Lost Potential in a Slowly Adapting Education System

Second-year Psychology students participating in the University Honours College follow a mini-course on Blogging Science (within the Thematic Meetings course), in which they learn to communicate science to the general public, by means of informing, giving an opinion, and relating issues in science to issues in society. This year a selection of these written blog posts is published on Mindwise. Today’s post is by Sebastian Prehn.


“We are today’s students who get taught in yesterday’s schools by teachers from the day before in preparation for the challenges on the morrow”

(translated, dr. P. Pauling, 1998).


Since human progress starts in educating the next generation it would be most important that educations systems are designed to constantly improve according to the best of our knowledge. However, education systems evolve differently and, for me, at a mostly unsatisfying pace. In the simplest form, what is required for a transformation of the education system are innovative ideas, an agency to implement these within a national context and as few steps in between as possible.

We do not lack innovative ideas! If you type in “education” in the official TED talk website you get 2485 results at the current stand of time. If that is not enough we can take an example in the education system of Finland, that distanced itself from the competitiveness and standardization of otherwise common schools. In Finland children, do not go to school until the age of seven, have generous recessive times, rarely homework in High School and are not required to do standardized tests until they are sixteen. This is very much in agreement with what Sal Khan depictures when he talks about the benefits of educating children in a mastery framework[1]. Mr. Khan points out that the current American system (but it applies to most systems in industrialized nations) does take the effort to test their pupils for knowledge gaps but then does not follow up on those. Students with a math test score of 80% for example are labelled as B and instead of afterwards addressing the missing 20% the whole class has to move to the next topic as determined by the general curriculum. Subsequent topics however, typically build on top of the previous topic including the 20% of the material that were not understood. Knowledge gaps accumulate until some pupils’ foundation is too fragmentary to comprehend the next topic. Students often falsely infer an internal cause like lack of intelligence and get strongly demotivated[2].


I for example wonder why schools that I visited in Germany and Netherlands do not actively teach theory of learning itself. I personally massively benefited in my learning behaviour from understanding memory on a neurological level.

In similar regard Wendy Troxel a sleep researcher demands school never to be started before 8:30AM. The circadian rhythm of adolescents is shifted; thus, she deems getting up at 6:00AM as teenager equivalent to getting up at 4:00AM as an adult[3]. You do not have to be a genial scientist to recognize issues within our education system. I for example wonder why schools that I attended in Germany and Netherlands do not actively teach theory of learning itself. I personally massively benefited in my learning behaviour from understanding memory on a neurological level. Thus, I could adapt my learning behaviour according to my understanding of why different learning techniques differ in their effectiveness for the individual and how environment and mental states influence learning processes.

Any innovations, however, remain abstract if they are not seen in respect of the cultural and social environment of the school in which they are tried to be implemented. Finland’s education system, for example, basis to a vast extent on trust. Trust in the students’ interest to learn and in the teachers’ duty to teach which made it possible to dispose standardized tests and Merit pay. Embedded in Finnish cultural values, the system focuses on chance equality. They established a vast social safety net thereby ensuring a record breaking small performance difference between the rich and poor. Also, university programs for becoming a teacher are highly selective, the job is more respected and better payed for than in other countries.[5] The fact that the education system is intertwined with the Finnish culture and values, makes it impossible for other countries to simply copy their procedure and gain the same results.

Tailoring innovations to the national context is the biggest challenge of the second and last requirement for transforming an education system: an efficient agency to implement the innovations. Seema Bansal was asked to reform the Indian school system[6]. Facing such a huge challenge, at first it is important to determine an ambitious and specific goal against which innovative implementations can be judged according their effectiveness. For example, in Ms. Bansal’s case the goal was: “by 2020, 80 percent of children should have grade- level knowledge”. In the second step one needs to identify the issues that impede the education or would restrain the innovation implication. In the Indian school system, the incentive structure for teacher to teach was maladaptive. This part is highly individual to the innovation and environment of the school, which is the reason why there cannot be a single optimal formula for a global education system.

However, the steps remain the same: formulate an ambitious goal, identify restraining factors and find an innovation that can be implemented within the cultural and social environment of the school. Indeed, saying this is extensively easier than actually doing it but considering that in the education system we shape the future of the individual children as well as the future of humanity as a whole, it seems the wrong issue to not face the challenge.

Note: Image by Alan Levine, licensed CC BY 2.0



Weidinger, A. (2017). Math grades and intrinsic motivation in elementary school: A longitudinal investigation of their association. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 87(2), 187-204.

Froiland, J.M., & Worrell F.C. (2016). Intrinsic motivation, learning goals, engagement, and achievement in a diverse high school.Psychology in the Schools,53(3), 321-336.

Gocłowska, M. (2017). Temperament and self-based correlates of cooperative, competitive and individualistic learning preferences. International Journal of Psychology, 52(3), 180-188.

Rockmann, K.W., & Ballinger, G.A.(2017). Intrinsic motivation and organizational identification among on-Demand workers.The Journal of Applied Psychology,2017 Apr 10.

Further Reading

[1] See “Let’s teach for mastery – not test scores” -https://www.ted.com/talks/sal_khan_let_s_teach_for_mastery_not_test_scores

[2] See “Let’s use video to reinvent education” – https://www.ted.com/talks/salman_khan_let_s_use_video_to_reinvent_education#t-970918

[3] See “Why school should start later for teens” – https://www.ted.com/talks/wendy_troxel_why_school_should_start_later_for_teens

[5] For a more elaborate discussion of Finland’s education system, especially compared to the American system see the following links:


[6] See “How to fix a broken education system … without any more money” – https://www.ted.com/talks/seema_bansal_how_to_fix_a_broken_education_system_without_any_more_money#t-394425

Sebastian’s life is a small, insignificant glimpse in the universe but enjoyed to the fullest, because his glass is always half full. Sebastian was always interested in making others happy but since he also despises these commercial happiness self-help books he had to dig deeper. So, he learned in his studies about the scientific account of fulfillment, self- believe, resilience, motivation and mindfulness and is happy to think about how the world can be a better place. Otherwise he has this curse and gift to be incredible easy fascinated, which is why he has way to many hobbies, mostly sport- and theater related.

You may also like

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.