Our Reveals Now Are Ended
Our Reveals Now Are Ended 1
By Futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A
Sometime in mid-1992, I was approached by someone who had read a column I’d written about the future of education for the Globe & Mail. His name was Wili Liberman, and he wanted me to write a regular column on the future of education for a new magazine he was going to call (appropriately enough) TEACH. He said he couldn’t pay me, but the magazine could give me a quarter-page ad in each issue. I didn’t quite know what I would do with such an ad, but was intrigued about writing such a column. As I said then, and have frequently repeated, I don’t think you can be a futurist and not be interested in education.
For almost 20 years since then, I’ve written five columns a year, often hurriedly between consulting and speaking events for paying corporate clients, and have found the experience intriguing, satisfying, and intensely frustrating. It has caused me to think about the future of education, the future of kids and teachers, the future of parents and parenting, and the future of our society. It’s been frustrating because I used to get regular feedback from readers, teachers, parents, even some students, and whether they were complimentary or not, I found their comments instructive. I have also ended each and every column with an offer to speak—for free—to high school students, and have had a number of memorable experiences as a result, some times with entire high schools, speaking to a thousand kids or more, and sometimes with a small, individual class of twenty. More recently, the feedback has tapered off, and the invitations to come and speak have completely dried up. I’m not sure if that’s because of me, the subject matter, if readers are less engaged or busier, or if people have generally become more like sightseers and less like participants. Perhaps it’s all of the above.
What’s more frustrating is that the things I’ve been saying, and especially the things I’ve been warning about, have been happening with dreary regularity. I guess that means that not enough people have been reading what I’ve been writing, or else the people that need to read it, haven’t, or the people who read it either didn’t care or couldn’t do anything about it. That’s intensely frustrating. So as my valedictory, I’m going to review the major developments I’ve focused on over the past twenty years, and offer some final thoughts on what’s ahead.
First and perhaps most importantly, is that the issues of the elderly are going to crowd out the issues of the young. I’ve been saying and writing about this since the late 1970’s, and the time has finally come: the recent cuts in education funding are—unfortunately—proving me right. This need not be a disaster if the spending per student remains steady, or even rises, and if school boards close redundant schools, but neither of these is a given. In particular, communities become enamoured by having a local school and fight closures even when it’s the best thing to do for their school system. And if we cut education budgets per student, or spend the money poorly, then we, as a society, are eating our seed corn, and we will starve. What’s more, we will deserve to starve. As I’ve said to many audiences, in many circumstances, on many occasions, if we get education right, then we have a chance to solve all the other problems. If we get it wrong, then we have no chance and no future.
The next common theme in my writing has been that the status of teachers in our society has been consistently eroded away. This is partly a tribute to the success of their efforts. A century ago, teachers were among the most educated members of their communities and looked up to accordingly. But they have been so successful at raising the level of educational attainment in society that now society looks down on teachers. And since everybody’s been to school, everybody thinks they know what goes on there, that it’s not that hard, and that anyone could do it. Ironically, this comes at a time when education is becoming ever-more important. All you have to do is look at the rising income disparities between those who have only a high school diploma, those with a university degree, and those with post-graduate qualifications to see the importance of this trend.
One of the consequences of this is the very strong movement towards micromanagement in the classroom. Bureaucrats, often with no teaching experience, are increasingly giving instructions that dictate what all teachers should teach, and how they should teach it, every single day of the school year. This is completely backwards, as the Edmonton model has clearly demonstrated. Ministries of education should set standards, provide relevant research and support materials to indicate what has been shown to work as best practices, here and abroad, and then get out of the way to let teachers do what works best for their individual students. The teachers should be held accountable for achieving specific results, but bureaucrats and politicians should keep their interfering paws off of what goes on in the classroom.
Likewise, teachers, being given the freedom to teach students according to the teachers’ abilities and their students’ needs, must accept accountability, up to and including being fired if they’re not good at teaching. Seniority is a lousy way to run an education system. I have generally avoided talking about teachers’ unions, but the various times that I’ve been interviewed in the media in parallel with a teachers’ union representative, I’ve been embarrassed at how reactionary, petty, and narrowly selfish they have been. Indeed, along with incompetent bureaucrats and politicians (which are most, but not all of them), I believe that most (but not all) teachers’ unions are among the biggest stumbling blocks to improving education in this country.
A recurrent theme in my early columns was the fiction of “computer literacy.” I recently went back and reread a lot of my early columns and find it amusing—now—that it was necessary to say that computers could be valuable in education and that the Internet was a very powerful tool that was here to stay. It seems—now—to be incongruous that anyone could have thought otherwise, but I can assure you, in the 1990’s I was often considered a wild-eyed, technological nut. While I thought (and still think) that it was and is inevitable that computers and technology would come to the classroom, I also thought that, as computer people say, “to err is human; to really screw things up takes a computer.” Much of the money spent on putting computers into the classroom was wasted because the provinces and school boards who spent it didn’t know what they were doing, or what could be done with a computer that couldn’t be done with books and paper.
Despite this, computers, the Internet, and technology are really just getting started in the classroom. Unfortunately, they’re still not being used well, generally speaking. A computer is a tool, nothing more. If it’s used well, it can produce marvelous results because it’s a very powerful tool. If it’s used badly, it soaks up resources and multiplies the inferior efforts to produce inferior results. And this has led to one of my greatest frustrations: the deliberately-avoided potential of computers.
Computers have created a new medium whose difference is as important as the difference between the oral tradition on one hand, and writing and literacy on the other. Yet, we persist in ignoring the real potential to deliver a customized curriculum for each and every student. We should be doing away with grades and grading so that there are no more “grade 3 math” classes; only “Johnny Smith math” class, “Jenny Chen math” class, and so on. Yet, the education establishment, all of it, from governments down to classroom teachers and parents, continues to cling to the industrial era, mass-production, drill-and-kill, one-size-fits-all model of education. It’s a horrendous waste of human and computer potential.
A theme I’ve been pounding for the last three or four years is that I believe that our current education system is failing today’s students because it does not adequately prepare them for tomorrow’s working world. We need to be teaching creativity, innovation, critical thinking, and research techniques; the ability to express yourself verbally, in writing and through mixed media; the techniques of learning; interpersonal skills like leadership, teamwork, persuasion, marketing and sales; and an understanding of how the human mind works so that students can learn more quickly and absorb new fields of study on their own. Instead, we persist in teaching stale curricula from lectures and textbooks, requiring students to memorize facts that they could look up in no time on the Internet so that they can regurgitate them on a test before forgetting them forever. These are not the skills they will need in tomorrow’s world, yet we persist in treating them as Holy Writ.
Another theme I’ve discussed over the years is how society has changed. Educators know that parents in particular have changed, and not necessarily for the better. They may be more “involved” in their children’s education, but that involvement may often be as helicopter parents, hovering over their kids to protect them from harm, excusing their children’s faults, and berating teachers when their little darlings are not given top marks so they can get into Harvard or the Sorbonne, even though the darlings may not have earned them.
Unfortunately, I don’t see any end to this trend. The current generation of students are the spoiled children, of spoiled children.
And society has changed as well. One sociology professor has described America as becoming a “toxic society,” and as much as Canada would like to avoid a similar descriptor, I fear it’s coming here too. By this, he meant that we tell parents they are responsible for ensuring their children are kept away from filth and harm, but then exploit them by selling things to them that purvey violence, pornography, and inappropriate behaviour through television, videos, and computer games.
But perhaps the most worrying development is the trend towards accepting myths and fictions at the expense of truth. When evolution is cast into doubt because it conflicts with the cherished myths of some religions, and creationism is shopped as a reasonable substitute, it erodes the foundations of rational western thought. When the scientific facts of climate change are thrown into doubt, and self-interested parties use propaganda and outright lies to pervert public understanding of the very real threats that are emerging, it represents a triumph of selfish, commercial interests at the expense of the common good and threatens the social compact that underlies our society. Truth is a guiding light in a difficult world, not an opinion that can be used or discarded at whim yet increasingly, people seem to think that facts are a matter of convenience, and that uninformed opinions are equivalent to facts, and that is outright dangerous. And when schools are asked to teach opinions, myths, or propaganda instead of verified truths, we undermine our very way of life.
Much of this is really gloomy. Does that represent what I think of the future? Well, there is much of the future that is scary and gloomy, just as the 20th Century included two world wars plus an assortment of smaller ones, a Great Depression, the threat of thermonuclear war, and a wide variety of tragedies and disasters. Yet, what we will remember most about the 20th Century are the incredible advances in medicine that lead to an increase in life expectancy of about 30 years; the development of computers and the Internet, placing the greatest library in history literally at our fingertips; a massive increase in wealth that produced the most substantial improvement in lifestyle in human history, and a concomitant flourishing of the arts, plus the technology to record and transmit it to anyone, anywhere. And I see similar changes, and much more, for our future.
I once said that anything that was possible would be accomplished, or at least started, in the 21st Century. I find that frightening because of the enormous breadth of this statement. Yet, I cannot find it within me to deny it. I was recently at a conference for a biotech company of which I am a founding shareholder, and was able to have a 10-minute, private conversation with Dr. Craig Venter. Dr. Venter was the person who did more to decode the human genome than anyone else. I asked how long it would be before we could design life. He replied that his group had done it in 2010, and that they could now design life forms in a computer then create them in the laboratory.
So our future is even more astonishing than our past. And education is the key. Let me end by repeating something I’ve said many times, including earlier in this article: If we get education right, we have a chance to solve all of our other problems. If we get it wrong, then we have no chance at all. Education is our future, and teachers and principals are its guardians.
1 Yes, I do know that I wrote reveals and Shakespeare wrote “Our revels now are ended,” but he’s dead.
Richard Worzel is Canada’s leading futurist. Over the past 25 years, he has spoken to an estimated half a million business people around the world. He volunteers his time to speak – for free – to high school students as his schedule permits. You can contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.