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What might an ideal education system look like?

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

As a student, I attended public schools in Canada during the 90s and early 2000s. I was always incessantly curious and loved to learn, but at school, I was consistently bored. It felt like a punishment, being neither challenging nor interesting. There was very little I couldn't learn from a book, and what I did want to learn was not what was being taught. Even in those days, I fantasized about what my dream school might be like, but eventually, I accepted that school was just something miserable you had to get through. Now that I'm a teacher, I've been exposed to a wide variety of education systems, and I've seen enough to know better. Kids like me can be excited about learning, but if that's going to happen, schools need to change.


"There is no such thing as a perfect education system. There are simply too many different kinds of learners, and what will work for some may not work for others. That doesn't mean that things couldn't be a lot better than they are."

Utopia ideal education system futuristic school
Source - Midjourney

Introduction


I need to preface this post with a disclaimer. There is no such thing as a perfect education system. There are simply too many different kinds of learners, and what will work for some may not work for others. That doesn't mean that things couldn't be a lot better than they are. Many in the education profession have come to this conclusion as well, but the resistance to change is strong, and it's not always intentional. One thing I've struggled with as a progressive teacher is trying to wrap my head around a teaching system that I myself never experienced as a student. It would be easy to shrug and say "I went through this system and I turned out okay", but if we're really honest with ourselves, I think many teachers would admit that we can do better. Our students deserve better.


What is school for?


Before we can get into what the research says about building a better education system, we need to first agree on what school is actually for. This seems like a straightforward question, but even here there are vastly differing opinions.


Are schools for disseminating specialized knowledge that can't easily be learned at home? That's the opinion of Michael Young of the University of London. Are they places of sustained learning designed to prepare students to thrive in the world of the future? That's what Guy Claxton, author of What's the Point of School? suggests. The French Philosopher Michel Foucault compared schools to prisons, as both are carefully conceived government institutions for disciplining and controlling the masses. Holistic education proponents John White and Ron Miller both assert that schools should provide young people with a diverse range of individualized experiences while developing meaningful relationships. Or, as this New York Times opinion piece argues, perhaps we need to accept that school is a form of childcare that exists, in part, so that working parents can continue to support the economy. Realistically, schools are probably all of these things to varying degrees. I think what we need to ask ourselves, though, is what we envision for our students when their schooling is complete (you could argue that education never ends).


Personally, I would be greatly satisfied if all of my students graduate as happy, curious, resourceful young adults with good communication skills. I hope that they care about the Earth and their local communities. I want them to be good problem-solvers and decision-makers. I hope they've been exposed to a diverse range of people and experiences and have had a chance to pursue their own interests in depth. It doesn't bother me if they don't know the ins and outs of all the latest technologies. I also don't care if they know the stages of the Krebs cycle or remember how to do long division.


"Before we can get into what the research says about building a better education system, we need to first agree on what school is actually for."

Unfortunately, most schools as we know them today are still using century-old methods developed for producing a uniform, industrialist workforce. Students are regularly assessed and compared with national or international standards, from elementary right up through high school and beyond. Standardized tests determine which classes you can take and which universities you can attend. In many ways, they very much determine your future. However, anyone who cares for young people can easily see that there is no such thing as a standardized child. This is a problem. We can't profess to value diversity while simultaneously obsessing over standardization.


Elements of a better school system


So what might an ideal education system look like? Based on my research in this area, a better system should do all of the following...

  1. Support individualized learning

  2. Provide a mixed-age environment

  3. Focus on skills development

  4. Prioritize progress, not results

  5. Have consistently high standards

  6. Foster healthy relationships and a sense of community

Some of these systems go together. Some would work well on their own. Adopting at least one would be likely to generate some benefits, and making all six an education priority would require a truly monumental and challenging shift in policy. I'll break down each of these in some detail below and share a few research samples.


1. Support individualized learning


Kids are naturally curious, like little scientists just itching to experiment with everything. Unfortunately, they're not all curious about the same things, and when we force them to learn what they aren't interested in, we waste their time, threaten their creativity, and reduce their desire to explore.


"We can't profess to value diversity while simultaneously obsessing over standardization."

Individualized learning is a style of teaching that puts the focus on each student's unique interests, giving them choices and autonomy for what they would like to pursue. This is a form of student-centered or student-led learning, although these learning styles may be based on the collaborative needs of a group or class of students rather than on individual needs as the name suggests.


Schools can help students develop individualized learning plans (ILPs) to help them set goals and navigate career pathways successfully. This should not be confused with individualized education plans (IEPs), which are typically created for students who need extra support of some kind.


ILPs have already been shown to have positive associations with college and career readiness. It is important that students be given sufficient time to work on their ILP goals, however, and the role of the teacher should not be underestimated. A 2019 meta-analysis including 299 studies drew some important conclusions about how to structure student-teacher interactions for successfully integrating these approaches. In general, student-centered learning environments resulted in higher achievement levels than those with a teacher-centered focus. However, if students were allowed to control the pace and direction of their learning, there was a significantly negative effect on their achievement. Similarly, if students are heavily involved in designing courses and selecting materials, achievement was reduced. Thus the teacher still has a vital role in facilitating learning and guiding students toward their goals. Flipped classrooms are one way that teachers can put the focus on individual students, allowing them to work at their own pace or explore content in a way that suits their needs while still providing structure.


2. Provide a mixed-age environment


Most school systems group children based on their ages with the assumption that they are developmentally similar and capable of performing the same tasks. This may be convenient for a variety of logistical reasons, but it may not be the best environment for learning. If schools are meant to prepare students for the real world, shouldn't they be structured like it? For example, have you ever worked at a company where everyone was the same age? If anything, It's much more likely that your coworkers have similar interests or ability levels, but even those are probably pretty diverse. So what are the benefits of mixed-age classrooms?


For one thing, kids appear to behave better when in a mixed-age setting. A study of 649 students in 29 classrooms showed that compared with same-age environments, learners in mixed-age classrooms were less likely to be socially isolated and exhibit aggressive behaviours.


"It took a pass/fail course in university for me to recognize the true value of learning and the completely false motivations grades create in our students."

Here 'mixed-age' does not refer to combined classes that are created to deal with student numbers or mandated by the government. According to some studies, such classrooms tend to experience no observable benefit from mixed-age groupings, but where intentionally planned and facilitated by trained educators, the effects can be significant. Obviously it is difficult to differentiate instruction across multiple age and ability levels, which is why teacher training in this area is critical. Early childhood programs, including Montessori education, already make extensive use of mixed-age learning environments, but there is great potential for success at the primary and secondary levels as well.


It's not all roses, however, as some studies have indicated neutral or even negative associations with cognitive abilities in mixed-age learning environments, as this study of Swedish students in grades 4-6 suggests. However, this study only looked at grade 6 test results, which were below average. If the grade 4 students had been tested, I suspect that a positive relationship might have been observed, but we can only speculate on that. Of course, standardized testing was not designed for students in mixed-age settings, either, so it can hardly be used as a metric for determining its merits. What the study does indicate, however, is that the effect was mostly gone by the time the Swedish students reached grade 9. Furthermore, according to Elaine Steinbeck, professor of early childhood education, the unevenness observed in mixed-age classrooms is seen as a normal part of human development rather than a cause for concern.


3. Focus on skills development


I'm very passionate about educating students based on skills rather than content. Information is abundant in today's society, but skills such as collaboration, media literacy, and time management are always in demand. This has led me to adopt project-based learning (PBL) strategies in all of my classes. You can read more about my journey towards PBL instruction here, or read this article I wrote on deciding whether or not PBL will work for you.


Project-based learning has become a pretty popular method of instruction worldwide, but does it really improve student outcomes? A 2016 analysis of the PBL literature points out that very few studies have compared randomly assigned groups of students in project-based and traditional classrooms. Thus establishing strong correlations is difficult, but even so, enough quasi-experimental studies from around the world have indicated the positive effects of PBL to merit a further and more serious investigation into the potential of this teaching strategy. Aside from improvements in academic results, PBL has been shown to increase student motivation, even among at-risk or low-achievement groups.


"A bad relationship with one or more teachers can have a negative effect on students (and presumably their teachers as well), leading to poor performance, dropouts, and unneccessary stress."

As with other education systems already discussed here, project-based learning only works when teachers are motivated and trained effectively. Furthermore, buy-in and support from administrators, parents, and the students themselves is critical for its success. If you'd like to learn more about PBL, I recommend checking out pblworks.org.


4. Prioritize progress, not results


I've long been a vocal critic of grading students. It took a pass/fail course in university for me to recognize the true value of learning and the completely false motivations grades create in our students. So-called 'ungraded' classrooms do away with traditional assessments and focus on feedback in various forms, whether written, verbal, or otherwise.


A 2015 study of more than 8000 students found significant negative associations between grading and future academic achievement in some groups. Grade 6 students in ungraded classrooms were more likely to achieve higher scores in grades 7, 8, and 9 than their graded counterparts, an effect more strongly pronounced in low-ability students. Crucially, the same low-ability students were more likely to graduate high school when they had experienced ungraded classes in elementary school. Interestingly, however, girls tended to respond more favourably to grades than boys and were more likely to graduate when graded as well.


"if schools are to be successful in producing active global citizens, they must provide their students with meaningful experiences in the community, both locally and beyond."

Although anecdotal, I've noticed a significant trend of older students lacking motivation in ungraded environments that is far less pronounced or entirely absent in younger learners. In my opinion, this has more to do with their reliance on the education systems they've become accustomed to rather than anything to do with their age. It may take a realization similar to my own for students to shift to an ungraded environment successfully, especially as they approach graduation.


What about college admissions, then? Not to worry. Almost all schools have systems in place to accept students from alternative programs - even those without grades. It may require the student to complete one or more standardized exams or walk the admissions team through their academic journey, but it can be done.


5. Have consistently high standards


How can we ensure that students are learning anything if we aren't grading or testing them regularly? Hold them accountable, of course! Informal and formative assessments become critical to student success under such a system. At the same time, students should be encouraged to assess their own progress, and each others', regularly and honestly.


I couldn't find many scholarly articles related to maintaining high student standards - but there are lots of specific studies on how to motivate and keep students on task. One study examined how to reduce procrastination. Students could choose between externally-imposed deadlines, self-imposed deadlines, or no deadlines at all. As long as there were consequences assigned to missing these submission dates, students performed better when they had deadlines, and they performed best of all when the deadlines were externally determined. Once again, it seems teachers are necessary for ensuring that students remain productive.


6. Foster healthy relationships and a sense of community


A large meta-analysis from Scandinavia examined the relationships between teachers and their students, and while there are a wide range of results, the overall trends are fairly clear. Positive student-teacher relationships are inversely correlated with student mental health issues while positively correlated with factors such as high school graduation rates. Such relationships have been shown to have an additional benefit as well - for the teachers! A word of caution, however. A bad relationship with one or more teachers can have a negative effect on students (and presumably their teachers as well), leading to poor performance, dropouts, and unnecessary stress.


Obviously student-student relationships are of critical importance as well, but I'm not going to spend a lot of time on that because such relationships are not dependent on school.


"...we are left with more questions than answers and quite a few areas where research is lacking. Surprisingly, we still have a lot to learn about education."

Lastly, if schools are to be successful in producing active global citizens, they must provide their students with meaningful experiences in the community, both locally and beyond. According to a study of more then 1000 secondary students, all experiential programs have the potential to improve psychological, social, and intellectual development, but not all programs have a positive impact on the community. To that end, community service and service learning have the biggest impacts, where the former is focused primarily on community benefits and the latter involves specific learning goals in addition to these benefits. Unfortunately, most studies seem to be focused on student outcomes, not community outcomes.


Putting it all together


What does this look like in practice, then?


This 2015 paper from the Journal of Scientific Research and Management identifies 19 broad aspects of a supposed 'ideal education system' which, although backed by seemingly little evidence, seem pretty logical as a starting point. It describes an education system that is globally available, equally and flexibly accessible to students, free of compulsory subjects, easily transferrable, and relatively cheap to maintain. The article also makes a good point about examinations being repeatable and instantly assessed. The authors then go on to suggest that such a system might be best implemented through mobile devices, which is where I disagree, but I can see how they reached that conclusion.


A much more extensive account of what constitutes a superior education system is given in the peer-reviewed 2016 book entitled Education Systems and Inequalities, available for free in PDF format. Written with contributions from various researchers and specialists, this publication stresses the need for equal access to quality education. It also quite rightly asks questions about what we mean when we discuss 'educational returns'. Should we measure student returns in terms of their future health and happiness, or in terms of their monetary gains and achievements?


The same publication suggests some negative associations for countries with stratified or streaming pathways, then recommends Finland as a potential model to emulate, with its high PISA scores and low inequality rates. Although this book is packed with studies and evidence indicating trends around the world, we are left with more questions than answers and quite a few areas where research is lacking. Surprisingly, we still have a lot to learn about education.


Clearly, I've only scratched the surface here. You could easily spend a lifetime (or several) researching how to improve schools. In the meantime, kids are stuck in a system that could almost certainly be serving them better.


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