Medieval Education Practices Must Evolve, Now!

Medieval“: pertaining to the Middle or Dark Ages, a period characterized by primitive practices shaped by ill-formed knowledge.

Our society has evolved in remarkable ways in my lifetime, inspiring me to believe that human beings just might squeak through to survive another century or millennium. We have extended life expectancies, we have scientifically detailed the characteristics of neuroplasticity and we can and do respond to  emerging catastrophes to lessen hardships to people, animals and the environment. That’s three big thumbs up for humans.

But. We still have such a long ways to go when it comes to education.

One example is the standardization of the educational experience, from homogenized curricula to school design to the outmoded assumptions that continue to guide instruction, for example, how people (of all ages) actually learn. Almost none of the practices arising from standardization can be justified anymore based on recent scientific insights. Those insights aside, the practices never have lived up to their billing, though they have had good PR on their side, backed up by the Voice (and Threat) of Authority.


This is NOT how learning is ignited!

Another example: this time of year, on almost every post-secondary campus in North America,  an abusive and generally-mindless rite-of-passage known as final exams takes place. This is a  period of short duration in which young people are forced to sit 2-4 hour exams, mainly regurgitating information they have been told to remember like trained seals. Some will never endure this forced march, though many (most?) will remember the bitterness of the experience long after they forget the information they were supposed to retain. It’s all based on a false assumption that compulsory, time-driven written exams are an effective way to determine knowledge and competence in a subject area.  Most people, including the educators who aid and abet this ritualized absurdity don’t question the efficacy of it. They should. It extracts an unforgivable toll on our brightest and best.

Yet another stark example of the limitations of conventional education arises when it comes to considering creativity and innovation.  Most schooling still doesn’t have any real time for this unless a class or all-too-brief unit is squeezed in at the end of term when the ‘real’ (sic) stuff of learning – the curriculum – has been covered. What bunk. The digital revolution – the benefits of which have immersed our society – came about because kids and young adults, for the most part, raced home from school (or dropped out) to make things on the first crude computers in their basements and garages. As Casey Stengel said, “you can look that up”, and a whole bunch of those kids are billionaires now.

Quest University president (and education innovator) Dr. David Helfand habitually says our education system is perfectly designed – for the 19th Century (here’s an example). I think it harkens to an earlier period. But it doesn’t have to be like this. We have the opportunity to flood our darkness with light.

With the ‘Makers’ and ‘DIY’ movements roaring to life, now is the time to spark a wave of nurturing innovation in schooling.  With information pouring in from the sciences about how humans actually learn, let’s re-design our education systems to reflect these insights. It’s our time – as educational shapers –  to find the courage to do what future generations are counting on.   

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One Response to “Medieval Education Practices Must Evolve, Now!”

  1. LeeAnn December 16, 2014 at 4:57 pm // Reply

    The university administrative hierarchy looks indeed more like an authoritarian King/nobles/peasant/serfs structure, especially in Canada. However I attended a university modeled on an American version of British “Ox-Bridge” where some lectures were only one part of mandatory work along side discussion groups and tutoring for projects. It was founded just before WWI so didn’t get underway physically until 1920s. That integrated campus of independent and specialized colleges just adds a new campus as it grow instead of expanding within each college. It is not terribly democratic in admin but certainly is more interesting for students. Our few exams were all “open book” essays with a single question given two weeks in advance intended to integrate learning from the previous semester. I still remember some of these questions as they generated intense conversations and debate among students. We only had three hours to write the exam but could do that anywhere. I preferred sitting in a sort of chapel garden with my piles of books and memorized outline of my essay. A friend actually responded one semester, just for the challenge of it, with an epic poem in iambic pentameter!


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