The education system has perfected the art of flogging a dead donkey.

As a human race, we enrol our youngsters in an institution as a toddler, force-feed them knowledge and understanding for eleven years. We test them copiously through these eleven years to make sure the knowledge we are pouring in is sticking before giving them a final set of exams at the age of sixteen to sort them into categories of failure, mediocre, and success.

We tried to fix the system by extending the number of years of knowledge pouring until our young adults are nineteen. We then test them again to make sure they have the basic knowledge not to cause too many problems in the world.

Hang on, you say. It is not like this at all anymore. Schools and colleges teach skills too, as well as knowledge. Literacy and numeracy, and other STEM activities are at the forefront of educationalist’s minds. We tell them all about the skills they need and give them a bit of practice. Then, we sit them in an examination room and say if they have grasped the concept or not before sending them off. It is kind of like the knowledge of skills. It is knowledge, Jim, but not as we knew it. Except, it is exactly as we knew it – it is deliverable chunks of schooling that can be easily assessed and quantified.

The problem?

The tail is wagging the decomposing donkey.

Government loves accountability.

Accountability is best imposed by outcomes.

Outcomes are most easily judged with statistics.

Statistics are best collated through testing.

Testing is what we teach.

The product of education is not fully functioning human beings with an appetite for life and onward improvement. The outcome of education is an examination result.

Examinations are hard to do fairly, and there has been a way they have always been done. Set a knowledge and skills-based curriculum, layout minimum expectations, set up an examination paper that tests the delivery of this curriculum. The underlying presumption is that passing the examination paper makes you good at that subject.

But it rarely does; it more likely proves the capacity to pass the examination paper.

An answer

We need to aim higher – not for higher results but for higher levels of thinking.

There are differing opinions on the heights of learning. Some believe that creating new concepts, new approaches, and innovations is the ultimate outcome of education. Others believe it is the ability to evaluate what has been created and consider the next improvement or innovation on this idea.

When you look at the hierarchy of thinking or learning outcomes, knowledge and understanding are at the bottom of the pile. It requires little brainpower to know something – and to understand it takes just a little more. For instance, a lot of people know about cars and understand how they work. Fewer people can apply this knowledge and build a car; even fewer can analyse and evaluate and then create the next model of car for the future.

The answer to the problem of a failing knowledge-based education system is to stop basing it on knowledge alone. Education, to be successful, needs to see knowing as the start of a long journey.

It needs to begin to encourage the application of the learning much more.

Then, let’s go crazy; it needs to encourage creativity and the challenging mindset that allows individuals to question if something could be better.

Pushing skill and knowledge retention on young people, which you hope they will regurgitate in-situ, is damned to failure. We are building robots with the same capacity, which will be more efficient and cost-effective in the longer term.

We need to push education to do more – which means we need to value art, music, drama, creative writing, design technology – developing the mindset of imagining an outcome, realising the outcome and reflecting on the impact of what has been produced. When we teach maths or science, we need to present them with problems and encourage them to try out ideas to see if they can create the solution. Science could be one of the most imaginative and creative subjects out there if we brought it to life in the hearts and minds of our students by challenging them to think outside the box, to go beyond what’s gone before – just think what it took for Edison to imagine the lightbulb when everyone else was lighting a candle.

We need to develop an innovative mindset that we evolve through life, valuing emotion and intuition as crucial facets of a well-rounded learner.