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Education Matters

It has been said that only three things in life matter: education, education and education. So everyone knows that education matters. But many students and their parents are not sure which facets of an education matter most, which questions to ask, or how to find schools and universities that provide them with fitting solutions and answers even if they do.

The biggest problem is that most of the people parents and students speak to about education are the very people who are trying to sell their particular version of it to them, which is rather like asking a Ford salesman what kind of car you should buy. One way to deal with the problem is to consult an independent and impartial source, if they can be found, but the problem with that in its turn is that many sources of such advice are either not independent, not impartial or are only really interested in separating you from your fee. This is a particular problem in some countries where educational advice is a big industry and there are many practitioners who know little or nothing about it but will happily charge you a non-refundable fee before you find that out.

A good educational consultant offering advice about school or university choices will start with a thorough investigation of a student's interests, aptitudes, passions and wishes. They will no more allow the student to jump to premature conclusions than a good doctor will allow a patient to diagnose her own condition. Children are different, unique, but they all tend to need to ask the same kinds of questions and to solve the same kinds of educational problems, so we start with them and where they are and go from there by applying the experience derived from countless other such conversations and interactions, but always treating the particular student in their unique situation.

Sometimes there are obvious problems. For example, "I want to be an engineer but I am no good at maths and physics; what should I do?" A good educational counsellor will find out what it is about engineering that seems attractive in these inauspicious circumstances, and provide indications of other careers that have the same attractive qualities but perhaps do not require levels of maths or physics that are apparently unattainable (although the consultant won't take that for granted either).

Sometimes there are problems that arise from premature decisions. "I have decided that I want to be a doctor, but I gave up chemistry in grade nine." Either bad advice has been given or good advice has been ignored; perhaps no advice was asked for. The situation may not be absolutely hopeless, but remedying it will test the determination of the student to become a doctor, and a good counsellor will probe the motivations for that as well before accepting that it is genuine and well-grounded.

Sometimes problems are structural to educational systems. "We don't want to choose too narrow a set of subjects because she wants to keep her options open." This is a perfectly understandable wish, but it is very difficult to accommodate within the UK system, although considerably easier if a student wants to study in the USA because courses begin as general liberal arts courses in most colleges. Sometimes it is appropriate to choose a broad set of subjects, and it can be an indication of great academic strength and interest, but sometimes - especially if a student has ambitions to study a technical subject later - it is not possible. But then again, as we have said, it depends where the university course is. In the UK, admissions criteria are often strict and narrowly-defined. In the USA almost all students will enter a liberal arts college where the first two years are general before specialising in something technical (although there are a few exceptions), so high school subjects can be chosen more broadly. Australia and New Zealand sit somewhere between those extremes, depending on the course of study.

Sometimes problems are global and persistent. "We know that the world is evolving very quickly. How do we educate our children for life in a world that is constantly changing?" Great question! What makes this problem so intractable is that a common answer to it comes into conflict with the requirements of many other aspects of educational planning. The common answer is that we learn best to cope with change by living with change, by absorbing the requirements of different situations and disciplines, by avoiding deep specialisation while acquiring the analytical skills of the generalist. But for many technical subjects, deep specialisation is a requirement. So is there a better answer? Perhaps that the supposed conflict between deep specialisation and general analytical skills is based upon a false dichotomy: we need an educational system and an approach to learning that embraces depth and breadth. In fact a useful way to think about how to assess intelligence is to see it as a capacity to solve novel problems where we assess the depth of the intelligence in terms of the technical difficulty of the problem, and its breadth in terms of the scope of the problem, the number of different areas of knowledge and experience and skill that it impinges on and arises from. To put it differently, real intelligence can be assessed in terms of a person's response to the question "What do you do when you don't know how to go on?"

And there are of course hundreds of other questions and situations. And any particular set of questions will have nuances that arise from the situation of a particular student. Exploring all this demands and requires time and patience; it cannot be rushed. At every stage, and after every conversation, revisions to plans will probably need to be made, and new opportunities will need to be explored. A strong positive relationship with an experienced, patient educational consultant with the listening-skills to hear and respond appropriately to what each individual student is saying can make the process illuminating, constructive, effective and enjoyable.

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