflects very badly on our paltry single UK politician with a science degree.  So it would seem that science is valued in the Far East much greater than in the UK but even then, I am concerned with the way that this is being driven. Much of my media interviews have been focused on how to make our children smarter rather than how to make them happier. Of course, success and wealth are better than failure and poverty, but at what cost?

Children are competitive but this trait is fostered and encouraged by the need to match the expectations of their parents and the educational systems. I don’t have a simple solution and it is easy to see flaws. I also don’t think parents are necessarily wrong for wanting what is best for their children. My own daughter has just successfully entered University (way to go Martha) but with the rapid rise in tuition fees, most will be burdened by debt when they graduate. It’s no wonder then, that so many want to go into the financial “industry.” I have always found it amusing that this sector is called an ‘industry’ with financial ‘products.’ It is not an industry. It is organized (an often disorganized) gambling and nothing is made, so there are no products.

So I applaud the emphasis on science education in the Far East, but I lament the loss of encouraging the pursuit of science to foster curiosity and a sense of wonderment in children. My mentor and former colleague Richard Gregory was the epitome of this attitude as he often got excited like a child when talking about some amazing fact of the human mind.

My own field of psychology is often dismissed as worthless and not a science – often by ignorant people who cannot distinguish between science and technology. I also recognize that psychology has a real PR problem in the way it is presented to the general public as obvious truisms. (Look out for further posting on whether psychology is a science or not). However, I would argue that understanding the mind has important implications for how we conduct ourselves.

Irrational beliefs aside, I can clearly see why an obsession with status, wealth and how we value others has fuelled greed in the short term to produce the global recession we are currently in and will be for the foreseeable future. Only last week, during the euphoria and hype of the Olympics, the Bank of England, slipped out the gloomy prediction that there will be 0% growth for the next two years.

It doesn’t take psychologists to point out the reason why greed is not good, but I think psychologists can remind us about why happiness and fulfillment requires more than status and wealth and why most of us are destined to end up on our deathbeds thinking that we did not live the life we would have wanted. Once again, we are just not that good at knowing what is best for us, and more importantly our children.



Filed under General Thoughts

16 responses to “How Best to Educate Our Children

  1. I fully share your concerns about the future of education and how, in general, our schools do a lousy job of fostering curiosity and wonder. The challenge, it seems, lies in what to do about it.
    The US marketing guru and author, Seth Godin, makes an interesting assertion in the beginning of his Education Manifesto, “Stop Selling Dreams” (available free from his website), that our education system was designed in the early 1900s to produce efficient, compliant factory workers, as a concession to the industrialists for having taken away their cheap child labour. He then points out how, in the early 21st century, with a radically transformed labour market, this (basically unchanged) style of schooling can only fail to properly prepare our children for life in the modern world.
    I can’t speak for the US education system, and like yours, my own two daughters have been fortunate enough to both successfully navigate the system and find places at good universities, but I do however worry about current and future generations of children. Unless we make make some radical changes to the way we school them, future generations will be facing unhappier, less fulfilling lives.
    Having thought about this quite a bit of late, I now see Happiness in terms of the following quotient:

    (Our appreciation of the good things in life)
    —————————————————————– divided by
    (Our preoccupation with things that are not so good)

    For me, curiosity and wonder for the universe we inhabit weigh heavily on the numerator 🙂

    • brucehood

      Yes, this is my understanding too. Of course, Sir Ken Robinson gives probably the most famous criticism of the industrial-led agenda in his now legendary TED talk. There again, it is easy for me to sit here as a full time employed academic and lament the change but I am sure it is not only nostalgia and self-interest on my part

  2. Rox

    To say that the financial industry is not an industry because it has no visible technological products is remarkably like saying that psychology is not a science because it has no visible technological products.

    I do completely share your disapproval of the excesses of bankers, and I most certainly did not expect myself to be defending them (least of all here !) Nonetheless, my own son on leaving university became a “merchant banker”, and his work has nothing whatever to do with gambling. Indeed, he has now moved on to a firm of “accountants” (still within the Financial Industry) where he does exactly the same job.

    I am not an expert on this, but clearly neither are you. Imagine a company called Yummychox (Bristol) Ltd which is in danger of going bankrupt. You might be upset at the prospect of losing your yummychox, and quite pleased when along come Multichox (Birmingham) plc at the last minute to take them over. But neither you nor I are aware of the nuts and bolts of this. The Financial Industry is needed to guide Multichox and Yummychox through the process . This is a bit like a solicitor helping with your house purchase or divorce, an intervention which you might resent, but it’s not gambling.

    Yummychox is like a dodgy bridge onto which the managers of Multichox are proposing to step, loaded with heavy sacks of gold coins. They don’t want the whole thing to collapse, taking them and their gold coins with them. So in this sense the Financial Industry is like an engineer, advising on the failing structure and on necessary modifications to it. Their product is the new robust Yummychox, viable as a subsidiary of Multichox, (They would call their product “the takeover”, which sounds less real, but for you it is choccies in your mouth). Clifton Suspension Bridge is a “product”, but Brunel didn’t build it with his own hands, you know.

    • brucehood

      Hold on Rox, I did not say that psychology is a industry. And science has a pretty well understood basis… namely the scientific method. In its most crude form, the scientific method is progresses from observation, hypothesis, experimentation, measurement, analysis and either acceptance or rejection of the hypothesis (or at least that what we teach at Bristol). That’s science in a nutshell. Technology depends on science but is the application – there may be more than one way to solve a problem. That’s a different agenda.

      I am sorry but your bridge analysis does not convince me. Since when do the accountants know how best to build the bridge? And as for your lawyer example, don’t get me started on them either. You seem to mistaking the difference between sectors that control resources and laws and how best to do something.

      Whatever, I don’t think the financial sector use the scientific method. If you don’t believe me look at Danny Kahneman’s analysis of traders. They are basically gamblers and not that good at it. I know it is a sweeping statement and I am biased but frankly, I blame bankers for taking advantage of human greed and then walking away from the mess still expecting to behave exactly the way they always have despite the apologies and promises.

  3. Singapore does have a very engineer/scientist sort of bias, but we have no Nobel prize winners, and few people who do the sort of groundbreaking, trailblazing work that needs doing. We tend to have a huge preference for “tried-and-tested” over “this is interesting, let’s explore that”.

    The main reason we do have such an engineering/science bias, I think, is that these topics are less subjective and easier to score on in academia. Passion for learning isn’t as commonplace as it should be. Science here is mostly just means to an end, rather than an end in itself- which is what I think it should be.

    I think this is changing, though, and increasingly people are starting to sit on their piles of wealth and realise that it doesn’t bring happiness (past a certain threshold).

  4. Hi Bruce,

    Whilst I don’t wish to disagree with what you said in the post, I just wanted to offer a small correction. You said “… which reflects very badly on our paltry single UK politician with a science degree” – whilst the UK does have few politicians with science degrees, I don’t think it’s quite that bad.

    Quoting from The Geek Manifesto: “The UK’s 650 MPs include just three with science PhDs”. And I think there are many others with science undergraduate degrees.

  5. Ado

    Im surprised that you think that there is a clear distinction between science and technology. I think that most people would agree that programmers and engineers work on technology to devise new items. But to do this they might require to design algorithms. The majoritty of people that design algorithms are actually matemathicians. Thus who is actually doing science because mathematics is the least applied “science”?

    • brucehood

      See comments about scientific method above. Technology is the application of science – there are different technologies for solving problems but there should only be one science for explaining them – well at least until we get the unifying theory!

  6. First and foremost, thank you so so so much for including the picture of my best friend (she’s the one who wanted to write down your favourite quote for her) and I in this blog post! It’s such an honour.

    As a student in Singapore, it is probably rather unusual that I share your concerns about the future of education. I was schooled in America for several years, and found that system more stimulating and forcing the students to make our own decisions and really think about what we were doing. It took me a long while to adjust to the Singapore system, where there is no time to think about how to apply our knowledge due to the intense focus on examinations and the exhausting workload. I do wish our schools would do more about fostering curiosity and wonder, but I recognise that it is nearly impossible due to the time constraint.

    The main issue, I believe, is the element of competitiveness. Here in Singapore, being competitive is referred to as being ‘kiasu’, which directly translates from the dialect Hokkien to be ‘fear of losing out’. As I type this comment, I can be sure that most of my peers are spending their time being studying. This makes me feel guilty, as I know that if they study more than I do, they will do better than I do. This has a domino effect. As Singapore is based on the system of meritocracy, every examination and test counts towards being potentially successful in the future. By taking the time to type out this comment, I am effectively hindering the potential success I could have in the future. Due to this fear of not doing as well as our peers, we students are usually forced to neglect the skills that are not emphasised during our time in school, such as critical thinking.

    I hope this comment was interesting, but I think I’d better get back to studying now! Oh, and, congratulations about Martha! 😀

    Once again, thank you for putting our picture up! It was amazing to meet you! 🙂

  7. Charles

    I think if one asked adults what they enjoyed most in their school experience, many would say their friends, or their teachers. Having just finished highschool, I have seen this first hand – how bored students can get in class when their teacher is unenthusiastic, and how the excitement and fascination is felt by everyone in the room when the teacher clearly has a passion for the subject.

    I have heard other people talk about this too, and it tells me that quality teachers are very important in teaching not just the subject matter, but an interest in learning, and to inherently enjoy that process.

    I think that if we had more teachers of that one funny, quirky and smart teacher who we hopefully all had at least one of, it might not lead people to other “industries” than finance, but I do think it would teach us to be happier in whatever endeavors we pursue.

    One of the aforementioned teachers of mine told me that when people went to university in the sixties (like he did. He also went to Bristol by the way), they did it for the/a general experience, and that now they go just to learn, or so they can get a job. I think that also says, provided he is correct, that the history of education would be well worth examaning in order to better it for the future.

    PS: I will be studying psychology at the University of Bristol starting in October. That is not really relevant, but I am just excited I guess.

  8. Lao The Younger

    As someone who is a product of the education industry, an employee within it and a current customer/client of it, I think that one of the biggest illusions that we are sold is the illustrious purpose ascribed to this field. Perhaps I am a tired old cynic, but I suspect that the main purpose of education is to feed the needs of the economy, whether that be by producing more worker bees or by freeing up the parents so that they can make money for the economy.

    How should school be? Well – if I were the education minister, children would spend a lot more time running around, lifting things and building physical strength. Following a syllabus written by the likes of Professor Dawkins and yourself would pretty much cater for their natural (?) desire to know more about the world in which they find themselves. And the day-to-day running of the school would be not dissimilar to Summerhill – that is, the curriculum would be more focused on successful living within a community and less on achieving national standards. Children would learn to take responsibility for the community and their roles within it. They would decide which lessons were of most interest to them and they would attend accordingly. School would be open to everybody – if we had to limit it, then everyone would be given the right to X years of “free” education. School would not, I think, be a building where children were housed for X hours a day – it would be a frame of mind where children -and adults- discovered new things. One might be considered to be at school as one worked alongside an adult in a garage, helping them change an engine, or alongside somebody in a gym, helping them run a sports class.

    The end result, if my evil plans were successful, would be strong and healthy individuals with deep and genuine interest in certain aspects of the world. Each would know as much as anyone about what the world was and how it had got to that point and each would understand the values of community. Above all, I suspect, children would be happy.

    I look forward to the day when the revolutionaries who are seizing power are wearing lab coats instead of military fatigues. Hasta la victoria siempre!

  9. A report by Fareed Zakaria showed how Japan and Finland have some of the top STEM students, but what a striking difference in methodology. As you mentioned many Asian schools put pressure on their kids, but what about Finland’s method of a more free, creative style of learning? According to Zakaria, the key was only hiring high school teachers with a Master’s Degree. One Finnish citizen told me that getting that type of job is very hard and considered prestigious. Maybe that’s the trick. Politicians won’t support science because they don’t understand it. Clearly.

    Before we decide what science is we have to define it. Going by relativity, it does seem like neuroscience beats out behavioral studies if only because the latter have so much potential for varying explanations of the results. BBC doesn’t help matters when they mangle studies by saying things like “birds hold funerals”.

    • brucehood

      That is very interesting indeed as I think that gets to the heart of the problem in this country at least. Teachers feel constrained by government targets and frankly it is not a prestigious job. Can you post a link as I would like to read the article?
      Many thanks

  10. Here’s the transcript, I think the program was on PBS or CNN originally. I’ll post a video link if I can fine one. 🙂

  11. Jacob V

    It has always seemed to me that the most worthwhile achievement of any teacher at the pre-university level is to get a student excited about learning a subject and appreciating how that subject interacts and is connected to other fields of study. Critical thinking tools are fine things but if you don’t want to think or learn the value of any intellectual tool is nil. And being rated as a boring teacher by your superiors and students for more than two years in a row should be the beginning of the dismissal process in my opinion.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s