With many young people taking part in work experience at this otherwise nondescript time of year on the academic calendar, it’s taken me back to my days of exams, uniforms, assemblies and detentions, and made me wonder whether schools have kept pace with the changing environment in which we live.
My school life (including sixth form college) spanned from 1988 to 2002, covering three prime ministers, two governments and the arrival of a little thing called the internet. I can remember my primary school having a special assembly to announce that the school now had a PC. Just a few years later, schools seemed to have not just computers, but computer rooms, and what had previously seemed like a gargantuan reference source in Microsoft Encarta was already being dwarfed by a World Wide Web still very much in its infancy.
I’m aware that many schools are now giving pupils their own laptops and tablets, something that shouldn’t surprise me even though it seems a far cry from the exercise book and Parker pen days I endured, yet a lot about school in 2016 remains weirdly stuck in the past.
Take exams, for example. Students are still made to sit in silence for hours, hand over their mobile phones and rely on nothing but their own intelligence and memory. Of course, this stops them cheating, but what practical purpose does this serve in 2016? Are you likely to get a job where you’re not able to talk and exchange ideas, or nip online to check a fact? Shouldn’t today’s studies teach more about how to disseminate the wealth of information (and sometimes misinformation) we now have at our fingertips?
After all, much of what we can find on the web is highly educational, and a far better way to learn than book learning in front of a teacher scraping chalk up and down the blackboard. Here are three subjects in particular that I think I would’ve enjoyed more if certain online resources had been available during my school years:
Numbers are dry and boring, aren’t they? What are you ever going to use the Pythagorean theorem for unless you’ve measured two sides of a triangle and then somehow lose your ruler?
If you’ve ever thought along these lines, you should really check out the YouTube channel Numberphile, which will show you that maths really is everywhere and should be celebrated. You can learn how maths is being used to tackle crime and terrorism, how cicada beetles have evolved to learn prime numbers or just how to do some nifty card tricks.
Perhaps coolest of all is this video, about an equation that plots itself:
It is all a bit nerdy, and some of it is over my head, but it’s easy to waste hours looking at these witty and hugely creative videos that can really give you a glimpse into how numbers make the world go round.
In school, geography seemed to be constant streams of erosion, irrigation and arable farming. It never seemed to teach where places were and what they’re like.
A fun way to test your worldly detective skills is to head over to Geoguessr. This is essentially taking Google Street View and making it into a quiz. The game will dump you somewhere in the world – it could be a bustling city centre or it could be a bumpy dirt road in the middle of nowhere – and all you have to do is work out where you are, putting both your map reading and scenery spotting skills to the test.
You’ll find yourself trying to work out the languages on road signs, pondering over whether that’s a Northern Scandinavian pine tree you can see in the background, and even trying to determine which side of the road you’re ‘driving’ on. If you prefer to stay close to home, you can confine the game to the UK.
The potential to blow things up instantly makes chemistry the most exciting of the sciences, and the phenomenon of ‘Breaking Bad’ has only upped the subject’s credibility. In school though, the subject tended to be about as edgy as a conical flask.
With Periodic Videos, we can really get to know the 118 elements that make up the periodic table in a way I never remember doing at school, all with the help of the wonderfully eccentric Sir Martyn Poliakoff who, with his extravagant hair, spectacles and faintly European accent, could only be a scientist.
He’ll even burn some ping pong balls for us!
So, given that these online resources are ones I choose to visit in my spare time while learning in the process, it suggests I’m either a bit strange, or the internet really can teach school a lesson or two! The reality is probably a bit of both.