The Wonder and the Horror of Education’s Future

by futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

A shorter version of this article appeared in Teach magazine in the Spring of 2012.

Sometime in mid-1992, I was approached by someone who had read a column I’d written about the future of education for the Globe & Mail. His name was Wili Liberman, and he wanted me to write a regular column on the future of education for a new magazine he was going to edit called (appropriately enough) Teach. He said he couldn’t pay me, but the magazine could give me a quarter-page ad in each issue. I didn’t quite know what I would do with such an ad, but was intrigued about writing such a column. As I said then, and have frequently repeated, I don’t think you can be a futurist and not be interested in education.

For almost 20 years since then, I’ve written six columns a year, often hurriedly between consulting and speaking events for paying corporate clients, and have found the experience intriguing, satisfying, and intensely frustrating. It has caused me to think about the future of education, the future of kids & teachers, the future of parents and parenting, and the future of our society. It’s been frustrating because I used to get regular feedback from readers, teachers, parents, even some students, and whether they were complimentary or not, I found their comments instructive. I have also ended each and every column with an offer to speak – for free – to high school students, and have had a number of memorable experiences as a result, some times with entire high schools, speaking to a thousand kids or more, and sometimes with a small, individual class of 20. More recently, the feedback has tapered off, and the invitations to come and speak have completely dried up. I’m not sure if that’s because of me, the subject matter, if readers are less engaged or busier, or if people have generally become more like sightseers and less like participants. Perhaps it’s all of the above.

Problems ahead

What’s more frustrating is that the things I’ve been saying, and especially the things I’ve been warning about, have been happening with dreary regularity. I guess that means that not enough people have been reading what I’ve been writing, or else the people that need to read it, haven’t, or the people who read it either didn’t care or couldn’t do anything about it. That’s intensely frustrating. So as my valedictory, I’m going to review the major developments I’ve focused on over the past 20 years, and offer some final thoughts on what’s ahead.

First, and perhaps most importantly, is that the issues of the elderly are going to crowd out the issues of the young. I’ve been saying and writing about this since the late 1970s, and the time has finally come: the recent cuts in education funding are – unfortunately – proving me right. This need not be a disaster if the spending per student remains steady, or even rises, and if school boards close redundant schools, but neither of these is a given. In particular, communities become enamored of having a local school, and fight closures even when it’s the best thing to do for their school system. And if we cut education budgets per student, or spend the money poorly, then we, as a society, are eating our seed corn, and we will starve. What’s more, we will deserve to starve. As I’ve said to many audiences, in many circumstances, on many occasions, if we get education right, then we have a chance to solve all the other problems. If we get it wrong, then we have no chance and no future.

Teachers: From hero to zero

The next common theme in my writing has been that the status of teachers in our society has been consistently eroded away. This is partly a tribute to the success of their efforts. A century ago, teachers were among the most educated members of their communities, and looked up to accordingly. But they have been so successful at raising the level of educational attainment in society that now society looks down on teachers. And since everybody’s been to school, everybody thinks they know what goes on there, that it’s not that hard, and that anyone could do it if they didn’t have more important things to do. Ironically, this comes at a time when education is becoming ever-more important. All you have to do is look at the rising income disparities between those who have only a high school diploma, those with a university degree, and those with post-graduate qualifications to see the importance of this trend.

One of the consequences of this is the very strong movement towards micromanagement in the classroom. Bureaucrats, often with no teaching experience, are increasingly giving instructions that dictate what all the teachers in all classrooms of every public school should teach, and how they should teach it, every single day of the school year. This is completely backwards, as the Edmonton model has clearly demonstrated. Departments and ministries of education should set standards, provide relevant research and support materials to indicate what has been shown to work as best practices here and abroad, and then get out of the way to let teachers do what works best for their individual students. The teachers should be held accountable for achieving specific results, but bureaucrats and politicians should keep their interfering paws off of what goes on in the classroom.

Likewise, teachers, being given the freedom to teach students according to the teachers’ abilities and their students’ needs, must accept accountability, up to and including being fired if they’re not good at teaching. Seniority is a lousy way to run an education system. I have generally avoided talking about teachers’ unions, but the times that I’ve been on a panel interview in the media with a teachers’ union representative, I’ve been embarrassed at how reactionary, petty, and narrowly selfish they have been. Indeed, along with incompetent bureaucrats and politicians (which are most, but not all of them), I believe that most (but not all) teachers’ unions are among the biggest stumbling blocks to improving education.

The potential of computers in the classroom is still vastly underrated

A recurrent theme in my early columns was the fiction of “computer literacy.” I recently went back and reread a lot of my early columns, and find it amusing – now – that it was necessary to say that computers could be valuable in education, and that the Internet was a very powerful tool that was here to stay. It seems – now – to be incongruous that anyone could have thought otherwise, but I can assure you, in the 1990s I was often considered to be a wild-eyed, bomb-throwing, technological nut. While I thought (and think) that it was and is inevitable that computers and technology would come to the classroom, I also thought that, as computer people say, “to err is human; to really screw things up takes a computer.” Much of the money spent on putting computers into the classroom was wasted because the politicians, bureaucrats, and school boards who spent it didn’t know what they were doing, or what could be done with a computer that couldn’t be done with books and paper.

Despite this, computers, the Internet, and technology are really just getting started in the classroom. Unfortunately, they’re still not being used well, generally speaking. A computer is a tool, nothing more. If it’s used well, it can produce marvelous results because it’s a very powerful tool. If it’s used badly, it soaks up resources, and multiplies inferior efforts to produce inferior results. And this has led to one of my greatest frustrations: the deliberately-avoided potential of computers.

Computers have created a dynamic, new medium whose difference from books and paper is as important as the difference between the oral tradition on one hand, and writing and literacy on the other. Yet, we persist in ignoring the real potential to deliver a customized curriculum for each and every student. We should be doing away with grades and grading, so there are no more “grade 3 math” classes; only “Johnny Smith math” class, “Jenny Chen math” class, and so on. We could have an customized curriculum for each student, playing to her strengths, and building on her interests, to entice her to explore knowledge and her own potential. We could have students who were eager to learn, who loved schooling, and raced through their educations because they were interested in learning because that learning was couched in terms that worked best for their own learning styles, and the material was presented in a way that appealed to what they wanted to know. Learning could be fun, as well as vastly more flexible and productive.

Instead, the education establishment, all of it, from governments down to classroom teachers and parents, continues to cling to the industrial era, mass-production, drill-and-kill, one-size-fits-all model of education, and today’s students are just as bored, and hate school just as much as their grandparents did because it’s fundamentally the same system that was forced on their grandparents, and their grandparents. It’s a horrendous waste of human and computer potential.

Our education system is a failure

Indeed, a theme I’ve been pounding for the last three or four years is that I believe that our current education system is failing today’s students because it does not adequately prepare them for tomorrow’s working world. We need to be teaching creativity, innovation, critical thinking, and research techniques; the ability to express yourself verbally, in writing, and through mixed media; the techniques of learning; interpersonal skills like leadership, teamwork, persuasion, marketing and sales; and an understanding of how the human mind works so that students can learn more quickly and absorb new fields of study on their own. Instead, we persist in teaching stale curricula through lectures and textbooks, requiring students to memorize facts that they could look up in no time on the Internet so that they can regurgitate them on tests before forgetting them forever. These are not the skills they will need in tomorrow’s world, yet we persist in treating them as Holy Writ, and the results are seen in the high unemployment rate among young people throughout the developed world. The world has changed. Our education system has not.

Another theme I’ve discussed over the years is how society has changed. Educators know that parents in particular have changed, and not necessarily for the better. They may be more “involved” in their children’s education, but that involvement may often be as helicopter parents, hovering over their kids to overprotect them, excuse their children’s faults, and berate their teachers when their little darlings are not given top marks so they can get into Harvard or the Sorbonne, even though the darlings may not have earned those marks. Unfortunately, I don’t see any end to this trend. The current generation of students is the spoiled children of spoiled children, and I can only wonder what their children will be like.

Meanwhile society has changed for the worse as well. One sociology professor has described America as becoming a “toxic society,” and much as Canada would like to deny a similar descriptor, I fear it’s following the same trend. By this, the sociologist meant that we tell parents they are responsible for ensuring their children are kept away from filth and harm, but then turn around and abuse those same children by trying to sell things to them that purvey violence, pornography, and inappropriate behavior through television, videos, and computer games. As a society, we are rank hypocrites, and we will pay for our folly – as will our children.

Teaching myths instead of truth: the most worrying development

But perhaps the most worrying development is the trend towards accepting myths and fictions at the expense of truth. When evolution is cast into doubt because it conflicts with the cherished myths of some religions, and creationism is shopped as a reasonable equivalent, it erodes the foundations of rational western thought. When the scientific facts of climate change are thrown into doubt, and self-interested parties use propaganda and outright lies to pervert public understanding of the very real threats that are emerging, it represents a triumph of selfish, commercial interests at the expense of the common good and threatens the social compact that underlies our society. Truth is a guiding light in a difficult world, not an opinion that can be used or discarded at whim, yet increasingly people seem to think that facts are a matter of convenience, and that uninformed opinions are just as important as facts. This is a development that is just plain dangerous. And when schools are asked to teach opinions, myths, or propaganda instead of scientifically verified truths, we undermine our very way of life.

Much of what I’ve said is really gloomy. Does that represent what I think of the future? Well, there is much of the future that is scary and depressing, just as the 20th Century included two world wars plus an assortment of smaller ones, a Great Depression, the threat of thermonuclear war, and a wide variety of tragedies and disasters. Yet, what we will remember most about the 20th Century are the incredible advances in medicine that led to an unprecedented increase in life expectancy by about 30 years; the development of computers and the Internet, placing the greatest library in history literally at our fingertips; a massive increase in wealth that produced the most substantial improvement in lifestyle in human history, and a concomitant flourishing of the arts, plus the technology to record and transmit it to anyone, anywhere. And I see similar changes, and much more, for our future.

The wonder of the world ahead

I once said that anything that was possible would be accomplished, or at least started, in the 21st Century. I find that frightening because of the enormous breadth of this statement. Yet, I cannot find it within me to back away from that statement. I was recently at a conference for a biotech company of which I am a founding shareholder, and was able to have a 10-minute, private conversation with Dr. Craig Venter. Dr. Venter was the person who did more to decode the human genome than anyone else. I asked him how long it would be before we could design life. He replied that his group had done it in 2010, and that they could now design life forms in a computer, then produce them in the laboratory.

Our future is even more astonishing than our past, and education is the key. Let me end by repeating something I’ve said many times, including earlier in this article: If we get education right, we have a chance to solve all of our other problems. If we get it wrong, then we have no chance at all. Education is our future, and teachers and principals are its guardians.

Thank you.

© Copyright, IF Research, September 2012.

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One Response to The Wonder and the Horror of Education’s Future

  1. charles malody says:

    My wife Karen passed this to me. It reminded me of one she sent a year or so ago. I responded then – though it went unacknowledged – but I will respond again. The thing that struck me then and now is “this writer is not a teacher.” Teachers don’t talk about education, they talk about teaching, the actual hoursly classroom act. Certainly you have identified the topic aspects in the larger discussion, but either a) they are old hat [education isn’t working] or b) they aren’t actually true [students are 21st c. learners as the result of computers]. Between these 2 I think you will find your reason for declining response.

    The point you must accept above all others is that ‘it is possible to learn but it is not possible to teach.’ This is why the current state of affairs is as it is: not because we aren’t interested in doing it better or we don’t care, but that it can’t be otherwise. What do I mean by this: all the child development people agree that learning is additive in a particular fashion – one can only learn that which is congruent to one’s current understanding. In other words, what we are given can only be taken in if it has a place to attach to that we already ‘get’. If there is no place of attachment it simply bounces off into space like an entering but mis-angled space ship. Since it is exceedingly difficult for a teacher to know what exactly eaach student knows and how they know it, it is virtually impossible to know what to offer in a given class hour that will be absorbed by all students. The result is that the education model is set up to offer the subject matter and hold the student responsible for learning it. That absolves the teacher but sets all students up to eventually fail since it is absurd to think that over 12 years of general and 4+ years of advanced instruction that any one student can be in a position of take it all in. The result is what we have: over half simply give up, while the other half fight on, valiantly trying to pick up as many scraps as possible hoping desperately that one day they will make sense.

    Computers don’t enhance the intake, they accelerate the failure. Primarily in 2 arenas: they make instructors feel less responsibility for [certainly less personal connect to] the instructional interaction, and they have fostered online courses wherein any hope of interction is obliterated.

    Education is a very personal exchange that occurs outside money or equipment [in the last 30 years the $$ per student spent has gone up and the students per teacher has gone down and yet American still languishes]. As a result, in a huge country like the US, the only place this personal exchange can meaningfully take place is in specialized environments, of which there are two: within elite circles and within special needs groups. The great middle is left with mass produced white bread. Mostly because there are not enough truly talented people who both know something and have the interpersonal skills to transmit it. It really can’t be any other way.

    Can those engage do better? Sure. But not as long as they are left to determine how. We need better teacher teachers. The millions of teachers in the middle segment need help determining what to do with an hour of class on any given subject. And given that what I can think to do, even if made available, you can’t do because you are not in that comfort zone of action. A good teacher is part stand up comedian, part huckster, part drill sargeant, part guru, part parent. It has little to do with subject knowledge. We need to teach how to jump start the ab sorption process within each student. They are the only ones who can know how to feed themselves for a lifetime.

    The future is not a time when things will be better. And it certainly is not using up now talking about that elusive then. It is a seeing and corresponding action that takes place now.