I read this article by Stewart Riddle in The Conversation and it reminded me of this old websofsubstance post:
The only thing that we know about the future is that it is unpredictable. When I was at school in the 1980s and 1990s it was inconceivable that humans would not have visited Mars by now and the greatest threat to humanity was a nuclear war. Instead, technology has turned inwards and transformed our personal access to information in a way not envisaged by even Star Trek, whereas climate change has displaced nuclear war as the most likely doomsday scenario.
At school, I used to have lessons in the Computer Room on BBC microcomputers; lessons in what ‘WYSIWYG’ means and how to name files so that they could be saved on floppy disks. Our teachers were, no doubt, attempting to prepare us for the future. However, anything of any use that I have ever learnt about computers has been through a process of discovery learning; partly because the tight feedback constraints of computers aid this process and partly because not one of my teachers ever predicted well enough the knowledge that I would need.
Those who claim to know what we need to teach students in order to prepare them for the future are deluded. Be wary of their sales-pitch. At best, such efforts lead to some wasted curriculum time and at worst they displace the teaching of stuff that has real value. Lazy ideas persist, such as that simply making children discuss things will prepare them for working collaboratively in the jobs of the future or that we should all give students an iPad to use just because.
So how can we identify the knowledge that we should transmit to the new generation? How can we know what they will want and need? Well, of course, we can’t know. It’s not possible. But we can play the odds.
The key principle should be: Expose students to that which has endured.
What does this mean? Well, firstly I am not interested in a purely utilitarian view of education. The aim is not simply to produce competent employees for capitalism to ruthlessly exploit in the decades to come. We should clearly equip our students for the world of work but I want them to also possess a hinterland; to go home at the end of the day and read James Joyce’s Ulysses if that’s what they choose to do.
And here’s the rub, of course. How will they be able to choose Ulysses? How will they know whether it’s the sort of thing that will turn them on? We can leave it to happenstance or we can systematically expose students to those ideas that people have found enriching in the past; that which has endured. The fact of endurance hints at cultural value. Can we make everyone love Ulysses? Of course not. I can’t stand the book myself. But enough people have found value in it for it to endure.
The exact canon to which children should be exposed should be a subject of vigorous, democratic debate. Even if we accept the principle of endurance then we will still have a lot to choose from. We don’t even have to teach Ulysses in order to set children on a path that may lead towards it by teaching other works of literature. We will never do this by closing down and limiting the scope of experience to only the stuff that we consider to be relevant; patronisingly choosing advertisements for iPods or newspaper articles about bands as worthy of our students’ analysis.
Will every individual interaction with poetry or mathematics or history or physics lead to a lifelong passion for the subject? No, but that is not the point. It will lead some into passion and others into an appreciation of what is out there and an appreciation of other people; the artist for the scientist and so on. A good education enables us to express our humanity in ways that we may never have known existed.
And we will still want to include some contemporary ideas, even if we are not sure that they will endure. Such ideas should form part of a logical progression; students must be able to apprehend them.
For instance, I used to teach about the possible eventual fates of the universe to my physics A-Level students. They couldn’t really grasp the detail but they had enough of a basic understanding of gravity to appreciate an impressionistic view. Interestingly, it turns out that I was wrong. We did not know at that time that the universe is accelerating its expansion. I don’t believe that this will have harmed my students – any of those who followed the issue through the years will have read the news and will see how the new knowledge fits with the old. But it does demonstrate why we should not place the contemporary at the centre of school education.
One argument against traditional education is that knowledge is superseded quickly these days; we might teach the students stuff that will turn out to be wrong in a few years time, like I did. The answer is not to teach them how to learn instead – to become ‘learning workers’ – but to teach them core principles and ideas that are unlikely to change. The fact is that it is the contemporary and relevant curriculum that is the one most likely to become outdated quickly; as those BBC microcomputers show.
And we don’t need to change the way that we teach, either. It is common to paint a caricature of traditional teaching as lecturing. This then enables tech developers to say, “Why don’t we just capture all of the lectures on video and then kids can work through at their own pace on a computer or phone or something like that. You can then focus on coaching them.” But traditional styles of teaching are not like that. Direct instruction is not lecturing; it is highly interactive and requires the involvement of the students. Personalised learning, on the other hand, enables students to exercise the wrong choices and can entrench low expectations.
When you strip it back, nothing endures more than the ability to read, write and do basic arithmetic (in that order of importance). The real scandal about preparing students for the future is the fact that we allow so many children to fall behind in these basic skills. We knowingly and wilfully use strategies that are not the best ones; whole-language reading instruction dressed-up as ‘mixed methods’ or ‘balanced literacy’ and discovery learning approaches to mathematics.
No matter how much you play on an iPad, you are not prepared for the future if you can’t read.