What Are We Educating Students For?

A few years ago Colorado teacher Karl Fisch wanted to shock his school board into understanding how strongly out of touch with the needs of the students the curriculum and practices in the classroom were.

The original video he built was called Shift Happens; it has updated repeatedly, both as further versions of Shift Happens 20xx and as Did You Know? x.0, and Karl and his collaborator Scott McLeod now carry this work of creating awareness of the nature of the change the 21st century represents via their Shift Happens wiki.

(This video has been repurposed for use in many other settings as well; it is a prime example of the viral change processes of the second generation of the Internet that students are often far more versed in using than any teacher is.)

The reality is that the one outcome that is almost assured is that what we are educating for — a life working for a company, either as a white collar professional or a compliant plant worker — is the one future that will not exist for students. Indeed, the odds that most students will complete university in the years ahead are dropping, not rising, despite the “degree inflation” that is occurring in job specifications and the competition between applicants leading to added degrees and certificates to distinguish themselves.

Recently, on TV Ontario’s The Agenda, the Provost of the University of Toronto was delighted to point out that the university now had 83 different “professional masters’ programmes”. This is the sign of the blow-off bubble in higher education, not a step forward, for either the university or the students.

While the content we teach to needs change — we have refined the curriculum in public education to university preparation and not much else — this is the least important part. For, you see, we teach to pass tests and do well enough to maintain “social promotion” (keeping students of the same age together regardless of their outcomes). Standardised examinations and stack ranking of schools has further solidified this notion of “regurgitation of bullet points” as “education”.

Far more important is to teach how to think, how to continuously learn, how to judge the quality of information, how to avoid shibboleths, clichés, pat phrases, and other “floating concepts” that impede a convergence toward truth (a provisional position), and to give an appropriate cultural background to facilitate working with others on an on-going basis (we must live with others).

(Please note that “living with others” does not mean denying your own heritage as an individual, or denying that our society came from some particular background. In other words, Canadian students would be taught Western civilisation, Canadian history, the unique way we forged a nation, our symbols and deep thought processes, not to decry them, but to make them clear and relevant.)

What is not necessary to teach is the notion of “sitting flesh”, yet, as long as we continue to think of education as sitting in a classroom together, squeezing initiative and exploration out of the teaching space will remain an essential norm.

Technology can be a way to open up the teaching space, if it is done appropriately. Too often, it is not.

The introduction of most technologies follow a standard S-curve — a slow explosion of exploration of what the underlying science means, a massive explosion of implementations and organisations bringing the technology to market as products, mass adoption, the reduction of the market to a few players, and then a long tail of ever-diminishing returns on innovation but many more products that fade the technology from view by embedding it in other things.

Electricity worked this way, so did pre-Internet media, the automobile, etc. Information and communications technologies, and biotechnologies, on the other hand, show no sign of ceasing their explosive change period: in essence, each new redefinition of the S-curve comes to pass before the previous iteration can mature.

What this translates into, for students entering schools today, is a life of multiple careers, in many different fields of endeavour, as whole industries are deconstructed, and whole civilizations, cultures and nations find their position in the world shifting rapidly.

Add questions about our energy futures, how we recover from our four decade-long debt binge, the undoing of so much of our employment base through offshoring, and the like, and the likelihood that any career is the linear “Organization Man” model from the 1950s that our schools still develop students to enter is laughable.

If the explosive technologies I mentioned earlier grow exponetially at 100x, the ability of people to change grows at 10x (concentrated in youth) — and institutions at 1x. The attempt to hold back this tide, as has happened in many jurisdictions, tries to reduce change to 0.1x. This is so clearly unsustainable as to not be worth thinking about.

Meanwhile, it is incontrovertible that today’s students in North America, Western Europe and the Antipodes — who have never known a world where the Internet couldn’t make anything available on demand — are much more attuned to quick jumps, scattered nuggets, integration on the fly and as such think differently than those of us who are older and were raised in a culture of books.

From video games, to television (the average cut in television or movies is now on the order of 5-9 secs.; it was 30 secs. to 1 min. when the baby boomers were parked in front of the set or screen), to the sheer ability to jump around that the hyperlink creates, today’s children “coalesce” information into gestalts where yesterday’s built it up one foundation as a time.

We — in that more linear world — designed tests for measuring extreme capabilities (the definition for a psychologist of “genius” developmental capability is to be in the top 1% for the style group in question) which generally looked for that coalescing behaviour.

It is no wonder, therefore, that the number of “gifted” seems to be growing, and that IQ scores are rising. Companies producing educational technologies tell me that their design point is for a class average of the older IQ 120 rather than the 100 of a generation ago (in other words, the mid-point has moved up due to this style change).

Playing multi-player online games, engaging in online communities, mashing together information using tools like Facebook, etc. have turned children into next generation thinkers.
Meanwhile we continue to teach them — materials, methods and expected work and outcomes — to be not current generation (in the sense of where the adults are) but prior generation thinkers.

No wonder the gifted amongst today’s base simply turn off and fail. They perceive the pattern, and determine it is a complete waste of their time.

As with W.R. Clement’s argument in Quantum Jump, they have adopted at their core the thinking associated with quantum mechanics, relativity, etc. (whether they know it or not) and think in “3D” while the rest of us remain “flatlanders”, or 2D thinkers.

This last happened in the West in the 15th and 16th century with the Renaissance and the discovery of perspective. (Once you learn to “see” in perspective, you cannot see the world without it. So, too, with the shift to the 3D thinking of a post- Cartesian mind-set.)

We must completely rethink every aspect of education, converting it from its core idea — that it is a one-time, early life experience — into a life-long process in which we re-dip ourselves alongside the things we do. This re-dipping, in turn, can’t be about further professional programmes that require years out to attend (those 83 professional Masters’ degrees) or linear certifications in a field. That’s today’s story. Tomorrow’s will require ways to launch and relaunch again and again: our initial education must give us the skills to do exactly that, rather than “bodies of facts”.

If this is true of adults — and we’re already there — with adult financial responsibilities for their family, isn’t it true as well for children, who need non-schooling responsibilities as well? Aren’t our ideas of adolescence, for instance, in need of being questioned? Perhaps only in the elementary years, where the core skills required for all others are essential to “get and get right”, does mandatory classroom time make sense?

Perhaps our high school years should, as Maria Montessori suggested a hundred years ago, be spent working. She had farms in mind, but community craft manufacturing, etc. would work just as well. This would be an apprenticeship in craft, in personal responsibility and skill, coupled with long inter-generational conversations to build up the ability to learn as needed and on one’s own going forward. eLearning courses would allow for required learning — mathematics, history, etc. — to enter the workplace.

This is not a question that I pretend to have all of the answers. Nor do I have answers to the challenges that may upset an ever-accelerating technological world — the long emergency of declining energy availability at affordable prices, the outcomes of blowback from around the world, a “clash of civilisations” type of outcome, economic depression arising from years of mismanagement — the list of potential challenges is amazingly long.

Yet none of the scenarios you can construct for any of these crisis points return us to the world of the mid-20th century (where the redevelopment and change to “how we educate” basically stopped) either.

What won’t work is centralising the system. The Ministy of Education dictating how the teacher will handle material, what materials can be used, and what line item outcomes ought to be is so far past its due date it is not funny. Mandating standardised tests forces the system to teach to the test (since standard tests will be stack ranked by outside organisations even if governments do not).

But moreover, mandating social goals (“everyone will take physical education because we want fitness”, “everyone will take drug education because we have a war on drugs”, “everyone will take career education”, “every course in Grade 10 will use the First Nations regardless of subject”) distorts the process. (Please tell me why we take students out of school to go to job expositions where we show them the police force, the fire department and the military, when their curriculum otherwise is completely focused on university admission? This is what you get when bureaucrats decide for teachers who are “in the situation”.)

Higher education could admit students — young, adult, who cares when? — based on oral interview examination. With Skype and Google Talk, these are easy to do without travel costs. Our higher education system could return to being centres of learning rather than places where people are educated for specific jobs.

Like it or not, change happens. It has happened, and is happening. The longer we leave off championing that the institutions of education — from pre-school to graduate school — change to be a part of the new world (not only the one that is already here, but for the types of worlds we can envision), the more wrenching and disruptive this shift will be when it comes: revolution, not evolution.

Both teaching unions and educational bureaucrats share a deep desire to see none of this happen. Their hopes are already misplaced. Shift happens. Let’s get on with it.

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