Future-proofing education

by Max Traeger on June 22, 2017 at 5:20 pm in: Education, Innovation, Knowledge
by Max Traeger on June 22, 2017 at 5:20 pm in: Education, Innovation, Knowledge

Only radical innovation will make our education system future-proof: John Patterson imagines an alternative approach to Western learning

There has been a persistent failure across the Western World to grasp the education nettle. A bold change in thinking is required to close the growing gulf between what we teach today and the skills we will need tomorrow.

Education is a deeply conservative economic sector in which the idea of ‘doing better’ is equated with doing the same as before, only more so. This is the 21st century and ‘the same, only more so’ simply does not address the educational needs of the generations who are going to make the future work. And in that future many, probably most, of the jobs that humans do today will disappear.

For example, many people drive public or semi-public transport vehicles such as taxis, buses, trains, aircraft, ships, lorries, barges etc. Automated, or even telechiric driving, will become the norm for future generations. The pool of drivers, crew, operators and other transport professionals will therefore shrink by 90% or more. On the whole, the people who do such jobs will not be helped by the mechanisms of life-long learning and massive open online courses (MOOC) that would allow them to change jobs. Equally, the kinds of jobs which do not require higher education or significant training will be those under pressure from the shrinking jobs market facing today’s angry left-behinds. ‘More of the same, only better’ looks increasingly irrelevant for everyone, but particularly for this demographic segment.

We have to think in general terms what the world of work is going to look like for the generation still to enter the education system today. Some trends are clear: the jobs which are less demanding on knowledge and flexible skills will disappear quite rapidly. Increasingly, the world of work will involve making products or providing services more usually thought of as the outcomes of hobbies or post-retirement activities. The businesses which provide these services will tend to be small, short-lived and driven by sector advantage. That is, a business which provides a product or a service moderately better than its direct competitors will tend to dominate the market to the severe detriment of its competitors.

Often, that sector advantage will come from a single individual and the company is thus a mechanism for amplifying their skill. One could think of artists, sculptors, landscape gardeners, architects, sports stars, and the like. But such companies could also offer custom products – steampunk, ‘pimp my ride’, specialist delicatessen products, and so on – requiring traditional engineering or craft skills. Rather than commodity products, they would offer individualised, value-added ones and their scope will undoubtedly expand with new technology. Look at the rush to provide telechiric air vehicles (‘drones’) which did not exist even five years ago when no one could have predicted the craze.

But how would we prepare the next generation for such an anarchic jobs market? Certainly not the way we do now, with pupils essentially taught as though the only job in town is academia and those who cannot make it fall by the wayside to do as best they can at the standard where they dropped out. This would not satisfy those destined to be, for example, professional sportsmen. In fact, they would be terminally bored in such a system and may well fail to fulfil their potential as a consequence.

“It is an indictment of our Western primary education system that the measured IQs of our children regress”

Another failing is that primary education is not given the priority it needs, especially at pre-primary (or nursery) level. It is an indictment of our Western primary education system that the measured IQs of our children regress – sometimes by extremes, but always by unacceptably large amounts – in those primary years. We are not stretching our children, to society’s collective disadvantage.

On the other hand, children brought up by bilingual parents who make a point of teaching their children both languages from the outset, or the children of families who read and write in an ideographic language requiring the fast recognition of thousands of symbols, do not suffer this collapse. Chinese and Japanese parents abroad will often leave their children at home to learn their symbology if there are not competent schools specialising in such teaching, as it is vital to their educational progression. What might seem like a disadvantage to the education of children turns into an advantage in respect of their intellectual development and potentially subsequent accomplishments. It is unfortunate that such societies then tend towards rote learning and fail to develop independent thinking in the way which is routine in lands where the basics are rather easier to acquire.

If indeed we want our children to avoid the swamp of failed educational attainment, we need to do both: stretch our children at an early age with a genuinely hard task, say learning both English and Japanese, then building on this in a rather more highly diversified secondary education system where the ‘academic’ path is merely one (probably a minority) route.

One can imagine numerous other secondary paths. ‘Professional’ training would instruct learners the same way engineers and doctors are trained, to satisfy an absolute standard to the highest requirements of professionalism, leading to a high-value apprenticeship route into industry. Another route could be degree-level professional ‘creative’, in which the normal model of education is studio-based around a master, rather than class-based. In this instance we are thinking of art, the arts, theatre, film, music, horticulture and so on. And finally, the ‘sports’ path could place an emphasis on physical fitness and skills at specialist sports, which would include other physically demanding activities such as dance and musical performance, opera and the like. None of these strands is exclusive and any pupil should be able to either specialise or mix paths, with a ‘futures counsellor’ advising and assessing the individual throughout their education journey.

Indeed, the range of paths we offer needs to be as wide as possible, to encompass craft skills as well as more obviously formal ones. The futures counsellor might engage with the pupil at around ten years of age and encourage the child first to reinforce their most successful skills, then to extend the skills base in demanding ways which, for one reason or another, the child has not yet addressed properly. And the pupil should be encouraged to follow the most demanding path they can sustain, even if, in the end, it is all about following a slower path to mastery beyond the formal education system (like apprenticeships, which is another form of studio-based leaning).

Such an education system would be designed to ensure its graduates were not being set up to fail, especially in professions where sector advantage critically predominates (such as art, or sports like Tennis and Golf). The intention would be to do more than teach the three Rs to whatever standard, but to make the most of an individual’s potential.

This is something we do not do today, certainly not systematically. The usual mode of instruction is presentation, oral or written. Both are linear capabilities, while the most common capability – visuo-spatial reasoning – is scarcely engaged at all outside fringe classes. A process which engages with the pupil in this preferred mode is quite possible, but it requires the most advanced of technological bases to work across the board. We have never done this before precisely due to the lack of that technological support, which has historically made it non-scalable.

In short, ‘what we have always done’ is obsolescent, if not obsolete. So simply ‘doing it better’ will not only be increasingly irrelevant to a preparation for tomorrow’s society – thus increasing the pool of those who will become detached from future society, the ‘left behinds’ – but will also exacerbate the anger, disappointment and wretchedness of failure that those left-behinds experience.

And this is threatening to derail the entire western project, even now.

John Patterson is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow, having retired as a Reader in Computing Science in 2006. Despite never having changed jobs, the job itself has changed radically and latterly John took a special interest in the delivery of high production value e-learning presentation in both technical and pedagogical senses. Since retirement, John has taken an interest in the question of how the world of work is going to evolve in response to the advance of AI. 

Edited by Claire Willman

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    Demography
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    Demography
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