The Future of Education: A Conversation with Rob Paterson


Last month I spoke to blogger Rob Paterson, advisor to NPR and other media and educational institutions, about the future of education and essential competencies. I started by asking Rob what he thought were the competencies we need to acquire to succeed in the world, and to make it a better place?

Rob: I think they’re the same. We don’t need masses of PHDs in English. We need people who can cope with adversity, pull together, with real skills that are pragmatic and practical. We need pioneers. I say that because I think we’re going to be facing some truly disruptive and difficult times and all our current views of how the world works are going to be turned right over. I’m looking for the types of competencies or competences that are both social and pragmatic. At the moment the schools do none of this. They teach people to be obedient, compliant. In school kids don’t learn any social skills worth having either. I think we have a complete mismatch between the education establishment and the kind of people we will need to get through peak oil, overpopulation, all those kind of things.

Dave: If we can’t get these through the education system, how do we acquire these competencies?

Rob: I think reforming the education system is too titanic and difficult a task. My son for example left school at 14, attended Central Tech in Toronto where they have a wonderful art program, and he became an artist. And I think this is leading practice. I’ve met several boys recently in the 14-16 year age group who are so disenchanted with school, boys with strong talents in the kinetic sense. One of them who I met in North Caroline recently — any piece of machinery that you give him he could fix. He could make a very good living at this, but he’s forced to go to high school. I met another boy who is incredibly clever but is so bored at school. I’m focused on boys at the moment, because they tend to be very kinetic, they have to move around, they like and need to see things,  touch things, do things. They are completely turned off by their experience in the system and so my recommendation to them is to leave school.

Dave: Do we scrap the school system entirely then and leave it up to everyone to find more effective ways of learning?

Rob: I’m recommending that Holland College,  a technical school here on Prince Edward Island (PEI) open its doors as a middle school choice, as an alternative to junior high — and let young people have the choice to become a carpenter or an auto mechanic or something like that. I’d love to talk to U PEI and recommend they set up something like UTS (University of Toronto Schools) and say to kids in middle school (because it’s in middle school — junior high — where we lose them) — I’d like to talk about early education in a second — But if U PEI could say “If you really want to have an accelerated path we’ve got the school for you. I think that would throw such a spanner (wrench) in the works that there might actually be some change.

There’s another side to this that’s even more important. Our behaviour and our worldview and our ability to learn anything is set before we arrive in school. At the moment in Canada 30% of children are already incapable of learning or behaving in a social manner that would equip them to do anything in life, when they start school. In South Korea this number would be less than 7%. That’s bvecause of how we’re all living today — children are objectified, and they don’t get the attention they need from the people who are most important to them — their parents. This is a growing trend. You can see it in the obesity, lack of academic progress and so on.

What we’re beginning to learn is that it’s about genes but it isn’t — it’s about what is called the epigenome. Let’s say you and I were twin brothers. We’d be born at the same starting point, but at the age of 20 we’d have about a 30% difference in genes, and by age 70 about an 80% difference. Various experiences that happen to us when we’re young switch off or switch on various genes. The most important aspect here is the fight-or-flight response — More and more children are not being given the environment at home that is essential for small primates. All the genes that are necessary for them to cope, to learn, to feel OK about themselves and the world are being compromised.

So we have to work in the early childhood area and we have to work in middle school, because when the 30% come in they’re so disruptive that being a teacher is a bit like being a lion tamer. You’re lucky not to be killed. We all get pulled by our social networks, so that by the end of middle school, about 70% of the kids, well, they’re done. They’ll never be able to hold a decent job, and they live in a kind of fantasy world.

We end up with a school system now with 70% who will not be able to be competent citizens.

Dave: Do you think it’s that hopeless? I’m thinking of the work of Gustavo Esteva who worked with young people of Southern Mexico in the Open University in an unschooling system and found that, after goofing off for awhile, they took responsibility for their own learning and applied themselves to learn useful things. Isn’t it possible young people could bounce back and learn how to learn given the right freedom and space?

Rob: I’m not writing off the whole 70%. I’m saying that without doing anything, we have at the moment a 70-80% failure rate in our schools. And the 30% who arrive in Grade 1 in that state are probably beyond help by then. They’re the ones who are pulling down the rest, forcing the rest of the school to cope with that disruptive element. It’s like your immune system. If you have a small infection it’s manageable. But if you have an open wound your whole body is working full tilt to deal with that infection, so that nothing else can get done. That’s why the scale of the problem, and the initial conditions, affect the whole school system. So I don’t have any hope for the system.

Dave: So it seems to me then the answer is to just scrap the school system and let people try different experiments and watch to see which ones work, and allow people to learn from that. Wouldn’t you say?

Rob: I think I would. It can’t be any worse. In 1900, 90% of children in Canada and the US were literate. Now over 50% of Canadians and Americans are basically not literate. It’s shocking. And in Atlantic Canada we’re going to have almost no young here. We have a very low birth rate, and all our bright kids leave. In fifteen years more than half the population will be over the age of 65. This is a crisis.

Dave: What would you do if you were the parent of a five-year-old today?

Rob: I would homeschool them. That doesn’t mean the parents have to be at home all the time. You could set something up with other parents, like Chris Corrigan has done in Bowen Island. Unschooling. School is one of the most terrible things we’ve inflicted upon humanity. And I enjoyed school.

Dave: If we did that, tried out experiments and came up with some workable unschooling models, do you think we’d still need standardized testing to gauge whether certain essential skills had been acquired?

Rob: Absolutely not. You’re connecting education to a job and a resume. We don’t get any work because we have a piece of paper, we get it because people know we can do something. That’s the world we are going to go back to. The idea of all these people working in cubicles and pushing paper around is a fantasy about what the future will be.

Dave: Do you think we could have reached the stage where we are recognized for our credentials if we didn’t first have a piece of paper that gave us the opportunity to work in an environment where we could acquire those credentials in the first place? What if I as an executive need someone to do research — what would give me the confidence that an unschooled, untested young person would be capable of doing that research, and pick them over the person with the piece of paper?

Rob: First, if they’re brand new, you apprentice them, and find out if they can really do the job. I have friends working in such organizations now and no one is full time until they’ve apprenticed for six  months there. You have to prove you can do it. An interview only confirms the intuition that a person might work out. It takes six months to see whether the person has the skills and temperament to fit into the organization. If they don’t they’re gone.

Dave: But most organizations today would argue they’re operating under such tight constraints they can’t afford to bring people on as apprentices. They would say that’s what the education system is for.

Rob: They can afford it, because you can pay them minimum wage or nothing. Society has now outsourced the business of education, which worked quite well for four million years, to institutions.

Let’s talk about the skill sets at my local university here (U PEI). Most of the best, graduate business school students I taught are still waiting on tables here. Most of them have at least $30,000 worth of debt. And while they’re very nice and clever people, they actually don’t have any skills. They know how to do a marketing plan for Coca-Cola, but they’ve never sold anything. They know how to do strategic finance for IBM, but they don’t know basic bookkeeping. They know absolutely nothing.

Let’s look at science. I’m doing work here with the university labs. But the professors tell me the absolutely worst person to hire is a Bachelor of Science. They do know how to operate machinery though, and if they started there, and built up a reputation working in the lab, then they could take a Bachelor of Science. We’ve got it the wrong way round. People do a BA in Business and they know absolutely nothing. And the poor kids are debt-laden with a piece of paper that’s worth nothing.

Dave: So if you don’t have standardized testing, how do you develop a framework or program for self-learning?

Rob: Why? Why not just let them self-learn, become brilliant at what they want to do? In Atlantic Canada there’s a new Hibernia field opening up right now in Newfoundland. If every Newfie working out West came home there’s still be a shortage. And Irving are going to build a gas terminal on the Atlantic coast. The demand for skilled labour — welding for example I’d agree you’d have to have a piece of paper. Though if you said you were a skilled welder and I was a skilled welder it would take at most an hour or so for me to tell if you were really good.

The ‘currency’ of the (university degree) paper needs to be challenged now. You have to prove that you can do it. My software friends here don;t pay any attention to degrees. And if people aren’t pleasant to be around you don’t want them. The temperament issue is very important. We seem to think that skills are merely the technical ones.

One last story. If you wanted to join an elite unit in Greece in the Pelopanisian War, you’d have to fight alongside the unit for free until they decided you were qualified. In the US submarine service today, except for the captain (who goes through a ruthless peer review process) you are on probation for a year and can be voted off the boat even if you’re an executive officer, by the crew. They know any one person on a submarine can kill them all. That’s a high-performance technical environment and a very good model.

Dave: OK. You’re the czar, the Education Minister responsible for the new unschooling unsystem. How would you make it work?

Rob: I’d stay out of the unsystem and do three things to improve the system. Offer three-year in-home support for parents of young children having trouble coping, to help them develop their parenting skills. I’d shift the resources for the first years of life from baby-sitting to a focus on early learning. Pushing a lot more resources into preschool year support and involving parents extensively in that.

Secondly, I’d open up the standard curriculum in the schools, to open up opportunities for kids to go off and do what interests them. Unschool the school.

Lastly: My school, Harrow, is nearly 500 years old, with a social structure that has evolved from trial and error. So while there are 800 students in the school, far beyond the 150 top Dunbar number, all the boys are in houses of between 60 and 80. Everything is competing with the other houses. So you get a great deal of social cohesion there. The discipline of the school is run entirely by the boys themselves, some of whom have positions of significant authority. I’d be looking at models like that.

So if you have a 3000-kid high school (not uncommon), with no formal structures, it will be run like a prison. Cliques and gangs and bullying and all those kinds of things. The social environment of the school needs to be well thought through, so the discipline issues go away.

Dave: What do you do with the students who don’t want to go to school at all, who think that environment is part of the problem. Could they opt out and just choose to learn at their own pace outside the system?

Rob: Absolutely. We couldn’t do any worse than we’re doing now.

Dave: What role would technology play in this new school environment?

Rob: Technology isn’t really an issue. Its current popularity is about the desire of people to be connected in a more human and natural way. Technology can facilitate that. Today you have a lot of people teaching in school who basically don’t know anything. How to teach, or their subjects.

What’s interesting about Bowen Island is that in the community there are a lot of people who know a lot about certain things. Let’s say little Dave is really interested in astronomy. This technology would allow you to hook up with other people and not be confined by geography, other people who wanted to help teach you.

We’re seeing this in music, where more and more music teachers are teaching using Skype, with the video on, remotely. Remember what school was like 100 years ago. The women running for senior office today — Hillary Clinton — would have been teaching school. Today’s bank presidents would have been teaching school. By contrast, the calibre of teaching today is, I think, outrageously low. Technology would allow students and good teachers to find each other all over the world, and coalesce around people who are very gifted.

The school then becomes an agency for facilitation, rather than a force pounding ‘knowledge’ into children’s reluctant heads.

Dave: What if we don’t do any of this? What will we be looking at in the next fifty years?

Rob: Sometime in the next few months or years the full impact of Peak Oil will roll over us. Our whole way of life will be turned upside down. It will be accompanied with changes in climate, increases in conflict etc. So we’re going to hit a hugely turbulent time in the lifetime of the children at school today. Kids who are not resilient, who can’t cope well, who have no skills, will fall badly, and societies dominated by people who have no skills are going to fail utterly.

The stakes are larger than they’ve ever been.

[Rob provided the following epilogue to the conversation after I stopped recording:]

Many thanks for the opportunity to talk about my extreme views of education. They, my thoughts, have been influenced by a growing sense of why all aspects of modern life are so unnatural – that is we tend us use kinetic force is a machine way to act upon. Hence broadcasting was a one way deal with the broadcaster holding all the cards. War is a kinetic thing whereby until recently force alone was enough.

These one-way force-laden kinetic approaches no longer seem to work well. The paramount example is how we see our education system and child rearing – we  knock stuff into our kids. They are objects and so is knowledge. I offer up 3 books that have helped me see a practical way of seeing the child as a natural learner whose primary learning process is curiosity, observation and trial and error.

Are we not moving from an object oriented and externally motivated world to a relational and intrinsically motivated world? If so then education and child rearing has to go there too – is this not what you have been so passionate about? A more natural approach?

The first is the Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff – Liedloff observes how indigenous people raise children. The book is of course deeply offensive to many women today. It’s primary thesis is that the infant requires a close physical attachment to the mother for the first year while paradoxically it also requires that the adult remain focused in the adult world. So lots of touch and lots of observation by the infant but no giving the child the illusion that it is in charge. The opposite of how we raise kids today in the west. The baby’s need for touch – the key pathway for all development – is maximised as is the ability to observe the adult world. This is the key foundation for all development – touch and literacy are tightly coupled.

The second is the culmination of a lifetime of work by the late John Holt – Learning All the Time – All of Holt’s books are worth reading – but this is a quick summary and full of how you might be able to help a child do really well. For instance he is clear that it should not take more than 30 hours to teach a child how to read – provided you do the right thing! The book is based on the idea, as is Liedloff, that we are natural learners who are most shut down when the thrill of learning is taken away from us. The book is very practical and is the bible for all who seriously want to home or un school – when you read it you may see why I feel so badly about school as it is.

My last choice is – Punished by Rewards – by Alfie Kohn.  Kohn points out how destructive any extrinsic system of reward is. Liedloff also makes this point when she points out that in traditional societies no one talks down to a child – School is all about marks and bits of paper and is not about the reality of learning – also school reinforces a helpless view of the world where satisfaction comes from outside and not from within.

This entry was posted in Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The Future of Education: A Conversation with Rob Paterson

  1. Peter Keuler says:

    In my senior year of high school, someone told me that they couldn’t comprehend why someone as smart as I wasn’t going to college. I told them that if I was indeed smart, then how could I come to the conclusion that college is a waste of time? 3.5 years later, I believe it was the right decision. I have learned, grown, and excelled on my own (by my own measure) far faster than homework and tests could provide. Although, 2 years ago I would have told you I was having second thoughts about it, I have figured out the ropes now. School and learning are not mutually inclusive.

  2. Taking time off from college, I learned more than I have ever learned in school. And it was learning I wanted to do, not the learning that some established authority said I had to in order to get my degree. This is yet another reason why I feel education is highly ineffective and does not produce people who are capable of functioning and have critical thinking. The people in charge don’t want that anyway. They’d rather have you strong enough to work the machines, but not smart enough to realize how badly you’re being screwed over by a system that doesn’t care about you.

  3. lugon says:

    I learned to read etc at school. Other than that, I think most of what I’ve learned (including English, btw) I learned outside school.

  4. lugon says:

    (most of my English, I mean)

  5. Erich Welz says:

    Hello Dave,Long time reader first time commenter. This blog post hit very close to home for me. I have one of those wonderful B.A’s in Business where I learned how to do Marketing plans for large companies that I have no interest in working for. I have taken a year out of my life to unschool myself in various subjects and am thrilled with the results. I am also a big fan of unschooling despite being brought up in the school system, my concern is, and I suppose this is more directed at Rob, how might I, a young person with fresh realization that my piece of paper isn’t fantastic apply my skills towards areas where I am interested yet don’t have the correct piece of paper that is often asked for. Perhaps you are familiar with the site It has lots of environmental career jobs that I am interested in, and feel qualified for through my own self-development.You’ll be hearing more from me in future. I am enthralled with the variety of subject matter on which you write.Erich

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Erich: He’re my usual advice on this subject (which it sounds like commenter Peter Kueler above has learned). The system cannot be reformed, so:1. Take control of your own learning. You’ll learn better yourself by doing than by sitting in classroooms. Talk to entrepeneurs or artists or scientists who actually do something with their learning and knowledge. Discover what they do right and wrong. And then set up your own enterprise as a model for others to follow, doing something you’re good at, love doing, and which meets a need, with people who share your passion and purpose. 2. If/when you have kids, don’t put them in the public or private school system. Unschool them. Teach them what they never teach in school, which is how to learn for yourself.

  7. Erich Welz says:

    Dave,Thank you for the advice. I shall see what I can do. Especially regarding talking to entrepreneurs in the areas in which I am interested. I am already a big fan of John Holt.

Comments are closed.