The Unbearable Obsolescence of Learning

It may be a sad fact of life, but when something has ceased to be of any practical use or value, it needs to be disposed of. Dismantled. Torn apart. Recycled and re-purposed where possible, and the rest sent unceremoniously to the dump, before being replaced and updated by a brand new model that works a whole lot better – even if it maybe doesn’t last quite as long. And that’s exactly what needs to be happening to our current education system right now.

All Change Please! has recently come across three very different posts that are essentially about the same thing – the need for completely new approaches to teaching and learning, fit more for the remaining seven-eighths of the 21st century than the 19th. (Yes, this month we’re exactly 12 years and 6 months through the 21st century! Well, depending where you start counting from, anyway.)

The first: Unwilling to learn?

This post endorses something that All Change Please! expressed a while back, that children do actually want to learn – it is after a basic survival skill – but that the problem is that we are not currently teaching them things they don’t see the relevance or need of, and don’t care about.

“Let’s put down the burden. Just set it down and walk away. Make schools places where the first job of adults is to discover who these kids are, and provide support, time and resources to help them become the people they want to be.”

Meanwhile in the (much needed) haste to reform the ICT curriculum, all those BBC Micro enthusiasts from the 1980s have taken the opportunity to get back to the good old days and promote the idea that everyone should take a course in Computer Science. Now I agree that all children should experience the basics of programming to discover if it’s something that appeals to them, but the thought that everyone should become coders is nonsense. So it’s good to read this post:

Let’s Not Call It “Computer Science” If We Really Mean “Computer Programming”

“Of all the mathematical sciences, computer science is unquestionably the dullest. If I had my time again, despite discovering just how much I love writing software, I still wouldn’t study computer science. I’d program, for sure. And I’d buy books on CS and learn what I need to make me a better programmer. Which is exactly what I did. It’s my deepest concern that we don’t put off a new potential generation of software developers by teaching them stuff that a. they probably won’t need to know, and b. will be taught at the expense of things they might actually find useful.

“The graduate would be able to write a program, but write a program to do what? … It’s no good being about to program if you don’t know anything of how to solve problems.”

And finally, designer John McWade on The Vanishing Master:

“You spend a career mastering a craft, over decades becoming so deep, so knowing, so capable, that you are now the wise old man or woman to whom even teachers of teachers come for guidance. And then the craft vanishes, leaving what?  “That’s what’s going missing! We’re not making masters. The changes are coming so fast that everyone is always beginning.” ”…Skills, entire professions, especially in tech, now run a 100-year life cycle in a decade or less. No one gains the wisdom of years.”

Our education system has yet to really consider that impact on teaching and learning of the rate of change we are now experiencing. In the 1950s, you left school feeling you knew just about everything there was to know. These days you leave knowing virtually nothing in terms of the amount of global knowledge there is. And whereas before you spent a lifetime gaining experience and wisdom, now, if you are lucky, that experience lasts just six months before the world has moved on, long before any wisdom has begun to emerge. If it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill, then it is important to discover early on in life what that skill might be.

At present, the majority of children moving from Year 1 to Year 11 spend more than than discovering that they are not cut out to spend the rest of their lives as an academic. And we need to ensure that the skills we need to master are as transferable as possible. Somehow we need to find a way of teaching essential and desirable skills and knowledge that will still ultimately lead to some sort of wisdom, while at the same time preparing children for a world in which the skills and knowledge they will actually need are, to a large extent, currently unimaginable.

The world of education is still tinkering with the past at a time when its approach is obsolete, and the time has come when it needs to be disposed of. Dismantled. Torn apart. Recycled and re-purposed where possible, and the rest sent unceremoniously to the dump – and, unlike the last three sentences, not just be repeated again sometime later when everyone has forgotten how inadequate it was the first time round.  Just as we need completely new processes of collaborative thought and action to deal with things like the global economy, future sources of more sustainable energy, the potential use of new and emerging electronic and bio-technologies, etc., so we need completely new processes of thought and action to deal with the requirements for a future education system that is flexible, appropriate, effective, and fit for purpose – well for the next six months into the future, anyway.

Image credit: Mattias Olsson

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