A New Educational Paradigm for the 21st century, by Dr Ian Cunningham

Just a week before writing this piece, the CEO of a major company and I were discussing what the educational world needs to provide for his leading edge business. After discussion, he emailed me the list that follows. These are his words.

“Building the right mindsets, critical reasoning, understanding of biases, creative thinking and problem solving, fluid and flexible thinking, love of learning, design thinking, communication and influence, impact and changing the world around us, community, interpersonal dynamics and relationships, wellness and mental health; spiritual path; self-esteem, resilience, grittiness etc. Meta cognition. Ethics, personal accountability and integrity. Teamwork.  Emotional intelligence.  Pattern matching and recognition.  Self-knowledge and understanding of own patterns. Curiosity, cultural awareness.”

In a way there is nothing remarkable about the list; every survey of employers in the UK in the last 20 years has come up with major criticisms of the educational system with demands for better teamwork, better creativity, more self managing capability and so on. Also, our research (along with that of all academics who have also made studies of leaders) shows that school, college, university and training courses contribute at most 10 to 20% of what makes senior leaders effective. In other words, the billions of pounds and dollars that are spent every year globally are largely wasted.

If we are going to respond to the CEO’s list of requirements, we need a process that encourages those qualities. It’s not about having content. We know that AI can deal more effectively with the content side of running a business. What AI can’t do – and will not be able to do – is to deal with those qualities the CEO suggested and what my colleague Rose Luckin (2018) has identified as including a social intelligence; the ability to engage with others and to think creatively.  When we look at the requirements for business leaders, we can see what is needed –   and the accumulation of irrelevant facts from school or university will not help.

I’m making the case that we need a New Educational Paradigm (Cunningham, 2020). It’s no use trying to tidy up school, classrooms, the curriculum, and so on. They are all major distortions that get in the way of effective learning and they all have to go.


The joke about schooling is that the only change since Victorian times is from black to white. Namely that we have now whiteboards instead of blackboards but otherwise a school would be recognisable to the average Victorian from the 19th century, whereas most of the rest of society has changed. Factories and offices are not as they were in the 19th century, but the school is largely unchanged, with teachers, classrooms, timed lessons and a rigid curriculum.

The bizarre role of schools is like the notion that your doctor would say; “Good to see you. Here are some pills. Take one twice a day and come back in a week if you don’t feel better.” We would surely want to ask “Don’t you want to find out about me and what has brought me here before prescribing something.” Schools behave precisely like this mythical doctor. Their message to students: “We have decided what we’re going to teach you – you have no say in this nor in the social arrangements in the school. When the bell rings you must get up and go somewhere else to do something else that you have not chosen. You will eat your food when we tell you can. You are not allowed to go to the toilet without permission.”

Those of us who care about the nature of organisations have to stop standing on the side-lines complaining. We have to do what Taleb (2018) demands, which is to have ‘skin in the game.’ If we care about creating a future that can work, the education system cannot stay as it is; it needs new models to show what can be done.

It is the reason why, at the age of 56, I decided to set up something that is not a school, but which provides a proper education for young people aged 11 to 16. That seemed to be a crucial period when things can go off the rails. The disillusion from young people is matched by the failure of schools to address what young people really need to flourish in a modern world.

One alternative

For the last 20 years we have run something called Self Managed Learning College, where there are no classrooms, no teachers, no imposed curriculum, no imposed timetable. Whilst there is considerable freedom for students, there’s also a rigour to the process. Students come to us and initially we find out about them before we try and help them to learn anything. Our aim is simple – to help learners to lead a good life. However, to make this happen we have to give them the chance to take charge of their own learning within a caring and supportive community.

If we need the qualities that my CEO client has argued for, we have to have a process which matches that, and one not based around making young people regurgitate facts in order to pass tests/exams. To take a few examples from his list, at the College:

  • They learn to be creative and to solve problems by doing it. For example, they have to plan their own personalised curriculum which also requires the development of self knowledge.
  • They have to learn to get on with others as part of a self managing community that comes up with its own rules , thereby assisting members not just to develop independence but also inter-dependence. They support each other’s learning.
  • They develop a love of learning by being given the chance to learn anything they like in any way that works for them.
  • They directly address issues of wellness and mental health by focusing on each others’ needs and by being hugely tolerant of differences.

As an example, one of our students left the College at 16 having gained a range of good grades in the qualifications he took – mostly English General Certificates of Secondary Education – (GCSE’s). A year later he came back to address current students saying “I wish I hadn’t wasted a lot of my time on getting good grades.” He had also created a portfolio and record of his creative work which he put out the Internet. From this, he was hired to work on blockchain development for a company in the USA. He pointed out his employer had no interest in his exam passes/grades. The company saw his work and were happy to hire somebody even though he lives on another continent. He is now being asked to build up a team in England to provide support for blockchain development work in the USA. His experience is quite typical. Our students may choose to take public exams, but they don’t have to. All learning is decided by the student with our support.

Employers need to get involved

What helps prop up the current system is lazy employers. Bryan Caplan (2018) points out in his superb demolition of the education world the use that employers get from university. If you have someone applying for a job as a university graduate it doesn’t really matter what they graduated in because you assume they will have two qualities. One, the person is basically reasonably intelligent and, two, they are pretty obedient in doing what they’re told – in order to graduate. Therefore, they are likely to be good employees. Caplan suggests in his work as an economics professor “we pretend to teach and students pretend to learn”.

So in moving from the side-lines, we have to go in and help young people to learn the things they need and want to, to be able to work in the kind of world they’re growing up in.

A New Educational Paradigm should encompass the kind of approach that we use in Self Managed Learning College. I am not suggesting others should copy it; it is one example of many around the world where people are deciding to get away from the rigidities, inappropriateness and waste of our current system.


People who care about this situation need to get involved. There really is no point in employers producing the same criticisms every year. Unless we do something about it nothing will change. The educational establishment is very powerful. It’s full of articulate, well-schooled and ill-educated people who know how to argue a case for what they are doing whilst at the same time misleading the public and young people in claiming that they are preparing them for the world they are going into. They are not.


Caplan, B. (2018) The case against education. Princeton: University Press

Cunningham, I. (2020) Self Managed Learning and a New Educational Paradigm, London, Routledge (in press)

Luckin, R. (2018) Machine Learning and Human Intelligence. London: Institute of Education Press

Taleb, N. N. (2018) Skin in the Game. London: Allen Lane

This article was originally published in Development and Learning in Organizations: an International Journal in 2020.

About Dr Ian Cunningham

Dr Cunningham is the founder and Chair of Governors at Self Managed Learning College (SMLC) in Sussex, and author of Self Managed Learning and the New Educational Paradigm.

SMLC is part of the educational charity, Centre for Self Managed Learning and they have been providing educational programmes for young people aged 9-17 for 18 years.

The College is a self-directed, democratic, freedom-orientated learning community.

You can read an interview with Dr Ian Cunningham in our Voices section here.