Thu Jul 16 2020 Michael McQueen

For years, it has been clear that education needs to evolve. Many teaching methods felt outdated when I was in school, let alone for current students who are preparing for a future that is fast-approaching.

The adults of tomorrow need to be equipped with skills that enable critical, creative and innovative thinking, but the teaching of today continues to drill existing knowledge and tired paradigms into students.

Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick offer an important insight: ‘We need to shift our mindset from valuing knowledge acquisition as an outcome to knowledge production. Knowledge is a constructive process rather than a finding. It is not the content that is stored in memory but the activity of constructing it that gets stored. Humans don’t get ideas, they make ideas.’[1]

In other words, we too often approach learning with the implicit goal of ensuring students acquire the knowledge we deem valuable and assess their efficacy by how well they give the ‘correct’ answers in exams and assessments.

If we are to equip students with originality, critical thinking and flexibility, the traditional goals for learning are not going to be enough. As a school educator in Little Rock, Arkansas, named Trish Flanagan suggests, ‘We don’t need schools that make kids memorize the names of the planets. We need schools that inspire kids to find new planets.’[2]

However, I have found that there are four key barriers preventing this shift from happening in schools. These are:

1. Professional pride

The first reason it can be confronting for teachers to embrace a new role or classroom dynamic is that it can feel like an erosion of their professional identity. After all, if teachers are facilitating learning, are they still teaching?

Embedded in many educators’ psyches is the idea that a teacher is the one who knows more than their students and is looked up to as a source of information. Any move away from this historically rooted model can seem like an affront.

Compounding this, Amitai Etzioni’s research describes how teachers are often viewed as semi-professional. In this sense, they are generally regarded as being less like lawyers, doctors or engineers and more like social workers and nurses.[3]

This is not universally the case of course. According to a recent Global Teacher Status Index, Finns have the most trust in teachers while Israelis have the least. Chinese and South Korean parents are most likely to want their children to become teachers – Chinese respondents equated the status of teachers as similar to that of doctors. In the U.S., Brazil, France and Turkey, however, teachers were seen as a job similar to that of a librarian.[4]

It stands to reason that any change that appears to dilute the professional standing of teachers will be confronting. As Jelmer Evers puts it, there is work to be done in regaining the ‘professional honour’ of teaching, and it’s important that a re-think of an educator’s role doesn’t have the opposite effect.[5]

2. Time constraints

The second reason that the changes described in this chapter may be challenging to implement is more practical in nature.

Put simply, being a facilitator of learning can be a big ask because it can simply take too much time. While the ‘telling’ or fount-of-knowledge modality of teaching has its limitations, it is very efficient. As educationalist Ted McCain observes, ‘Most teachers do not turn their students loose on creative, high-level thinking projects because they can’t afford the time such exercises take.’[6]

3. Student expectations

For all the talk of encouraging students to be producers rather than acquirers of knowledge, we must acknowledge the fact that often students simply want the teacher to give them the answer as it is the path of least resistance.

As many teachers can attest, in the last lesson of the day on a hot afternoon very few students are eager to engage in creative collaboration or experiential learning. They just want the key points and the information required – especially if they are accustomed to learning this way through years of conditioning.[7]

4. Confidence

This final challenge in shifting from content delivery to capability building is probably the most acute but rarely admitted one.

Most teachers tend to teach the way they were taught and the fount-of-knowledge approach to education is the only method most teachers have experienced.[8]

In The Creative Workforce, Erica McWilliam highlights just how much confidence it can take for a teacher to embrace the changes we have discussed in this chapter. McWilliam points to the fact that most teachers have a deeply rooted fear of ‘not knowing what to do, fear of losing the status of ‘authority’. More confronting still for teachers is to be put in a situation of not knowing, when one of the most deeply held assumptions of contemporary teachers is that they ought to know more about their subject matter than their students. These fears are real, and they are not easily overturned by calls to begin the next pedagogical revolution.’[9]

As one classroom teacher at Syracuse Elementary School said of taking on a new challenge in teaching: ‘Sometimes you have to just jump into the deep end and have confidence you can figure it out. It took courage to risk looking ignorant in front of my students but one of the most satisfying experiences of my life has been learning right along with my kids.’[10]

This shift in education is essential if the workers and leaders of tomorrow are to be equipped with the skills that the future will demand of them. Originality and critical thinking can only be built when teachers and students move away from delivering and receiving impermanent information and focus on fostering the ability to think and building the skills that will last.


Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 8 books. To order Michael's latest book "The Case for Character", click here.

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[1] Jacobs, H. 2010, Curriculum 21, ACSD, Alexandria, p. 223.

[2] Dintersmith, T. 2018, What School Could Be, Princeton University Press, Oxfordshire, p. 132.

[3] Shirley, D. The New Imperatives of Educational Change, Routledge, New York, p. 13.

[4] Evers, J. & Kneyber, R. 2016, Flip the System, Routledge, New York, p. 213.

[5] Doucet, A. et al. 2018, Teaching In The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Routledge, New York, p. 132.

[6] McCain, T. 2005, Teaching for Tomorrow – Teaching Content and Problem Solving Skills, Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, p. 6.

[7] McWilliam, E. 2008, The Creative Workforce, UNSW Press, Sydney, p. 95.

[8] McCain, T. 2005, Teaching for Tomorrow – Teaching Content and Problem Solving Skills, Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, p. 20.

[9] McWilliam, E. 2008, The Creative Workforce, UNSW Press, Sydney, p. 98.

[10] Dintersmith, T. 2018, What School Could Be, Princeton University Press, Oxfordshire, p. 20.