Tony Gurr

Highly Educated Useless People (from “guest blogger” – Ian Jukes)

In Guest BLOGGERS, Our Schools, Technology on 27/02/2011 at 1:21 pm

Ian (you have to watch his video) is one of the team of “educational imagineers” that brought us  The 21st Century Fluency Project and the “Committed Sardine.

He’s on the road at the moment and busy working his way through his overflowing inbox – but took some time out to get us a few thoughts as the second of our “guest bloggers” this week.

I had just finished speaking at an international educational conference. What followed completely floored me. It was not only what was said but also who said it, and how they said it.

The comment was as follows:

“Our students are amongst the very best performers academically in the world on the TIMS.” . The TIMS stands for The Third International Mathematics and Science Study. The speaker was describing students from his country

As he walked away, he calmly added, “The problem is that most of them [students] couldn’t think their way out of a wet paper bag if their life depended upon it. They’re nothing but highly educated useless people.”

The commentator: The Minister of Education of a certain high profile country.

I was speechless. Highly educated useless people?


What was he really telling us?

What he was saying was that his high-achieving students had school smarts and thus could excel at school-related activities – that they had developed special abilities that would allow them to move smoothly through the school system because they had developed the necessary skills to effectively cram for and write tests. What he was suggesting was that most academically successful students do well in large part because they have learned to play the game called school.

But in describing them as “highly educated useless people”, what he was also suggesting was that while many students in his country, particularly the brainy ones, had school smarts, they did not possess what is generally known as street smarts. For him, being street smart was about having the necessary higher-level thinking skills and competencies above and beyond being able to do well on a written exam that were needed to live and work in the real world beyond school, solving real world, real life problems in real time.

We become curious. What were the distinctions between being school smart and street smart? How could so many of these students, who were good at school and able to do so well on the tests, at the same time be inadequately prepared for life?

What was going on?

After much debate around our expectations of the who, what, why, where, when, and how surrounding school learning, we believe we finally have one answer. Thus answer is related to how we teach our students to learn and think.

When children first attend primary school, they are completely dependent upon their teachers to tell them what to do, how to do it, when to do it, where to sit when they are doing it, and even for how long. The primary focus is on mastering content and learning through memorization within a tightly controlled instructional environment.

In this environment, mastery of content is valued over thinking critically about the content. The teachers tell the students what they need to do to pass the test, to pass the course, to pass the grade, to move to the next level, and finally to graduate.

All the answers are prearranged, preformatted and ready for absorption by those who are willing and able to play the game called school. These are the academically successful. These are students are comfortable operating in a culture of dependency – dependent on the teacher, dependent on the textbook, dependent on the test.

Then after graduation from school, having spent 13 or more years in the system, the educational infrastructure that has held the students up for all their years in education is suddenly removed. When this happens, many of the students fall flat on their faces as they enter the real world. And we can’t understand why. Even though it is we, the educators, who are responsible for creating this culture of dependency on the teacher, the textbooks, and the test, we feel confused.

In the real world of today, school success clearly does not guarantee success in life.

So, what is the problem?

The answer lies in our efforts to ensure compliance in our learners. Somewhere along the line, we have lost sight of the need to develop in our students the capacity to become independent thinkers and doers.

If our students are to survive let alone thrive in the culture of the 21st century of technology-driven automation, abundance, and access to global labor market world, independent thinking and its corollary, creative thinking hold the highest currency.

If our students are to be successful in making the transition, our job as educators must be to move from demanding the compliance of our students to making ourselves progressively redundant. As we do this, we must shift the responsibility of learning from the teacher where it has traditionally been, to the learners where it belongs.

This shift sounds simple, but in fact, it is an incredibly complex task because for it to happen, it must occur in the hearts and minds of every single educational stakeholder – from the politician, to policy designer, to administrator, to teacher, parent, and even the student.

The new and different paradigm of teaching and learning is that of progressive withdrawal. Our responsibility must be to ensure that our students no longer need us by the time they graduate from school.

This is no different than what we do as parents. Think back to the very first tentative steps of your child. They stood there wobbling and teetering. Inevitably they fell down.

What did we do when this happened? Did we rush over, point at them and say, “39 – you fail, 28%, C minus, I’m sorry, you’ve had five chances, you don’t get any more?”

The answer is – of course not! What did we do? We clapped our hands, helped them up, brushed them off, wiped away their tears, and encouraged them to try again. We understood that our job as parents, as difficult and challenging as it might be, particularly during the teenage years, is to help our children to become independent. People who could stand all on their own, as they began to make their way through life.

So, what should we do?

Do we give up on helping our students to become school smart and simply focus on helping them become street smart? Absolutely not – we need them to be both school smart and street smart. This is not a matter of either/or.

Beyond this, there is a deeper question we need to ask. What do we want our students to be, feel, think, and do that measurably demonstrates that they are prepared and willing to step up from school to the world in which they will work, live, and play?

This is not a simple thing to answer because our present day world is in constant and rapid flux and profoundly complex. And it’s not getting any simpler.

We live in the dynamic world of InfoWhelm, where content is growing exponentially in both quantity and complexity. In this shifting landscape where digital content, is readily available at our fingertips, learners must be able to move beyond simple mastery of content recall and must develop the capacity to interpret and apply old and new information alike to new situations, problems, and new environments.

Access to information by itself is not the issue. Rather, learning to become a discerning and creative consumer of information is. In this new digital reality, the application of higher-order independent cognitive skills, within the context of real world, real life, and real time tasks; and of being able to transfer previous learning to new, different situations and challenges is of critical importance.

We firmly believe that invoking progressive withdrawal and fostering street smarts in school smart students requires a major shift to the existing educational paradigm. To enable this shift demands that we rethink the design of our schools, our classrooms and other learning environments.

At the same time, we need to rethink our assumptions about instructional design, what constitutes learning and even our definitions of what it means to be intelligent. And ultimately we must also rethink how we assess and evaluate both effective instruction and effective learning.

The exponentially growing body of content brought on by InfoWhelm has moved way beyond the content of traditional school subjects. The newer 21st century content areas include global awareness, financial, economic, business and entrepreneurial literacy, civic literacy, health and wellness awareness, leadership, ethics, accountability, and many others.

In particular, becoming an independent learner requires the development of two types of skills: those that emerge from the critical cognitive intelligences and those from the emotional intelligences.

Cognitive intelligences involve primarily the rational higher order thinking skills. These include how to manage, interpret, validate, transform, communicate, and act upon information. These cognitive intelligences include abstract reasoning, problem solving, communications, creativity, innovation, contextualized learning, and technical, information and media literacy skills all used in the context of content areas.

Emotional intelligence competencies include four major skill sets – self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. Today there is much evidence to show that significant leverage can be obtained by promoting learning strategies in the emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is particularly important in developing street smarts.

Then there is the matter related to not only what we assess, but also how we assess learning? Standardized tests can only measure the very narrow range of rational cognitive skills that can be measured by a bubble test, multiple choice, or fill-in-the-blanks exam. Real learning is about assessing much more than this.

The bottom line is that schools must change drastically if we are the reverse the growing disconnect between being school smart and being street smart. If we are going to make schools more relevant to our students’ futures – if we are going to prepare students for the real world that awaits them, there are at least five fundamental changes that need to be made.


1. We must acknowledge the new digital landscape

Schools must embrace the new digital reality of the online, computerized world described by Friedman’s The World is Flat. Outside of schools, the digital world has fundamentally and irrevocably altered the way things get done. This is not just the case for business but for many aspects of our lives.

It must be stressed that this is not about schools having high-speed networks or students being able to use laptops or handhelds. Even when hi-tech resources are available, if the resources are only used to reinforce old mindsets about teaching and learning and how that learning is assesses, little will have changed. This is about developing the full spectrum of cognitive and emotional intelligences that are increasingly required in the culture of the 21st century. As such, this is primarily a headware not a hardware issue.


2. Access but little guidance

The new digital landscape allows students access to information and learning experiences outside schools and classrooms. Learners can engage in experiences that have traditionally been the domain of teachers and the adult world. From home, shopping mall, whenever and wherever they are, students can access information, music, original sources and multi-media, full motion color images from friends and acquaintances, as well as people who might have diametrically opposed perspectives.

Because of our current fixation on testing, we are unable to properly guide our students or help them develop the necessary skills that will empower them to effectively use these powerful resources. As a result, it is often the students, not the teachers who define where they go, how they get there, and what they do when they arrive.

This is compounded by the fact that many adults, decision-makers, and educators are not in synch with the new digital reality of students. We don’t have the experience, skills or even the inclination to help them even if we have the time. Schools and teachers persist in using new technologies to reinforce old mindsets. These are issues well beyond computers and networks and way beyond traditional testing.

To understand the new digital landscape– to leverage their world, we must be willing to immerse ourselves in that world and embrace the new digital reality. If we can’t relate, if we don’t get it, we won’t be able to make schools relevant to the current and future needs of the digital generation.


3. Changing minds

We must address the shift in thinking patterns that are happening to digital students. They live and operate in a multimedia, online, multitask, random access, color graphics, video, audio, visual literacy world.

As Steven Johnson points out in Everything Bad is Good For You, these new literacies are generally not acknowledged, valued, or addressed in our schools. This is because these emerging literacies do not generally reflect our traditional definitions of literacy, which were confined and defined by the technologies of the 19th and 20th century when PCs, Internet, cell phones, and other digital technologies were the stuff of science fiction.

We must acknowledge that because of this new digital landscape, our students not only think differently but also learn differently from the way we learn. Only by accepting this will we be able to begin to reconsider and redesign learning environments, instruction, and how we assess learning.


4. The whole learner

We must broaden evaluation to encompass activities that provide a complete picture of students learning. As management guru Tom Peters says “what get measured gets done” and conversely “what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done” – it’s imperative that we begin to measure more than information recall

Dave Masters uses this analogy:

“You can get a good picture of a person’s health by taking their height and weight but would you go to a doctor who only took your height and weight and said here’s a picture of your health. The answer of course is no. It would require a battery of tests – urinalysis, blood tests, blood pressure, cholesterol, checking for lumps and so on to get an accurate picture of your health.”

However schools act like the doctor who only takes your height and weight and then says here’s a complete picture of your health.

We test students using standardized instruments that primarily measure information recall and low level understanding, and then say here’s a complete picture of a student’s learning, which is absolutely not the case. It is extremely presumptuous for us to say that current test scores are a complete indicator of student learning.

A complete picture of student learning needs to include portfolios of performance, demonstrations not just of recall of theoretical content, but also the application of that theory used to solve real world problems.


5. Relevancy and connections

Last but not least, we must increase the connection between instruction in schools and the world outside if we hope to increase the relevancy of the learning that takes place. The key point here is that the students must perceive the relevancy of what they’re learning. They need to understand not just the content, but also the context of that content as it is applied to the world outside of schools.

For this to happen, schools need to become far less insular. We need to systematically work to bring the outside world into our schools while at the same time sending our schools out into the community. New technologies and an understanding of the new digital landscape can help us do both. The online world creates virtual highway and virtual hallways to both our local and global communities.

If we want to unfold the full intellectual and creative genius of all of our children -if we want to prepare them for the new world that awaits them – if we want to help them prepare for their future, not our past – if we are going to march through the 21st Century and maintain our tradition of success – if we want our children to have the relevant 21st century skills – then we must create a bridge between their world and ours so they can develop both street smarts and school smarts.

For this to happen, there needs to be fundamental shift in how teaching and learning takes place in schools. We must look for alternatives to the traditional organization of schools. We need to uncover our longstanding and unexamined assumptions about teaching and learning, about what a classroom looks, where learning takes place and the resources that are needed to support it.

And we also need to re-examine the use of time – the length of the school day and school year, the school timetable, and the traditional methods used for instructional delivery. And we must consider the potential of online, web-based, virtual learning that can be used to augment, extend, and transform the role of the traditional classroom teachers.

In other words, we cannot foster street smarts in our students who are school smart unless we ask the powerful and relevant questions around our assumptions of what schools currently are and what they need to be.

© The InfoSavvy Group, 2011


You can find Ian’s latest book (written with Ted McCain and Lee Crockett) on my list of 25 “must-read” books.

  1. Yes, this is good stuff I suppose, but what’s “critical” or “creative thinking” – and how do you measure it?

  2. Hi there Laurence – thx for the question.

    I think this is what we touched upon yesterday (in our chat) – “critical thinking” is based on the politics of “decomposition” with its value-added being based on the quality of the “critique”, whereas “creative thinking” is based on the paradigm of “integration” and its value-added is “measured” by expansion – both are required (but I know which one is more fun for kids) 🙂

    Good question re: how do you measure it – how does conventional education really measure any kind of learning? I’ll tell you – very badly 🙂

    Guys – how should we be teaching and measuring “creative thinking”? What do you do right now?


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