In an article for the Sydney Morning Herald, Michael Anderson, Professor of Education at The University of Sydney, stares into his crystal ball and asks, “How can we prepare kids for a coming world where almost half of jobs will be displaced by technology?”
His answer will be familiar to all those who know current education cliches: We must focus on the 4 Cs of, “creativity, critical reflection, collaboration and communication,” Some schools are already doing this and they are great:
“In these classrooms students are more engaged, they learn the skills of the 4Cs through experience: they are interdisciplinary rather than siloed in their learning and thinking. This change does not happen quickly. It is slow and sometimes difficult. Where it does work the whole school community commits resources and energy to the task of transformation. They have made these hard decisions because they appreciate the gravity of school relevance and work hard to make the change.”
But there is a problem. Standardised NAPLAN tests of literacy and numeracy have a ‘limited’ focus on a set of ‘basics’ which causes teachers to ‘teach-to-the-test’.
Think about the future
The first point to make is that Anderson’s contention is not in any way new. Despite being dressed-up as an urgent response to rapidly changing conditions, the argument dates back at least a century. In the preface to his 1918 book, The Curriculum, Franklin Bobbitt writes:
“Our task… is to point out some of the new duties. We are to show why education must now undertake tasks that until recently were not considered needful; why new methods, new materials, and new types of experience must be employed… It is the feeling of the writer that… just ahead of us, education is to be called upon to bear a hitherto undreamed-of burden of responsibility; and to undertake unaccustomed labors.”
Moreover, is education simply a means to future employment? Is it just a functional exercise, the purpose of which is to produce future workers? I don’t believe that it is and I suspect that Anderson doesn’t believe that it is either. Education is much more than that. It is about equipping students for a fulfilling life. Yet, just as Bobbitt found, the uncertainty of the future is a good rhetorical device to use in order to advance a favoured set of practices.
Good things come within domains
The deep flaw in Anderson’s argument is to top-slice a set of desirable attributes and then insist that these must be taught in an interdisciplinary way. This is entirely consistent with the progressive education tradition dating back at least as far as John Dewey, at the same time as being entirely inconsistent with all the research evidence we now have at our disposal. Skills such as communication are domain dependent. In order to communicate, you need vocabulary and broader subject knowledge at your disposal. You need an understanding of the conventions of communication in a particular area. Yes, there are some areas of literacy that will transfer between domains but these are the same ‘basics’ assessed by the NAPLAN tests that Anderson so dislikes.
Similarly, critical thinking – which is what I assume Anderson means by ‘critical reflection’ – is again largely dependent upon strong domain knowledge. The more you know and understand about a certain body of knowledge, the more able you are to critically reflect upon it. Attempting to teach this as a generic interdisciplinary skill will, at best, lead to the acquisition of a few useful heuristics and, at worst, lead to a trivial level of interaction with the subject matter. Either way, it will not constitute a powerful curriculum.
And what of creativity? I can be creative by drawing a squiggle on a piece of paper. Is that the kind of creativity we value? Or is it the creativity of the skilled musician who creates a new work or the engineer who invents a new way to store the energy generated by solar power stations? In the case of the latter two examples, neither form of creativity is possible without the accumulation of vast amounts of knowledge specific to domains where learning is slow and cumulative.
Back to the future
So what of the future? Firstly, I am not convinced by the hype. The one thing we know with certainty about the future is that it is unpredictable, so we should therefore treat the predictions of pundits as highly speculative at best. We can’t know for certain what knowledge the jobs of the future will require. No doubt, some of the skills that students develop today will become economically obsolete, even if they still give pleasure to those who possess them.
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 societies have chosen to teach them to young people in school are good candidates for concepts that will last into the future. If you want to place your bets then I would back that which has endured.
By contrast, it would seem foolish to institute radical experiments where key knowledge in the domains of literacy and numeracy is downgraded in favour of prioritising ‘innovative’ teaching practices that haven’t worked for the last hundred years and seem unlikely to work any better in the future.