How our education system is failing us… and our democracy

During my secondary school years, I didn’t really apply myself. Whilst a good portion of the blame must lie with my own laziness, part of the issue also lay in the culture of schooling in this country. We have lost touch with what our educational system is meant to achieve, whilst still exhaustively trying to check whether it’s achieving it or not.

Schools have become laboratories, where we constantly assess and test the abilities of pupils, without any real notion of what our end goal is. Whilst it is important to have some sense of how well pupils are doing and if institutions are performing to standard, we have allowed this minor consideration to become inflated beyond all sense of proportion, choking out any real sense of curiosity or passion in our educational system. And what’s worse is that it’s having an adverse effect on our democracy too.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in his ground-breaking book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, describes our intuition-driven, stereotyping, unconscious ‘System 1 mode’ of thinking, and our more deliberate, logical, slow-paced ‘System 2’. He takes readers on a whistle-stop tour of the flaws and faults (which he terms ‘heuristics’ and ‘biases’) in how we think (when ‘System 1’ makes the wrong leaps) and Westminster must have been reading it, because they’re ruthlessly exploiting them all.

Our ability to form quick judgments is incredibly vital, but it can at times lead to dangerously bad decisions. Whilst it is certainly not true of all public officials, it is those that are most successful in our political system that seem to be best at exploiting our ‘System 1’, to our detriment.

Take Farage. He sells a simple and compelling narrative to the electorate: the EU and their open border policies are destroying Britain—if we pull out, all will be fine once more. This taps into our desire to have a simple story to explain a set of facts, and to their credit, UKIP have come up with a simpler story than any other party. It also relies on vague stereotypes of immigrants (“you know what I mean”) and appels to our in-group/out-group mentality, where we find it easier to blame the out-group for our problems than to look internally for solutions.

As Kahneman points out, it is far easier to come up with such a story when you focus on a relatively small amount of facts (how much we pay in EU contributions, how many immigrants enter the UK each year) but to maintain it you must ignore others (the amount of Brits living abroad, the benefits of EU membership), otherwise the story will struggle to account for these new facts and the illusion of a simple narrative will waver (as you will in the polls).

Another example lies in Conservative rhetoric concerning the deficit. We’ve been told that harsh austerity measures are worth it because the deficit has been lowered and the economy has begun to grow again (completely forgetting a pledge to eradicate the former by this time and a prediction of more of the latter than we’ve seen). When we were in the midst of the recession, both the deficit and economic growth were in exceptionally bad states- they were, to use statistical speak, exceptional outliers.

What the concept of ‘regression to the mean’ tells us is that whenever you encounter exceptional values, be it for goals scored in a season, size of your pet elephant, or indeed economic growth, it is statistically probable that next time round the new value will be far closer to the average than last time. Therefore, if we have a recession where economic growth is exceptionally negative, it is far more likely to be closer to average economic growth next time (i.e very likely to improve). Put simply, things were bound to get better, austerity or no.

Now if economic growth had been particularly high it would be a different story, but given the infamously slow rise out of the recessional ooze that we experienced mid-parliament, it seems unlikely that any factor other than regression to the mean was affecting our economic prospects. Osborne’s much lauded austerity doesn’t quite have the backing he likes to claim it does- the Conservatives have played on our desire for a causal explanation of what has happened, an explanation we find infinitely more satisfying than the seemingly random regression to the mean. They’ve also abused our apparent inability to grasp the fundamentals of statistics, with David Cameron plain lying to us about national debt.

Whilst some of the above (and they are but three of a myriad of ways in which politicians are exploiting our ‘System 1’s’) may seem like quite distant statistical and political arguments, they shouldn’t. These are exactly the things we should be teaching in schools—how to understand basic representations of data, how to critically evaluate them and the arguments they are meant to serve, and how to spot common flaws in our own reasoning. A recent study found that the majority of students are graduating without the cognitive skills required to think critically, suggesting that our educational system is singularly failing to flex our ‘System 2’s’, and the result is a disempowered electorate, and a political system massively open to abuse.

The latest batch of changes coming in this term to the National Curriculum prioritise ‘hard scientific facts’ (whatever they are) and spelling: it seems our educational system is heading in the wrong direction entirely, whilst the electorate continues to be manipulated and lied to.

Rather than overworking and constantly apprising staff, or allowing the toxic notion of ‘competition’ to enter education, it is only by re-evaluating the core purpose of our educational system (a purpose that should be to give us tools that expand our ways of thinking and to spot our cognitive flaws) that we will be able to acquire a purposeful and enriching educational system.

NOTE: This article originally appeared in Bright Green: http://bright-green.org/youth/how-our-education-system-is-failing-us-and-our-democracy/

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How our education system is failing us… and our democracy

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