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Thinking about the future may be revolutionary

Evan Hadkins is a Webdiarist with a particular interest in education which, with the election of the Rudd government, now takes centre stage. Here is another of Evan's contributions on the future and some of the questions that should be asked in order to achieve a revolution in education. Evan's last piece for Webdiary was Evan's Walk against Warming.

Who would like to guess what the world (or our little part of it) will be like in 20 years?  The jobs that will be available and how they will be performed?  The kinds of recreation and communication we will value?  The styles of relationships that we will have?  I wouldn’t like to guess, certainly not if I had to stake my future on it.

But I do.  And what’s more we stake our children’s future on it.  Every child that enters kindergarten embarks on a process that is meant to prepare them for active participation in our culture.  Education is an embodied vision of the future.

So, let’s look at this embodied vision.  It is one reliant on compliance.  It is to do with the completion of tasks set by others.  It is one where questioning is not encouraged and the opportunities for initiative are slight.  (Even the choosing of an essay or assignment topic within the curriculum set by others is rare.)  It is one where persons are rated against others and not by the quality of their achievement.  Indeed the notion of quality and competence don’t seem to exist.  It is one where the learning of what was done in the past – and the critiquing of it – is valued.  (‘Best practice’ or ‘evidence based practice’ is the latest jargon for this study of past achievement.  This knowledge is important but it is far from enough.)  When a person is invited to make their own contribution (in a Ph.D.) they are laughably unprepared for this.  And a large part of the judgement is based on the quality of their referring to other writers and past ideas.  Hardly a recipe for originality and creativity.  I submit that this is a fair account of our schooling.  In short it prepares people for environments that are structured with well defined rules.  And where the following of these rules is usually reliably rewarded.  Innovation and initiative are at best marginal.

This is not to attack teachers; I have found them to mostly care deeply about students and their development.  Nor does it mean that schooling is not enjoyable for some.  Nor is it an attempt to attack students, to say they are all little conservatives who care only for their future earning potential.  Those students I know care at least enough to be depressed about the prospects for our planet.  What I am trying to do is look at the structure of the present system – how it operates.  What vision of the future it embodies.

Now let’s try to think about the future.  There are some big picture things that are frighteningly predictable.  There will be much poverty, the aging of the population in the ‘developed’ world, the need to move from our dependence on oil, the need to develop a lifestyle sustainable in planetary terms.  This is likely to be somewhat chaotic and distinctly open-ended.  We will need institutions that are flexible and can learn about new environments.  It will need people who are able to experiment and learn and try again.  It is one where not only technology will have influence but where ‘people-problems’ will loom large.

What would we do to educate people for this coming world (the parts we can begin to predict)?  We would want people who can reflect on their environment and on their own experience.  We would want people who can try things out and adapt as they go.  We would want engineers of all kinds of technology who are good at working with people.  We would want people comfortable with complexity, ill-defined situations and mixed outcomes.  We would want people I submit, who are directly the opposite of those envisaged by our current educational practise.

To think about this future and to educate for it would mean doing things very differently.  Here are my ideas.  Help people know and develop their talents.  Provide education in analysis and critique but also in creativity.  Provide educational experiences for children from say 13 on.  Give them the time to move around, find who they are and what they are good at.  Introduce them to aesthetics and philosophy – not through a generalised mishmash but through reflection on their field of interest.  Instead we could get people to think about: Why this rock music rather than that pop?  Why this car not that one?  Do I want to treat my friends that way how do I want to be treated?  When the resources of the past are brought to a present concern they begin to live.

Thinking about the future really could lead to an “Education Revolution”.  Instead what we have is a bit more money given to existing groups.  As important as this is it is based on a deeply mistaken picture of the future and so is profoundly a waste of the youth of our children and a betrayal of their future.

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