Saturday, 5 May 2012

A bigger net

   “Give them a mile and they’ll take an inch” 
   Seth Godin 

It would be hard not to contend that technology is having an impact on how we communicate, how we interact with content and how we learn. Businesses across the globe race to keep up with advances, use social media to market their wares and hire armies of technology and information specialists. Yet despite the rapid growth of the technology available to enhance education many businesses complain that they find it hard to find truly innovative staff. Why is that? 

For 150 years, education systems around the world have worked like a production line. Children are fed into the production line based on the date they were born – or date of manufacture. They move from year to year and then from classroom to classroom having ‘knowledge’ poured into their heads by ‘experts’. Some children have room in their heads to take in more ‘knowledge’ than others and these are sent off to university to be future ‘leaders’. They have been conditioned to do as they are told and not question authority. They are taught to pass standardised tests, taught to conform and urged to be good consumers, thus ensuring the perpetuation of the system. Many of those rejected by this production line end up in prison – and we are seeing a rapid growth of this group too! 

Technology is not the answer to transformation in education. It does however provide educators with alternatives. Students are not empty vessels to be filled up with knowledge imparted by a succession of teachers. They only learn while they are engaged with a subject. They learn different things at different times and at different paces. Some learn best visually, some aurally and others by doing – or from a combination of these. And of course many teachers know this! We are privileged to live in an age where technology allows access to content in a multitude of ways. Content and Learning Management Systems not only free teachers’ valuable time by providing instant reporting and analysis tools allowing more time to build opportunities for creativity into their lessons, but also allow students to access content in whatever way best suits their learning style, whenever it suits them and to work at a pace they are comfortable with. Content can be interactive, real and stimulating. And of course many teachers know this too and strive to encourage critical thinking, imagination and creativity! But that is not where education systems are leading us. 

We continue to head down the road that is standardised testing, drill and practice and one-size-fits-all schooling. Schools are not measured on students’ ability to think critically, to be creative or expressive. They are measured by the number of students that have performed to minimum levels against standardised tests. For many of us who have been through the system, our memories of the classroom are often of boredom, repetition and a sense that we couldn’t get out of there soon enough. Given the wealth of resources available for the modern classroom, the alternatives that technologies offer and our own less-than-happy memories of our schooling, it seems that we (government, teachers, administrators, business leaders, parents, and so on) are taking an inch when we are being handed a mile. We are denying children the opportunities to be creative, turning them into the same compliant consumers that we have become. We are encouraging them to wish their childhood away, as many of us did, in a race to get out of the system. 

    “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” 
    Pablo Picasso 

Creative people are born. Millions of them. Sadly our education systems discourage the use of imagination, stifle creativity, encourage conformity and thus innovative thinking eludes the majority. Not surprising, as that is exactly what they were designed to do in order to fill the factory floors of the industrial revolution. 

These systems have to go. It is not enough to want to improve schools, replace standardised tests with results that demonstrate critical thinking, imagination and creativity, educate teachers to use new technologies and stop expecting every child to learn according to an unrealistic standardised timetable. Spending more and more on making minor improvements is not enough. We need to transform education. 

 If when fishing we cannot catch enough fish to feed our family because the net is too small, then we have two options. The first is to reduce our expectations and accept that the family will have to get by on fewer fish. This is the choice we have taken when educating this generation. We expect less, and then complain that the system does not produce what society needs. The second choice is to get a bigger net. Starting from scratch, design a system of education that uses all the resources, technological or otherwise, to create opportunities for all students to engage with what should be a joyful, rewarding period of their lives – their schooldays. We have an obligation to transform what is learned, when it is learned, how it is learned, at what pace it is learned so that the people that emerge understand why they have learned.  

First posted October 21, 2011

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