Education is Not a Skills Checklist

09/01/2012 09:58 GMT | Updated 06/03/2012 10:12 GMT

"Education is the sum of what students teach each other in between lectures and seminars. You sit in each other's rooms and drink coffee - I suppose it would be vodka and Red Bull now - you share enthusiasms, you talk a lot of wank about politics, religion, art and the cosmos and then you go to bed, alone or together according to taste."

I was recently delighted to find this interpretation of education as I meandered through Stephen Fry's life in his autobiography, The Fry Chronicles. Although referring to university life, the essence of his point relates to the purpose of all education, which should be to cultivate an atmosphere of gaining knowledge. It might seem obvious but unfortunately it's not. Not by looking at today's education system and the culture that surrounds it.

Schools revolve around exams, exams and more exams. And if you do well by the time of your A Levels, then you are rewarded by being able to assert a checklist of relevant skills on your University Personal Statement. You know the ones I mean - analytical, evaluative, logical, creative etc. As if the point of learning your course was simply to gain such skills. Don't get me wrong - I appreciate the value of transferable skills. But I disagree with the inference that the value of education is defined by skills. That value is assessed by a skill buzz-word rather than knowledge in and of itself. The skills gained are a part of knowledge but don't define it.

I recently spoke to students at my old high school about studying humanities and art subjects at university. I ended my talk by making this point: as important as skills are, they are not the be all and end all. Any knowledge learnt can be precious in and of itself. Full stop. With or without exams; with or without definable skills.

After I quietened down and gave the students some respite from my babble, their teacher came up to speak to me. She seemed very happy with my talk - but more than that - it was as though I had reminded her of a point she had perhaps been forced to shelve. Maybe the pressurised culture of teachers to perform to set targets distracts educators from reminding kids why education and knowledge about the world is actually important.

Unfortunately this can foster a culture that allows children to excel in exam-driven learning at school but fall short in higher education where spoon feeding is not always an option. Education is at its peak when students understand it to be more than just a skills checklist or exercise in data absorption to pass the exam. This is when creativity and innovation can really flourish.