Why Education Must Change
Originally published September 2010
By Richard Worzel
In my past columns, I focused on how education will change. This time, I focus on why it must change.
The society in which we live is driven mainly by commercial interests. The daily bombardment of advertising and its pervasive yet subtle pressures to own something are so common that we hardly notice its influence. Society does not suffer because these pressures exist; after all, this type of pressure has largely been responsible for the richness and luxury of our lives. Yet, there is more to life than commercial offerings especially because they are shallow and lack deeper purpose. Moreover, commerce and society tends to emphasize novelty and while there is nothing wrong with new things per se, there is much more to life than just the novel.
There are few people however, who would delve deeper than today’s satisfactions and that is where education enters the picture. Education provides context to history, art, depth of understanding, and perspective that some people would not otherwise experience. This is part of the traditional role education fulfills in teaching about culture and the transmission of our society’s values.
But society is transforming at ever accelerating rates and the shiny baubles that novelty and commerce provide are designed to be “sticky” or addictive. If education wants to capture the attention of children then it must compete with the increasingly effective seductions of commercial offerings. We cannot assume that the six hours a day a student spends in school is sufficient to teach them to appreciate the riches of our society. This, in my view, is short-sighted and foolish. Instead, I believe that education must compete for students’ attention and not for their time. The way to do that is to seduce students into a state of fascination with what the wider world has to offer. When I am invited to speak to students, here’s what I say: We adults have perpetrated a cruel hoax. We have convinced you that learning is an intolerably boring process that you must endure, when the reality is that learning is the most fun you can have…period.
Today’s students are smarter, hipper, more skeptical, and less likely to believe propaganda than any other generation in history. The way to seduce them into loving education is by appealing to the things about which they are passionate. We must stop teaching the curriculum and start teaching the individual – each individual, every single individual, and teach them as individuals who have unique interests and abilities. We need to stop teaching given the assumption that 25 kids are all the same because that makes education simple for us while excruciatingly boring to them. Frankly, I do not see any way that the current education system can compete with the enthralling but shallow offerings of commerce and society.
Now let me turn to vocational education. The need for change is even more compelling here.
Nations like China and India, plus fast-gaining countries like Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, and Malaysia, are providing enormous competition for low-level and low-skilled jobs. These same countries are also aiming for the best jobs that require the highest levels of education. They will not be satisfied with low-skilled jobs that do not pay well and offer little opportunity. This means that our students will be competing with the best in the world in almost every field. Worse, they are starting at a greater disadvantage: our school days are shorter, our school years are shorter, and our society no longer has the devotion to higher education exhibited by parents in developing countries.
But there is another threat that is, perhaps, more worrisome than rising competition from smart kids abroad, and that is automation. Many are familiar with Moore’s Law, coined and repeatedly reframed by Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel. It states that computers will double in speed and halve in price every 18 months. Yet Moore’s Law is too conservative. We see computers evolving faster than that, and not only is the rate of change accelerating, but the rate of acceleration is increasing. A rough estimate indicates that computers will become about 1000 times faster and more cost-effective over the next ten years. As we develop new and more effective tools and techniques to harness this power, it means that automation will become dramatically more powerful in the next decade.
In the past, automation has led to a steadily rising standard of living as well as new, better paying jobs that offer more opportunity. And it still does. Automation, however, is changing standards so quickly that the skills we develop at the beginning of our careers may not be enough to allow us to make a living for more than a few years, and eventually a few months, before they become obsolete. We are being thrown out of work at ever-faster rates, and if we hope to continue to work, we will need to constantly upgrade our abilities.
Both of these developments – foreign competition and domestic automation – are already evident. When I and my peers left formal education, we had our choice of jobs. Now students finish university and spend years looking for anything more than menial labour; the next ten years are going to make this seem like a happy outcome. Within that time frame, we will face an employment crisis that will shake the foundations of our society, our political system, and our economy. The only answer is education, for adults as well as young people.
But it cannot be the same old education. Back to basics is the wrong approach. What is the value of memorizing facts if you can command them with a wave of a search engine? It is understanding and context that are critically important. Education needs to emphasize our human talents and abilities. We are headed into a world where creativity and innovative thinking will be more valuable than rote learning of any depth. Skills training in most fields, with a few exceptions, will become obsolete at faster rates. We will, instead, need to fall back on those things that are uniquely human, like art, teamwork, leadership, empathy, understanding, creativity, ingenuity, and all of the deeper aspects of human life and society. Computers, robots, and cheaper competition from abroad will take everything else.
For those who say that the only way to combat these things is by protecting domestic jobs and halting the use of automation, let me say that, like King Canute, you might as well try to stop the tide from coming in. Such efforts are not only doomed to fail, but they will make it harder for us to succeed by diverting our attention and efforts away from the real task for tomorrow’s education: helping us to blossom into self-actualization, to become the best we can be.
Must we wait and see these problems racing towards us? Do we have the will do to something about them? Those are the questions that will determine why and how we need to change education.