Skip main navigation

£199.99 £139.99 for one year of Unlimited learning. Offer ends on 28 February 2023 at 23:59 (UTC). T&Cs apply

Find out more

The Evolving Educational Context

Learn more on how to define student engagement.
Every country on earth at the moment is reforming public education. There are two reasons for it. The first of them is economic, people are trying to work out how do we educate our children to take their place in the economies of the 21st century? How do we do that given that we can’t anticipate what the economy will look like at the end of next week - as the recent turmoil is demonstrating. How do we do that? The second though is cultural.
Every country on earth on earth is trying to figure out how do we educate our children so they have a sense of cultural identity and so that we can pass on the cultural genes of our communities& while being part of the process of globalisation. How do we square that circle? The problem is they’re trying to meet the future by doing what they did in the past and on the way they’re alienating millions of kids who don’t see any purpose in going to school. When we went to school, we were kept there with a story which is if you worked hard and did well and got a college degree you would have a job.
Our kids don’t believe that and they’re right not to by the way. You’re better having a degree than not, but it’s not a guarantee anymore and particularly not if the route to it marginalises most of things that you think are important about yourself. Some people say we have to raise standards if this is a breakthrough, you know, like really yes I we should. Why would you lower them? You know I mean I haven’t come across an argument that persuades me of lowering them but raising them of course we should raise them. The problem is that the current system education was designed and conceived and structured for a different age.
It was conceived in the intellectual culture of the enlightenment and in the economic circumstances of the industrial revolution. Before the middle of the 19th century, there were no systems of public education not really I mean you could get educated by jesuits you know if you had the money but public education paid for from taxation, compulsory to everybody and free at the point of delivery, that was a revolutionary idea and many people objected to it. They said it’s not possible for many street kids, working-class children, to benefit from public education. They’re incapable of learning to read and write and why we’re spending time on this.
So there’s also built into it a whole series of assumptions about social structure and capacity, it was driven by an economic imperative of the time but running right through it was an intellectual model of the mind which was essentiall that real intelligence consists in this capacity for a certain type of deductive reasoning and the knowledge of the classics originally what we come to think of as academic ability and this is deep in the gene pool of public education that they’re really two types of people academic and non-academic. Smart people are non-smart people and the consequence of that is that many brilliant people think they’re not because they’ve been judged against this particular view of the mind.
So we have twin pillars, economic and intellectual and my view is that this model has caused chaos in many people’s lives, it’s been great for some there have been people who benefited wonderfully from it. But most people have not. I believe we have a system of education that is modeled on the interests of industrialism and in the image of it. I’ll give you a couple of examples. Schools are still pretty much organised on factory lines, ringing bells, separate facilities specialised into separate subjects. We still educate children by batches. You know, we put them through the system by age group. Why do we do that?
You know why is there this assumption that the most important thing kids have in common is how old they are? You know it’s like the most important thing about them is their date of manufacture. What do you mean? Well I know kids who are much better than other kids at the same age in different disciplines you know or at different times of the day or better in smaller groups than in large groups or sometimes they want to be on their own. If you’re interested in the model of learning, you don’t start from this production line mentality.
These are it’s essentially about conformity and increasingly it’s about that as you look at the growth of standardised testing and standardised curricula and it’s about standardisation. I believe we’ve got to go in the exact opposite direction that’s what I mean about changing the paradigm. There is a great study done recently of divergent thinking. Published couple of years ago, divergent thinking isn’t the same thing as creativity. I define creativity as the the process of having original ideas that have value. Divergent thinking isn’t a synonym but it’s a an essential capacity for creativity.
It’s the ability to see lots of possible answers to a question, lots of possible ways of interpreting a question to think what Edward Debona would probably call laterally,to think not just in linear or convergent ways. To see multiple answers not one, so I mean there’s tests for this I mean one kind of COD example would be people might be asked to say how many uses can you think of for a paper clip all those routine questions most people might come up with 10 or 15. People who are good at this might come up with 200, and they do that by saying well could the paperclip be 200 foot tall and be made out of foam rubber?
You know like does it have to be a paper clip as we know it Jim you know Now, they tested this and they gave them to 1500 people in a book called rate point and beyond and on the protocol of the test if you scored above a certain level, you’d be considered to be a genius at divergent thinking, okay, so my question to you is what percentage of the people tested of the 1500 scored at genius level for divergent thinking? Now, you need to know one more thing about them, these were kindergarten children. So, what do you think? What percentage of genius level?
98%. Now the thing about this was it was a longitudinal study so they retested the same children five years later age of eight to ten what do you think fifty they retested them again five years later ages 13 to 15. You can see a trend here coming
now this tells an interesting story because you could have imagined it going the other way couldn’t you? You start off not being very good but you get better as you get older but this shows
two things: one is we all have this capacity and two it mostly deteriorates. Now, a lot of things have happened to these kids as they’ve grown up, a lot, but one of the most important things that I’m convinced is that by now they’ve become educated they know they’ve spent 10 years at school being told there’s one answer it’s at the back and don’T look and don’t copy because that’s cheating. I mean outside schools that’s called collaboration no that’s inside schools. Now this isn’t because teachers want it this way, it’s just because it happens that way it’s because it’s in the gene pool of education.
We have to think differently about human capacity, we have to get over this old conception of
academic, non-academic, abstract theoretical, vocational and see it for what it is: a myth. Secondly, we have to recognise that most great learning happens in groups. The collaboration is the stuff of growth, if we atomise people and separate them and judge them separately we form a kind of disjunction between them and their natural learning environment and thirdly it’s crucially about the culture of our institutions the habits of the institution and the habitats that they occupy.

In the video above, Sir Ken Robinson (2010) talks profoundly about the risk of continuing to employ today an education paradigm designed and conceived for a previous age – a paradigm potentially incompatible with the contemporary world our students know and experience. Maintaining this paradigm-misfit suggests our students will become increasingly disengaged, which will adversely impact their learning.

Scholars such as Kuh (2009) tell us that enhancing student engagement significantly increases the chances of any student achieving educational objectives and developing the skills required in the 21st century.

You’ve considered how student diversity and our views of learning can influence our teaching practices. Let’s now reflect on the role of student engagement. Start by reflecting on how you define student engagement and why.

Kuh (2009) suggests educators can have a profound and positive influence on student engagement through their teaching choices, such as the level of academic challenge, frequency of active or collaborative learning, or a variety of student-teacher interactions.

However, he also acknowledges that universities function in a wider higher education sector and global landscape, which bring further external influences.


Kuh, G. D. (2009). What student affairs professionals need to know about student engagement. Journal of College Student Development, 50(6), 683–706. Web link

Robinson, K. (2010). RSA Animate: Changing education paradigms [Video]. YouTube. Web link

This article is from the free online

Exploring Teaching and Assessment for Higher Education

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education