If ever you have the misfortune to be on a night out with me, and if we are in the vicinity of a karaoke bar, then there is one inevitable outcome: I will end up singing the T-Rex classic ’20th Century Boy’ in what English comedians, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, would term the ‘club style’. It’s not pretty but it works as a metaphor for the rest of this post so bear with me.
The education department in New South Wales has just organised a conference full of the usual sort of people to talk about the future of education. As you can imagine, the future will apparently be very different from the past and this include the jobs that people will do. In order to prepare for this, we need some kind of revolution in education that involves tossing out solid stuff and replacing it with fluffy stuff.
Today, a piece was published in The Conversation that is abridged from a book produced to coincide with the conference. A number of claims are made that I would dispute, such as the idea that, “In this digital age, the need for children to learn and memorise facts is diminishing.” Instead, we apparently need to teach 21st century skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking and collaboration.
This contention is plainly wrong on a number of levels.
Firstly, our current understanding of cognitive science suggests that critical thinking skills cannot be uncoupled from knowledge. In order to think critically about something, we need to know a lot about it. The same is true for problem-solving; we generally solve problems by making use of strategies that we have learnt; that we know. When we solve novel problems for which we have no strategies, we use means-end analysis; an approach that nobody needs to be taught. Knowledge is important because it is something that we think with. We cannot think with knowledge that is sitting out there somewhere on the internet. If we diminish the need for knowledge then we will have the perverse effect of degrading students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Is this what the education department in New South Wales wants?
What of collaboration? Can this be taught? There are clearly elements of cooperating with others that children pick up from early socialisation. But these are biologically primary skills that we have evolved to learn. There is no reason to think that working with three mates on a geography project in Year 8 will do anything to help prepare students to work in quite specifically designed teams when they start employment. If there is evidence to suggest otherwise then I would be interested to read it. Again, I suspect that ability to collaborate in a particular area will depend up knowledge of that area.
Yet there is no doubt that many big businesses call for students to be inculcated with these kinds of ’21st century skills’ in order to make them better employees. So what does that mean?
Firstly, people who run banks or sell washing machines are not experts on cognitive science and so they are just as likely to be mistaken about this as anyone else.
Secondly, I have to wonder whether big business is trying to duck out of a responsibility here. Imagine if the army said, “We really need schools to teach students how to fire guns – this is an essential skill that schools are just not delivering and that will be even more important in the future.” The likely reaction would be that it is not the business of schools to teach this; that schools have a broader purpose.
And that would be right. When did we reach the point when education became solely about meeting the wishes of future employers? It is certainly not about that for me. Education is about making life richer; about opening people’s horizons to see things and have experiences that would otherwise have been denied them.
Nobody can know the future. We hear confident predictions all the time about AI or jobs that don’t exist yet, but we have to bear in mind that these are simply guesses made by pundits who have no clairvoyant powers. The best guide to what will be useful and important in the future remains that which has been useful and important in the past; that which endures. If we attempt to revolutionise education at the behest of big business then there is a chance that we will gain nothing and lose a lot.
Finally, when did we decide that the ability to collaborate or think critically were uniquely 21st century skills? Then again, perhaps I’m just saying that because I’m a 20th century boy.