Is our education system fit for purpose?

What are we educating our children for?

“Just in the past couple years, we’ve seen digital tools display skills and abilities that … eat deeply into what we human beings do for a living.” (Andrew McAfee)

“Are droids taking our jobs?”  is a very powerful presentation by Andrew McAfee which looks  at the great changes in civilisation, one trumps them all: the technological advances that led to the industrial revolution.  For the first time, humans were no longer restricted by the power of muscles, with machines replacing horses and manufacturing on a mass scale replacing skilled craftspeople.

We are now experiencing another great revolution, the digital revolution, that if anything will have a more profound effect on the world. We are seeing developments like the cognitive IBM computer Watson able to make decisions  and personal assistants like Apple’s  Siri that can act as an interface between humans and machines. Linking these two and we would have something that is capable of making better decisions than the vast majority of humans.  This is not the future, this is the capability now, if  Moore’s Law  is followed, in six years time, these are likely to be sixteen times as powerful. So we will no longer be restricted by the limitations of human brain power. This begs the question, what is the role of human beings going to be in the future and more importantly, how will we equip our young people with the skills to cope with this new world where the only certainty is uncertainty?

One thing that can be seen quite clearly, is that filling their heads with knowledge and equipping them with the skills to decode exam papers is not a sensible choice. People used to go to school because that is where the knowledge was, knowledge was rare and expensive and was delivered by someone to transfer it to us. Knowledge is now free and accessible through mobile devices but the system hasn’t radically altered to accommodate this. Having knowledge is still important, but knowing what to do with this knowledge is more so. We are buried under a mountain of data in our interconnected digital world and our brains are struggling to cope, as pointed out in the superb Future Minds by Richard Watson

Future Minds – The benefits and dangers of technology

At the teachmeet at BETT #TMBETT2013 there were some truly inspirational speakers with a clear vision of the future and these are the voices that need to be heard. The next day  I was at the BETT trade show where this inspiration did not shine through to me, with exceptions such as Tim Rylands presentation.  Later I was proudly shown an award winning educational resourceby a director of the company who developed it. It used very slick videos to ‘teach concepts’; as a Teaching and Learning Coach for the Institute of Physics  I was interested how this worked. A video showed an ice skater spinning and posed the question, ‘why does she speed up when she pulls her arms in?’, then answered it ” because her moment of inertia is reduced”. I then asked the company director why the skater had sped up and got the response ” because her moment of inertia is reduced”. When asked what that actually meant, there was a look of panic on her face and a realisation that nothing had really been taught at all other than a pat answer which had no meaning to the person who had ‘learned it’.  ‘The moon is three blargs and a whiffy away from us … how far is the moon away?’: you can answer this question, but does it have any real value when the answer means nothing to you at all? (I made that up before you go rushing to do a google search!).

Technology  like interactive whiteboards and iPads are often embraced fully by  schools anxious to show parents that they are cutting edge. Often there is no real coherent policy on the purpose of this technology and where it fits into the whole scheme of things. You wouldn’t give just a drill to people and expect them to build a house with it, but effectively we do that by simply putting an iPad into the hands of students without a plan. You get impressive holes in the walls and lots of fun, but nothing constructive is built.

Making holes in walls can be fun, but where is the learning?

What worries me is that our young people can learn and find out about everything, yet many seem reluctant to learn anything. Digital technology can be transformational, linking communities and creating unbelievable changes and removing restrictions imposed by the old order. Have a great idea for a product? link with other people to help develop it, fund it through crowdsourcing and print it yourself on a 3D printer. No banks or manufacturing companies involved. A brave new world indeed!  A more worrying trend is to see the way that social media goes well beyond being the opium of the people. It can be the junk food for the mind, constantly disrupting thoughts to update statuses and watch short youtube videos. We can in theory have huge networks of connections, but instead we often become more narrow only communicating with those that we choose to and who already share our views. Rather than connections broadening our minds they can narrow them, leading to affirmation of extreme views through ingroup bias.

Just putting technology into the hands of young people in the classroom without a clear vision of what value it adds to their education is irresponsible. To deny them the use of that technology is even worse, but we need a clear vision. we also need to recruit our students to help as we cannot do it alone, not using their expertise does not make sense.

In the future it is not what you can do that is important, it is what you can get done. The power of networks cannot be underestimated, therefore we need to model good behaviour within these and how to use and not abuse them. Students will need to be creative thinkers, able to communicate, collaborate and understand their role in a world which we cannot predict. To be able to make their own decisions and not to be swayed by others with ulterior motives and above all to be adaptable and resilient. Evolution shows that in times of change it is not the strongest, smartest or most powerful that survive, it is those who can adapt.

Our young people need to have a clear view of how utilise the digital revolution to change their lives for the better, as a tool for learning and earning, not simply as a way of occupying their time.

We have a long way to go!