Why Education Must Change

by futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

This article was originally published in Teach magazine.

For most of the 18 years I’ve written this column, I’ve focused on how education will change. This time, I’m going to focus on why it must change, and it relates to the purposes of education.

There are two major schools of thought about the purpose of education, and for some strange reason, most people believe they are mutually exclusive. One school believes that education should primarily be devoted to the enlightenment of the individual, to equip them with the mental tools to enable them to appreciate the fine and important things of life, and to enable them to contribute to their society and the world. The other school believes that education should provide the individual with the skills they need to  get a good job and a vocation, so that they can support themselves, contribute to the economy, and enjoy the material things of life. Both are right, and they are actually mutually supportive, not mutually exclusive – but that’s a topic for another day.

For both purposes, education must change. Let’s look first at the enlightenment of the individual. The world around us is being driven largely by commercial interests. This has become such a normal part of our lives that we hardly even notice the daily bombardment of advertising, and the pervasive, subtle pressures to own something, or behave in a particular way. And there is nothing especially wrong with society because these pressures exist – this pressure has largely been responsible for the richness and luxury of our daily lives. Yet, there is more to life than just commercial offerings, and most commercial offerings are shallow, and lack deeper purpose. Moreover, commerce and society generally tends to emphasize novelty, and while, again, there’s nothing wrong with new things per se, there is much more to life than just the novel.

On their own, few people would delve deeper than today’s satisfactions – which is where education enters the picture. Education provides context, history, art, depth of understanding, and perspective that most people would not otherwise be exposed to. This is part of the traditional role of education as it fulfills part of the purpose of culture, which is the transmission of our society’s values.

But the world is changing, and at ever accelerating rates. And the shiny baubles that novelty and commerce provide are increasingly being designed to be “sticky” or addictive. If education is to capture the attention of children, and persuade them of the value of what we know, what we have, where we’ve come from, and who we are, then it must compete with the increasingly effective seductions of commercial offerings. Assuming that just because we can hold students captive for six hours a day, 180 days a year, for 12 years is enough to allow us to brainwash them into appreciating the riches or our society is, in my view, a short-sighted and foolish view. Instead, I believe that education must compete for attention, not just for enforced time, and the only way we can do that is to seduce students into a state of fascination with what the wider world has to offer. As I say when I’m invited to speak to groups of students, we adults have perpetrated a cruel hoax on you: we’ve convinced you that learning is an intolerably boring process that you have no choice but to endure, when the reality is that learning is the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

We need to change that. Today’s students are, in my view, smarter, hipper, more skeptical, and less likely to believe propaganda than any other generation in history. They know that no matter what the school system tells them, the odds of them needing, wanting, or using most of the crap we teach them is vanishingly small once they leave their formal education. And yet, there are things that they will need to know that we’re not teaching them, and there are things they would love to know if we could present them in a way that doesn’t bore than pants off them. And as far as I can see, the only way we can seduce students into loving education is if we approach that education by appealing to those things that the individual students themselves are passionate about. We have to stop teaching the curriculum, and start teaching the individual – each individual, every single individual, and teach them as individuals, with unique interests and abilities. We have to stop teaching Mr. Smith’s grade 11 English class, Ms. Phansalkar’s grade 9 geometry class, or most of the groupings that assume that 25 kids are all the same simply because that makes education simple for us (and excruciatingly boring for them). And I don’t see any way that our current education system can achieve the level of interest or seduction necessary to compete with the enthralling, but shallow, offerings of commerce and society.

Now let me turn to the vocational aspects of education. And if anything, the need for change is even more compelling here.

We are all aware that countries like China and India, plus fast gaining countries like Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, and Malaysia, are providing enormous competition for low-level and low-skilled jobs. What is not as well known is that these same countries are aiming for the best jobs that require the highest levels of education. They will not be satisfied with low-skilled jobs that don’t pay well and offer little opportunity. This means that our students will be competing with the best in the world in almost any field. Worse, they are starting at a big disadvantage: our school days are shorter, our school years are shorter, and our society no longer has the devotion to higher education that parents in developing countries have.

Some commentators and politicians contend that the way to deal with this issue is to lengthen school years and school days, pile on the homework, and really get “back to basics.” I think this is precisely the wrong answer, because it means making our education system even more boring than it already is. Moreover, we are headed into a world where creativity and innovative thinking will be more valuable than rote learning of any depth. Indeed, what’s the point of memorizing facts if you can command them with a wave of your search engine? Understanding and context, on the other hand, are critically important. Accordingly, if our kids are to compete with smart kids from around the world, our children will be better equipped if we focus on helping them identify their peculiar talents and abilities, and then develop them.

But there’s another threat that is, perhaps, even more worrying than rising competition from smart kids abroad, and that is automation. Most people are familiar with Moore’s Law, coined (and repeatedly reframed) by Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel. In economic terms, Moore’s Law states that computers will double in speed, and halve in price, every 18 months. Yet, it turns out that Moore’s Law is wrong because it’s too conservative. Moore’s Law posits an exponential growth rate – which means a constant rate of change (i.e., doubling every 18 months). But computers are evolving faster than that, and not only is the rate of change accelerating, but the rate of acceleration is increasing. As a result, a rough estimate indicates that computers will become about 1,000 times faster and more cost-effective over the next 10 years. And, as we develop new, more effective tools and techniques to harness this power, it means that automation will become dramatically more powerful in the next decade.

Automation has been increasing in power for millennia, since the invention of fire and the wheel. It really started to accelerate with the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. Now it is moving at a rate that may be beyond our comprehension.

In the past, automation has led to a steadily rising standard of living, as well as new, better paying jobs that offer more opportunity. And so it still does. However, the major difference now is that automation is changing things so fast that the skills we develop at the beginning of our careers may not be enough to allow us to make a living for more than a few years – and eventually a few months – before they become obsolete. We are being thrown out of work at ever-faster rates, and if we are to hope to continue to work, we will need to constantly upgrade our abilities.

To some extent, the effects of both of these developments – foreign competition and domestic automation – are already evident. Whereas when I and my peers left our formal educations, we had a choice of jobs available to us, today students finish a university education, and spend years looking for anything more than menial labour. Worse, the next 10 years are going to make this seem like a happy outcome. Within the next 10 years, we will face an employment crisis that will shake the foundations of our society, our political system, and our economy. And the only answer is education, and education for adults as well as young people.

But it can’t be the same old education. It has to be education that emphasizes our human talents and abilities, our creativity and our ability to improvise and innovate. Skills training in most fields, with a few exceptions, will become obsolete at faster and faster rates. We will, instead, need to fall back on those things that are uniquely human, like art, teamwork, leadership, empathy, understanding, creativity, ingenuity, and all of the deeper aspects of human life and society. Computers, robots, and cheaper competition from abroad will take everything else.

And for those who say that the way to combat these things is by protecting domestic jobs, and halting the use of automation, let me say that like King Canute, you might as well try to stop the tide from coming in. Such efforts are not only doomed to fail, they will also make it even harder for us to succeed by diverting our attention and efforts away from the real task for tomorrow’s education: helping us to blossom into self-actualization, to become the best people we can be.

Do we have the wit to see the problems that are racing towards us? And do we have the will do to something about them? Those are the questions that will determine why we need to change education.

© Copyright, IF Research, September 2010.

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