It’s a bit more complicated than that

A proposal:

At around age 14, set aside a week away from the standard education curriculum for kids to work, in groups, in a very focused way: on a project with a simple brief, but a complex reality.

What does that mean?

Well, it might be to design a way of giving everyone in the UK £100 (as an alternative quantitative easing approach). It might be to identify all public buildings to find better ways of using them. Or to model what would happen if jails were abolished (or if speeding convictions carried automatic jail sentences). Or to design a rail system that would be ultra-resilient to sudden, massive demand and freak weather conditions.

Anything really.

Or at least anything that would show that a bit more effort is required in reality to do some of the things that really matter in this world. Even though they might sound simple. So that first one: giving everyone £100? Well, you’d need to work out who “everyone” was…what would qualify as entitlement…how to get the money to them securely and trackably…how to deal with claims that it hadn’t been received (true and fraudulent)…how to deal with those who didn’t want to be on any state registers but still wanted their cash… You get the picture. Putting real world details around a nice, simple concept.

You’d cover analysis, planning, teamwork, logistics, consequences (seen and unforeseen). And probably a whole lot more. You’d learn about edge cases, the ability of a small number of difficult situations to eat up disproportionate resources, and how you have to design for the awkward, not just implement for the easy.

And out of all this, there might, just might, be a tiny chance that statements like “well, I don’t see why they can’t just…” or “how hard can it be to…” would be cast around just a little less lightly. And questioned a little harder when falling from the mouths of politicians.

Because the problem is this: when we’re small, our world is small. And simple. Decisions are clear, motives unambiguous, morality absolute. Things are, or they are not. Laws are clear, enforceable and enforced.

The King says “make it so!” and the Knights make it so. The Princess makes her choice, and the losing suitor slinks away, never to play a part in this or any other story.

And so it goes.

And then things change. Our world gets bigger, and more difficult. We realise that society is a loose patchwork of consents, of unwritten codes, of behaviours.

And do we change, too? Or are we content to carry on with an increasing pretence that the world is monochrome, that things can be made to happen by dictat, and that anything involving sixty million people need not be any more complicated than something involving a handful?

Do we continue with these childish fantasies, and follow leaders who–even if they believe in their hearts that what they propose is at most only partly achievable–must dance the dance of the simple: spouting policies that can never be delivered, just so they continue to look…like what? Like leaders. Right.

Left-wing and right-wing, we dance up and down the same spectrum of choices: of levers that can be pulled in various directions, of societal mores running from the brutal to the soft, the feudal to the flattened. We might choose different starting positions, and have certain favourite themes and moves. But if we get stuck with these lame little models of “why don’t they just…”, and come to believe that wickedly difficult problems are actually easy, then we’re all stuffed.

Because we do believe. On a mass scale. Because we were never taught any differently. We weren’t taught to think harder, to go deeper, to challenge rigorously, or to live the reality of what implementation might actually be like.

And so things like social and economic policy get very broken. Preposterous, simplistic “solutions” float around: hoodies marched to cashpoints, rioters’ families evicted, a single ID number, watertight borders, cities scoured of benefit claimants, a single central health record for everyone…the list goes on. (That last one would make a great school project, by the way. Starter: think who might need to view and/or change that record–including the patient–what their interests and motivations might be, and how all those agendas stack up against the benefits.)

It’s an awful lot easier to believe in simple magic than to work through hard science. And very much easier to whip a crowd up behind you, too. Asking those hard questions has become the antithesis of leadership. What a splendidly vicious circle!

And yet, it can be broken. With so many other large scale problems of capability or understanding, we try to fix things at source. Through education, for example. It beats me why we’ve never seriously attempted this route.

Would a more aware, canny, and yes perhaps cynical population really be that frightening? Or would we sniff out the stupid and actually become far more tolerant as a result?

I think it’s worth a try. Be a hell of an interesting week, anyway.

(It took me until I was 17, and half-way through A-level Economics, before the reality pennies started to drop. That transactions mostly have two sides to them. That someone’s good deal is often another’s bad one. That public finance doesn’t begin with some kind of magic money tree in the Treasury courtyard. That expectation can be as powerful an influence as factual evidence. That people don’t always do what you expect them to, even when we have laws to force them to. It felt like a real privilege to have my mind stretched like that, and I’ve always felt a bit more of it could go a long, long way.)

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19 Responses

  1. Gordon Rae says:

    I think 14 might be a little late to start. Given a chance, I’d like to expose children to that kind of project from about seven, and encourage them as they got older to reflect on how they had grown through diferent styles of planning, and different assumptions … perhaps less ‘magic’, perhaps more cynicism, or more demands on their elders. Maybe if we did this,our schools would start turning out teenagers capable of thinking about insitutions and reforms and governance and innovation in all of those.

  2. Peter Jordan says:

    Very thoughtful Paul. So much more productive and educational than ‘Enterprise Week’; where Year 10s are supposed to find themselves a work experience placement to learn about the world of work

  3. Some schools do have effective enterprise days, half days and weeks but often it is hit and miss because people see it only as a way to start a business as opposed to encouraging innovation or creativity to a lot of existing problems.

    Personally I think it could work but broken down into more bite size deliverables. One of my companies is working on leap frogging school and targeting teens themselves to get involved in challenges like this. Let’s talk and make it happen.

  4. Zaratustra says:

    The problem is that most humans respond to the realization that things are difficult to fix by narrowing themselves to their tiny areas of specialization. What would the workforce look like when the newly arrived say “That’s not my area of expertise”?

  5. Jude says:

    Have you ever heard of the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program? You should check it out.

  6. Nice post. Perhaps we should be asking from the start why are we educating our children? What for? If we ask those before heading off on the ‘all education is automatically great’ route, setting projects like this at many stages of education, growing in complexity as children age, we might see some revolutionary changes.

  7. George says:

    It’s great to read articles by like minded people. I think that that you are absolutely right- but above all- I love your passion and enthusiasm for educating our future leaders. I’m part of a charity that focuses on creating the worlds future leaders, from all walks of life. I’d love to talk to you about this- get in touch!

  8. prclarke says:

    David – I know exactly what you mean. I’ve been involved for years now in delivering many of those programmes myself: as a volunteer through EBPs in Camden, Islington, Hackney and elsewhere. I’ve done stuff ranging from how to prepare for interviews, to personal financial management and other life skills. And a few of the “Dragons Den” style exercises in fostering a business idea through to execution. But none of these have really been “head stretchers” in the way that I envisage this idea working: looking at the real difficult stuff out there and trying to figure out how it works, and how it might be improved.

  9. prclarke says:

    Jude – thank you – I’ve had a look – yes, some excellent content there, but what I’m really after is something that will reach a very large audience who wouldn’t otherwise get to think like this, without necessarily making fundamental changes to the whole curriculum.

  10. prclarke says:

    Claire – what an excellent and simple question. Why indeed? Is it just “reading and writing plus a few other things out of habit”? I do wonder sometimes. Thank you for making me think harder about that one!

  11. Johnny says:

    “Would a more aware, canny, and yes perhaps cynical population really be that frightening?”


    You really think that TPTB intend education and the media to educate and inform the public? It’s about control. Primarily TPTB use fear and ignorance… and it’s clearly not an uphill struggle to control a society that way…

    Society is broken by design and smart people are breathtakingly dumb about this. Wake up and smell the riot gas.

  12. prclarke says:

    Johnny – yes, of course. What was I thinking?

    Let’s just give up. Let’s accept that the only stable society is one where we politely allow the vast majority to labour onwards in a fog of ignorance, and preserve the privileges of the few by rationing out the rationality.

    Huxley was right. Alphas are lucky old Alphas, but equally so are the Deltas and Epsilons unencumbered by any analysis or reasoning.

    Sorry, but I find that totally defeatist. We’ve allowed rationality to advance in many other areas. Superstitions fall by the wayside all the time.

    The suggestion in this post is just an attempt to take on myths and nonsense in some less-tackled areas.

    And very much not just aimed at an ignorant underclass, by the way, but also very much at those PTB, as you put it, (or the PTBs of the future) who actually do believe their own simplistic nonsense.

    Because I’ve met plenty of them. And believe me, they’re much scarier than an ignorant crowd.

  13. Angi Long says:

    #Thinking for kids? Give them a brief and let their unfettered minds run…! Perfect!

  14. We’ve been seeing growing interest in our Design Thinking Schools, where teachers have converted their way of teaching to what you describe, starting as early as 5, and helping make sure young people find the problems that matter in the first place, before prototyping their solutions.

    It’s transformative stuff a much for the teachers as for the young people. And it’s not just a short term project either – this is wholesale new approach to schooling.

    We’re about to share more of what we’ve been doing, partic in Australia, so keep your eyes peeled!

  15. Gordon Rae says:

    Ewan – Thumbs up to all of that. I’d like to know more.

  16. We’ve got some examples up, with a lot more to come this winter/spring, on the website:


    Hopefully that excites to see it actually happening!
    Apple have also been pursuing Challenge Based learning with much the same goals. Have a Google and ye shall find.

  17. Kate Norman says:

    Good post… got me thinking

  18. […] honestly and sincerely.  The article and its comments are well worth your time.  Please read it. More  On combining ego, philosophy and the pulsatingly clever Pep in the beautiful game […]

  19. Charis says:

    This is one of my favourite blog posts ever – as can be evidenced by the fact that I always tell people about the concept, and it’s stuck in my head enough to immediately think of it when I read this article…. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jul/12/qe-bankers-swindle-liquidity-crisis

    You’ll see why! Perhaps Simon Jenkins should do your thought exercise…

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