The Signals Around Acceptable Education are Changing

Russell Cailey
4 min readJun 20, 2022

In his book, The Case Against Education (2018), Bryan Caplan makes a detailed empirical argument for the signalling model of education’s income-boosting power. Caplan states that employers’ information imbalance is key to understanding the signalling model. Employers want workers who are able and willing to conform and have a good work ethic. The way of knowing this for employers has been education. The transcripts might not be easily digestible about intricate details about what the applicant knows about quadratic equations or deep knowledge of the Cold War. Still, a transcript does tell an employer that this individual has worker productivity and sticks with it over time.

Education, for so long, has been the dominant signal manifested through our society of who should rise to the top and who should remain conforming worker bees. However, we are at a “crucible” regarding old vs new. New learning styles are dramatically emerging across the globe to challenge the old order of age-based learning, examinations being the sole or most established metric of ability, and stagnant curriculum models.

The schooling system has always been wildly disconnected from the economy. There have been calls to reimagine the education system for many years; much of these calls are linked to what the future holds, citing that the current model is woefully out of sync. Education has been a formidable entity to shift for reasons laced with educational tradition, lack of innovation, and static curricula, until now.

Schools such as THINK Global School, the Dubai-based School of Humanity, the Green School (campuses in New Zealand, South Africa and Malaysia) and London-based Minerva’s Virtual Academy are leading the way with new learning models. These learning models are linked to real-life problems and challenges, use outside experiences and mentorship, embedded with service learning, and with social and emotional intelligence courses replacing the memory tests of the traditional model.

The ability bias caused by the traditional teaching and learning model has meant societies will be guilty of vastly overestimating the returns of traditional schooling in its current format. The new economy of Web3 will have little use for students who know what to think but do not know how to think. Caplan’s (2018) stunning estimate that 80% of current education is mere signalling should concern all school leaders; this means that 80% of our industry is a costly broadcast of worker potential that contributes nothing to the productivity and wealth of society.

Indeed the pivot that education is undertaking away from any core leadership of government or foundation means that a dynamic marketplace has emerged filled with new ways of defining curriculum, whether project, challenge, or nature-based learning. Schools are rushing to redefine their syllabuses and mission. Debates will continue whether this is reform or true transformation. Still, it is worth noting that reform has been ever-present within many education systems over previous decades will few reforms leading to significant change.

Schools heavily entrenched in the exam-dominated curriculum seek to convince parents and prospective students that they are student-centred, filled with student agency voice and choice. Knowing transformation is impossible, they are seeking to reform their syllabuses and their mission and vision to fit a more enlightened consumer and reflect the new challenges and opportunities facing young people.

The signals from our own TGS observations and research is that many examinations were suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the wheels kept turning. Universities are now embracing different styles of transcripts (see Mastery Transcript) and adopting a more flexible approach to understanding students’ abilities. Through our own interviewing, students claim to be seeking an escape into innovation and nature, fed up of being “boxed-in”, chained to the four walls of the classrooms; this is further amplified by current teacher unhappiness and low job satisfaction data.

Exam-based education, the way the adult world measures the promise of youth, is under ever-growing scrutiny. According to Donella Meadows (2008), schools need to intervene on multiple levels to create change; these interventions need to happen around:

  • shifts in parameters and metrics
  • shifts in feedback systems
  • design shifts in power and structure
  • purpose shifts about goals, beliefs, and values within the system.

How this ultimately manifests itself, no one knows, there needs to be a consideration of the interests, beliefs, and motivations of those involved (OECD, 2020), but the signalling is explicit, the factory model of education is being questioned more than ever, and a more significant number of schools are willing to take risks to digress from the norm.

Devout loyalists to the old system will no doubt try and scramble the signals. There is much money invested in testing, and one possible middle ground will be a redesign of the testing space, more flexibility, or the introduction of artificial intelligence, maybe.

We know that there is hope for many teachers ready to escape the profession; the tide is beginning to turn. The signals are strong and getting more vital in the growth of real-world learning based around autonomy, purpose and mastery, in which learning is genuinely linked to our future societies.

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Caplan, B. (2018). The case against education: Why the education system is a waste of time and money. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

OECD. (2020). Building the Future of Education.

Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in Systems: A primer. Chelsea Green Publishing.

Originally published at https://russelljohncailey.substack.com on June 20, 2022.

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Russell Cailey

Managing Director of THINK Learning Studio | Curiosity Anywhere, Learning Everywhere.