If you could take a doctor from the 19th century, and transport him (for it would certainly be a man) to a modern hospital, he wouldn’t be able to do much more than walk around and shake hands (spreading disease as he went), because the medical arts have changed so much. On the other hand, if you took a teacher from the 19th century, and brought her (for it would likely have been a woman) to, say, a contemporary high school, then once she had gotten over the culture shock and the attitudes of the students and the parents, she would probably have been able to cope quite well with teaching. She would be baffled by computers and electronics, of course, but teaching fundamentally has not changed in the last century or longer. |
This will not be the case over the next century. Indeed, we have probably seen more changes in education in the last 20 years than in the 100 before then. This is partly because technology is now firmly entrenched in the classroom through computers, and through the use of the Internet and electronic resources. It’s partly because we now live in a global economy and society, which has both raised awareness of other cultures and peoples, and dramatically increased the level of competition for jobs. Routine work, for instance, is no longer available to a high school grad uncertain of what he wants to do for a living.
The society in which we function has also changed. Attitudes towards education and educators are less supportive, making it harder for teachers to function. Students are coddled more, and we have experienced a dumbing-down of educational standards at precisely the time when competition for jobs is increasing. It’s now expected that colleges and universities will offer remedial English courses to first year students, so-called ‘bonehead English.’ It’s reached the stage where this doesn’t even raise questions, it’s just accepted.
When I first started speaking about education to corporate audiences, circa 1990, I got yawns of indifference. That, too has changed. Whereas education used to be a collection of sleepy little fiefdoms, run by professional educators and school boards, over the last 15 years it has become a political hot button, largely because the baby boomers have had their kids in school, and that made it important. I’m not certain this greater attention has improved things, because the boomers – my generation – are a very demanding crowd that don’t listen very well, and bitch and scream when they don’t get their own way. This has led to new problems such as political correctness and grade inflation. Moreover, the politicization of education has also caused many state and provincial governments to engage in micromanaging classroom teaching because of an inherent distrust of teachers. This has resulted in the kind of initiative-killing, underachieving results made famous by the late Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, teachers have changed as well. For an increasing number, teaching is not so much a profession as a job. This is not universally true – there are still inspired and inspiring teachers – but a steadily increasing number of teachers are there for the pay, vacations, and pension. It’s just a job, and if the kids don’t learn as much as they should – well, I taught what the government told me to, so my job’s done.
If we keep going as we are, then we and all other rich world countries are on their way to being poor, for education is the currency of the future. Everywhere I go, people agree with me on this, but no on agrees on what should be done, and who should do it. So, since no one agrees, let me pitch in my two cents' worth:
First, the curricula should be redesigned from the conclusion of formal education backwards to the beginning. Those tasked with designing curricula should start by asking the questions: ‘What will tomorrow's students need?’ and, ‘What will students find useful and stimulating to know and be able to do?’ They should consult with businesses, employers, artists, writers, performers, post-secondary educators, and a broad spectrum of people in the real world to come up with these answers. From this, they should arrive at a consensus on a base of common knowledge that should be learned. This base should include material that has no other purpose than to stimulate and create a well-rounded, civilized human: reading, writing, mathematics (mental as well as computed), art, music, poetry, history (both European/North American, and global), geography, economics, dance, and athletics, to name some of the more obvious ones. Beyond this, there should be material that goes beyond traditional education, and reflects the realities of a global labour force: sales technique, marketing, leadership, teamwork, global economics, politics (local, national, and international – and not all sweetness and light, either), and more.
But this should all be only the backdrop for each student’s real education: the development of their own unique talents, abilities, intellect, and the identification and pursuit of their true calling, to revive an archaic term. The world of work is automating rapidly, and routine work of all kinds is disappearing. Tomorrow’s workers will survive on the basis of their unique talents, plus their ability to innovate, create, market, and sell their ideas in the global marketplace. They will probably be self-employed, even if they work under contract for a large organization. Even those who are employed in a traditional way will have to manage their own careers, as well as saving for their retirement instead of relying on a pension. In such a world, the mass-production, everybody-learn-the-same-thing-at-the-same-time education system that we have now just won’t cut it. We need a system that customizes a curriculum, and how it’s taught, to each learner. There’s very little point in spending all that money to educate people in a rote manner that will be of little value to them or society.
Moreover, the tools of education have changed, and will change even more rapidly in future. We can’t continue to use teaching techniques evolved from the 13th century, designed to work with printed books, paper, and writing in an age where electronics offers so much more opportunity, including the opportunity to waste money on splashy trivia. The means of education must come into the 21st century, and that means learning from the experience of leading individual teachers and groups here and around the world, adopting what works best, and seeking to continually improve it. New media, such as podcasting, creates new opportunities and new pitfalls, but ones which mirror the changed world in which today’s students will need to function.
Yet, even as curricula become tailored to individuals, and new technology adds new power to pedagogy, the heart and soul of education will remain the relationship between teacher and learner. Of greatest importance will be to make sure that the natural enthusiasm students start out with in kindergarten and first grade is not extinguished in mind-killing rote, and dry-as-dust knowledge forced down their throats. Teachers must care about their students – this can’t just be a job. They must be both skilled technicians, able to harness their own knowledge of pedagogy, technique, and tools; as well as being talented artists, able to size up each individual learner and help that learner seek her own way in the world, using every resource appropriate to do so. In turn, this means that governments must get off teachers’ backs. A distant government, controlling the purse strings, should demand accountability, and hold teachers responsible for the achievements of their learners, but must get off this micro-management kick. They must ensure that they hire the best possible teachers, support them well, pay them magnificently, hold them to task, and fire those who don’t work out. But it should be the principals and the teachers who decide how and when to teach, for only they know and understand the minds and spirits of the individual learners. Governments should deal in statistics and let teachers deal in the human spirit.
Can we do this? Certainly. Will we? That’s much less clear.
by futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.
© Copyright, IF Research, September 2006.