The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be

The future ain’t what it used to be

By Richard Worzel

If you could take a doctor from the 19th century and transport him (for it would certainly be a man) to a modern hospital, he wouldn’t be able to do much more than walk around and shake hands, spreading disease as he went, because today’s medical arts are so advanced in comparison to 19th century medicine. On the other hand, if you took a teacher from the 19th century and brought her (for it would likely have been a woman) to a contemporary high school, once she had gotten over the culture shock and attitudes of students and parents, she probably would be able to cope well with teaching. Computers and electronics would baffle her, but fundamentally, teaching has not changed over the last century.

This will not be the case during the next century. We have seen more changes in education in the last 20 years than in the 100 before that—partly because technology is now firmly entrenched in the classroom through computers, the Internet and electronic resources. It’s also partly because we live in a global economy and society, which has raised awareness of other cultures and peoples, and dramatically increased the level of competition for jobs.

The society in which we function has also changed. Attitudes towards education and educators are less supportive, making it harder for teachers to function. Students are coddled more, and we have experienced a “dumbing-down” of educational standards at the precise time when competition for jobs is increasing. It’s now expected that colleges and universities offer remedial English courses—so called “bonehead English” – to first-year students.

Circa 1990, when I first started speaking about education to corporate audiences, I got yawns of indifference. That, too, has changed. Education used to be a collection of sleepy fiefdoms run by professional educators and school boards. Over the last 15 years, it has become a political hot button, largely because the baby boomers put their kids in school. I’m not certain this greater attention has improved things, because the boomers – my generation – are a very demanding crowd that scream when they don’t get their own way, which leads to, among other things, political correctness and grade inflation. Moreover, the politicization of education has also caused many provincial governments to engage in micromanaging classroom teaching because of an inherent distrust of teachers. This has resulted in the kind of initiative-killing, underachieving results made famous by the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, teachers have changed as well. For an increasing number, teaching is not so much a profession as it is a job. This is not universally true (there are still inspired and inspiring teachers), but an increasing number of teachers are there for the pay, vacations and pension. Many think, “It’s just a job, and if the kids don’t learn as much as they should – well, I taught what the government wanted, so my job’s done.”

If we keep going as we are, Canada and other rich countries are on their way to being poor, for education is the currency of the future. People agree with me, but no one agrees on what should be done or who should do it. Since no one agrees, let me pitch in my two cents’ worth:

First, the curriculum should be redesigned from the conclusion of formal education backwards to the beginning. Ministries should start by asking the big questions: “What will tomorrow’s students need?” and, “What will students find useful and stimulating to know and be able to do?” They should consult with businesses, employers, artists, writers, performers, post-secondary educators and a broad spectrum of people in the real world to come up with these answers. From this, they should arrive at a consensus on a base of common knowledge that should be learned. This base should include material that has no other purpose than to stimulate and create a wellrounded, civilized human: reading, writing, math, art, music, poetry, history (Canadian, Western and global), geography, economics, dance and athletics.


Beyond this, there should be material that is outside of traditional education, and refl ects the realities of a global labour force: sales techniques, marketing, leadership, teamwork, global economics, politics and more.

But all of this should only be the backdrop for each student’s real education: the development of their own unique talents, abilities, intellect, and the identifi cation and pursuit of their true calling. The world of work is automating rapidly, and routine work of all kinds is disappearing. Tomorrow’s workers will survive on the basis of their unique talents, plus their ability to innovate, create, market and sell their ideas in the global marketplace. They will probably be selfemployed, even if they work under contract for a large organization. Even those who are employed in a traditional way will have to manage their own careers and save for their retirement. In such a world, the mass-production, everybody-learn-the-same-thing-at-the-same-time education system that we have now just won’t cut it. We need a system that customizes a curriculum, and how it is taught, to each learner. There’s very little point in spending all that money to educate people in a rote manner that will be of little value to them or society.

Moreover, the tools of education have changed, and will change even more rapidly in the future. We can’t continue to use teaching techniques evolved from the 13th century, designed to work with printed books, paper and writing in an age where electronics offer so much opportunity, including the opportunity to waste money on splashy trivia. The means of education must come into the 21st century, and that requires learning from the experience of leading individual teachers and groups here and around the world, adopting what works best, and seeking to continually improve it. New media, such as podcasting, creates new opportunities and new pitfalls, but ones which mirror the changed world in which today’s students will need to function.

Yet, even as the curriculum becomes tailored to individuals, and new technology adds new power to pedagogy, the heart and soul of education will remain the relationship between teacher and learner. Of greatest importance will be to make sure that the natural enthusiasm students start out with in kindergarten and first grade is not extinguished in mind-killing rote and dry-as-dust knowledge forced down their throats. Teachers must care about their students – this can’t just be a job. They must be skilled technicians – able to harness their own knowledge of pedagogy, technique, and tools, able to size up the individual learner and help that learner seek his or her own way in the world, using every resource appropriate to do so.

Governments must get off teachers’ backs. A distant government that controls the purse strings should demand accountability and hold teachers responsible for the achievements of their learners, but must stop micromanaging. They must ensure that they hire the best possible teachers, support them well, pay them magnificently, hold them to task, and fire those who don’t work out. It should be the principals and the teachers who decide how and when to teach, for only they know and understand the minds and spirits of the individual learners. Governments should deal in statistics and let teachers deal in the human spirit. Can we do this? Certainly. Will we? That’s a much chancier question.

Richard Worzel is Canada’s leading futurist. He speaks to over 20,000 business people each year, and volunteers his time to speak to high school students for free. You can reach him at futurist@futuresearch.com.

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