How to prepare students for the future

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.

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9 Comments on “How to prepare students for the future”

  1. Tempe says:

    Thanks Greg. Your posts are a beacon in a sea of educational idiocy. If we don’t know what the future looks like the best way to be prepared is to teach that that has stood the test of time – that that has endured. A point about collaboration. This is not a skill peculiar to the 21st C, it has always been necessary for people to collaborate. Anyway, collaboration in school looks more like 1-2 kids do the work and the others kick back, do nothing and still get the same mark. I’m curious as to why their seems to be much more dissent in places like the UK, the US, Canada and NZ, but not in Aust.? Why is it more teachers aren’t questioning the status quo and why aren’t more dissatisfied parents organising and speaking out? I believe that we need to form such a group and start agitating for change. As a united front we might get somewhere. They did in the UK and Alberta has made some in roads to the maths curriculum.

  2. Tara Houle says:

    Tempe, great comments. I am sure you are aware of some changes happening in Oz, although I am rather confused about them. Kevin Donnelly was one of the advisors for the new curriculum overhaul in Australia, and although I was pleased to see his recommendation about memorizing times tables, I was dismayed by further recommendations to lump together various subjects such as history and other topic matters. I thought if some notable educators were involved in the Australian review, it might lead to a clearer understanding that kids were severely lacking the basic skills, such as what Greg has alluded to in this blog posting.

    Nhung Tran-Davies is to be commended for her tenacity in pushing back against Alberta’s education policies and forcing significant changes to their school curriculum. And both Rob Craigen and Anna Stokke, co-founders of WISE Math, are also having some success in getting curriculum changes in Manitoba, to include the use of the standard algorithms and memorization of times tables at the primary level. In BC, we have had zero success in getting our policy makers to acknowledge evidence based instruction, even though our new curriculum is very similar to that which was just turfed in the UK. Very frustrating.

    It’s very much a one step forward, three steps back process. Many parents are simply taking care of their kids’ education themselves by hiring private tutors, rather than speak out against the process. We still need a lot more of their support. But perhaps the biggest boost we need, is that at the university level. It’s here where the breeding ground of progressive ideologies reside. And where educationalists prey to sell their products to education ministries. Perhaps some of these policy makers, and education professors need to try and teach their trendy learning strategies on unsuspecting 8 year olds in the classroom.

    Great blog post. Have shared with many. Keep it coming please.

    • Tempe says:

      Hi Tara – both you and Nhung Tran -Davies are amazing. I admire your persistence. As you say, in Aust. there was a review of the National Curriculum by the conservative Govt. I suspect that because it was the conservatives many teachers simply disagree with any change purely on a politically bias basis. In actually fact I verge towards the left, politically, but I think it is a great shame that so many on the left refuse to even explore evidence etc because it conflicts with their bias. In general, those of the left despise Kevin Donnelly. We are still waiting to see what the changes will be. Thus far we have been told that it is a back to basics approach, which sounded promising, however I have heard no mention of standard algorithms being mandated in our curriculum just strategies and I find this very alarming. Recall of times tables were mandated in the original document, however (and I warn you to watch out for this loop hole) many teachers in primary have interpreted this to mean that they don’t have to do it in the class room, instead they outsource this to parents. It is pretty clear that if this is the way you proceed many children, mostly those already from disadvantaged backgrounds, will never learn them. Our primary school teachers are VERY opposed to any hint of rote/memorisation. They claim to get around this by teaching times tables in context ie doing multiplication sums, strategies and problem solving. Putting the cart before the horse, in my view, and making it all so much more difficult than it needs to be. As you say the changes mean that they intend to focus more on literacy & numeracy, but this is at the expense of geography/history/science which will be merged into one in primary. Personally I subscribe to Hirsch’s ideas/views on content rich curriculum – I use his books to homeschool my eldest daughter – , so I find this very disappointing. But I can see why they took that road. With so many of our students struggling and not opting for STEM subjects in high school they want to devote more time to these vital areas. One area they don’t address at all, and really needs immediate attention, is pedagogical approach. Teachers want autonomy, but in my view this autonomy is coming at a price. It means that most of our teachers who know noting about other forms of instruction except inquiry based/ problem solving will continue to believe that this is the best way to teach. They deny evidence and describe teaching as a craft. While this is true to an extent I would argue that it is vital to consistently use the best approach in relation to teaching. I am saddened and dismayed by the ignorance and the lack of organised opposition to these problems in Aust. As Noel Pearson, a campaigner for Direct Instruction in Aust. schools says, we need to teacher-proof the system so that even the worse teachers will still do a satisfactory job. We do this with a robust, content rich curriculum and by using the best pedagogical approach. Currently we have neither of these. You guys in Canada are to be admired. I wish we had a campaign going here in Australia. All the best.

  3. […] Please, give them more credit than that. And, of course, get to work figuring out how to connect that which has endured to your kids so they are equipped to join civilization’s long conversations. Our kids’ […]

  4. […] Regular readers will know that I am sceptical of ‘the future changes everything’ argument for a number of reasons. Firstly, the fundamental point about the future is that it is unpredictable. We simply cannot know what knowledge will be needed for jobs that have not been invented yet but our best guide is likely to be knowledge that has been useful in the past; that which has endured. […]

  5. […] are of course preparing pupils for the future, and I agree with Greg Ashman when he states that to prepare for an uncertain future, we are best served to teach knowledge that […]

  6. […] to large and it is why I argue for a curriculum based upon what has proved useful in the past: that which has endured. This gives us our best chance of equipping students for their futures – in the broadest […]

  7. […] Yet, I suggest that our best guide to what will be useful in the future is what has been useful in the past. We can never be sure, but concepts that have persisted over time to the extent that we teach them to young people in school are good candidates for concepts that will last into the future. If you want to place you bets then I would back that which has endured. […]


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