Expanding on the future of education

Mother cheetahs stay with their cubs for two years after they are born, teaching them all the skills they’ll need for adult life, how to hunt, where to find water. That young cheetah will grow up to teach the same skills to her offspring. Generation after generation the skills each cheetah needs are passed down from their mother.

According to Durkheim, a French sociologist writing at the turn of the twentieth century, this was the purpose of education for humans as well as cheetahs; to convey knowledge and skills to the next generation. He believed that schools were one of the few institutions that were uniquely placed to socialize children into the new mainstream industrial economy. He thought schools should be places of rules, discipline, punishment, all in the name of teaching people to conform when they reached the workplace.

It was Durkheim and his fellow functionalists who gave us our now traditional model of education. And since then many have critiqued and argued against this approach, saying that education should be about freedom, creativity, imagination and independence. Durkheim’s view of how education should work was of it’s time and existed for only a brief period of human history. Education has changed since then, and continues to change. Should then, this idea of strict functional education really be the reference point from which we reconsider education for the future?

Many commentators talk about the future of education as requiring a radical shift away from the education of the past. New theories, new institutions, new approaches. Perhaps. But perhaps not.

Perhaps education doesn’t need to change as much as those selling the change might like to suggest. If the purpose of education has always been to prepare us as members of society, then as society changes, so there is a need for what it prepares us to be to change, but it’s fundamental purpose remains.

Those changes often appear as sudden inflection points that catalyse a step change in human potential. We see this trend in the introduction of many new technologies. The invention of the printing press and more readily available books caused low literacy to be recognised as a social issue that before the new technology arrived just wasn’t a concern. Education was society’s response, and now the global literacy rate is 90.0% for all males and 82.7% for females.

The coming technological change that has many people thinking about the education of the children of the future, is artificial intelligence. What will we teach when machines think more, better, faster than we can? It seems rather dull thinking to say we’ll just educate people in whatever is the opposite of what the machines can do. Teach them to be creative, imaginative, collaborative. As if we’ll be able to tell the difference between human art and machine art.

We need an education system that expands to embrace the new, not that retracts in response to change. The education system we need now and in the future includes all types learning about every possible subject, using all of the available methods. People will learn throughout their life, in school, at work, as hobbies. They’ll learn from big institutions and from individuals with something to teach. They’ll learn by attending lectures, watching videos, programming games, playing sports.

This will without doubt, bring its own challenges. Chomsky talks about education as providing the thinking skills needed to evaluate what we see when all the information in the world is at our finger tips. A self-directed journey through the internet quickly takes one to radical places where the sheer overwhelming volume of information causes critical thinking to break down. How do we handle this information overload when the algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?

Like or not, for better or worse, our society is now an interdependent network that relies on people performing specialised tasks, thinking big ideas, painting beautiful pictures, and writing weird little newsletters. We need education to match.