Re-Framing Education

Education is a universal.

It is a truism to say that, in every age throughout human history, in every society, every nation, every tribe, every empire, every culture, we have sought to pass to each succeeding generation the skills, the knowledge and the ideology deemed necessary for survival and progress. However, while education has been a universal, its particular application has not been. The practice of education has differed from one historical and geographical context to another so that, in any one place at any one time, its purpose has been to meet the specific needs of each society and culture.

I would contend that, today, we are in a situation where the particular practice of education in most parts of the world does not reflect the current realities facing the global village. In this situation, education must either change or become, in its current form, irrelevant. Schools, especially, across the world are stuck in a paradigm that reflects, not the massive connectedness of the digital age, but the mass-production values of the industrial age. As Greg Whitby, CEO of the Parramatta Schools District in Sydney, Australia, and from whom I borrow the title of this paper, has written:

Technology is changing the way we live, communicate and learn. It also enables educators to re-frame schooling in order to meet the needs of twenty-first century learners.

Values of Another Age?

In an earlier age, Woodrow Wilson, when he was Principal of Princeton University, was able to say:

We want one class of persons to have a liberal education. We want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity, to forego the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.

He said this to a group of trainee teachers in 1909. Wilson, of course, was a child of his time and such views did nothing to detract from his enlightened internationalism when, as US President, he played a major role in the foundation of the League of Nations in 1919. But the values underlying Wilson’s words are precisely the values of the industrial age of schooling, precisely the values so derided, each for their own reasons, by radical educationists such as RF Mackenzie, Ivan Illich, AS Neill, Paulo Freire and so many others. And they are the values that render so much of educational practice today obsolete and no longer fit-for-purpose.

Unfortunately, whether we like it or not, they are still, essentially, the values that underpin the systems of schooling surviving in most parts of the world today. Thankfully, they are not always the values of the teachers and other key players in the system, but the fundamental pedagogies, the mass-production methodologies that still predominate in so many schools the world over mean that such enlightened people are having to struggle daily against a prevailing regime that has its feet planted firmly in the anachronistic rhetoric of Wilson from almost a century ago.

The World is Changing

But the world is changing. The difference today is that, with the world flattening around us, the pressures on education systems are very similar wherever you look around the globe. There will always be a need to meet the particular needs of the society being served, but there is also now a growing international dimension to education, a globally common dimension that seeks to deploy education as an instrument whose purpose is to create a key part of the conditions needed to ensure growing competitiveness and prosperity for countries and regions.

Of course, there has always been an instrumental view of education – but it is arguable that the instrumentality evident in education is different in kind today. A key factor in its current manifestation is, of course, the expanding role for technology in teaching and learning as well as in the administration and management of education. However, education and technology are rarely the precise instruments that many country leaders would like them to be. The reason for this is simple: that whatever the intention behind educational planning, whatever specified reasons a country might have for taking its education system down one particular route or another, there will always be a strong current of unintended consequences flowing from education. It is in the intrinsic nature of education, that those doing the learning – the students, the teachers (the best teachers are always learning as they teach) – change as they learn. That is the point of education, of course – but the nature of that change in the individual simply cannot be pre-defined in any precise way, so that the multiplier effect across a whole society or a whole nation is unpredictable at best.

Education: A Route to Freedom

In this vein, Amartya Sen, Nobel-Prize-winning economist, makes an interesting distinction between ‘Human Capital’ and ‘Human Capability’ in his book Development as Freedom. The first is the target of the educational instrumentalist – the latter is the set of characteristics of the learning person that grow and are enhanced naturally by education. An effective education will develop new skills across a population – and will therefore increase, it is hoped, the economic capacity of the country – its Human Capital. However, while the individual might be developing new skills, he or she is also learning about himself or herself, is being given the intellectual tools to be able to analyse their social, political, economic, emotional situation, is able to read more widely, is able to learn from history – and so on. The result is likely to be a nation of better educated people – their Human Capability is extended.

So, while education is a primary driver for economic prosperity, it is also the route to freedom, to knowledge as a public good, and to a fairer society. The latter, of course, require some agreement – or at least a continuing debate – on the range of basic values that education should both reflect and reproduce.

The other key pressure on education to change to meet the needs of the modern age comes, of course, from learners themselves, from those who are education’s ‘clients’. Young learners in particular are no longer so willing to accept the values of a bygone age. Young people across the world today are probably less bound by received wisdom than any previous generation in history. That seemingly uncomplicated acceptance by the young of the great forces for change occurring right now is the aspect that, above all others, will change education whether it wants to change or not. The young simply accept as given trends that some in the older generations are wont to typify as disruptive in some sense or other, even where they recognize and acknowledge the long-term benefits to be derived. Perspective is all, of course.

While many working in education systems around the world blithely soldier on against the rising tide of modernity and ‘disruptive’ technology, others recognize the changing reality and are struggling to prise themselves out of the factory-schooling straitjacket. Such people understand that the values they seek to reflect in teaching and learning are critical to their success in creating radical change in education. They know it is not enough to consider just pedagogy and curriculum, not enough to pin a simplistic faith on technology-as-a-good-thing-in-itself, and certainly not enough to reduce education to an instrument of economic advancement.

Global Conversations

Conversations criss-crossing the globe – conversations that are exciting, disputatious, energizing, ironic, deadly serious, thought-provoking, contradictory, eloquent, heartfelt – raise the optimistic expectation that education will increasingly outgrow the school in its current manifestation, that monument to the industrial revolution. Education is likely to happen more and more in the interstices between the complex strands of social relations that people build and colonize and disassemble and re-build throughout their lives, whether face-to-face or in the expanding panoply of virtual spaces that we now inhabit. Something akin to a school might well survive this process – it has already proved itself to be a long-lived and enduring concept – but many educationists, the world over, are now working to ensure that schools (and colleges and universities and ‘learning centres’) become, not monuments to past glories, but merely the physical traces of a new kind of education that is truly social, global and pervasive.

What might this new kind of education look like? Ivan Illich, in De-Schooling Society, wrote:

A good education system should have three purposes: it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; it should empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and it should furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known.

Illich’s words resonate in the current debate on educational transformation.  Of course, the expert knowledge held by individuals, and the ability of those individuals to help others to acquire that knowledge, will always be a critical component of any educational provision. What will be different, however, will be seen in the nature of the relationship between the teacher and the learner. Illich’s second point, in particular, indicates the possible changes in that relationship between the learner and the learned. According to Illich, it is just as important that those with knowledge can find those who seek their knowledge as it is for those who seek knowledge to find those who might teach them. The paradigm here is closer to the marketplace than the compulsory state education system; nonetheless, the education system in the future, I believe, will have to be able to facilitate the process by which each side of the relationship finds the other. At the moment, and for some time now, it has been the role of the school to do that, but the school has really only facilitated the first of Illich’s points, bringing learners together in one physical space to be taught by the accredited experts known as teachers. It is in this changing relationship that the developing nature of the school will be most profoundly asserted over the next few years, in which the concept of the school will outgrow the physical walls that have contained it until now, and in which the mutual definitions of teacher and learner will become increasingly blurred.

Opening the Educational Architectures

A strong argument for this has come from Alexander Yu Uvarov, who has written about the concept of a ‘closed educational architecture’ – a fixed framework that set minimum standards of general education, that created ‘barriers against low-quality teaching’ and that ensured ‘the relatively effective introduction of global modifications to the educational process’ (in other words, a regulated framework that permitted changes to the curriculum or to the structures of schooling to be put in place relatively easily and quickly). This is the concept of education that we all understand because it is the framework within which, as we have seen, we were all educated and in which we are largely still educating our young people. But in the digital age, in which we now have open and, to all intents and purposes, unlimited access to information, that closed educational architecture is starting to creak. We now have to define and move towards a more open educational architecture, a framework in which learners take more and more responsibility for their own learning and in which teachers establish a new definition of what it is to teach. This means freeing up teachers to work with students in an open, collaborative way, with the teaching and learning that goes on the result of a continual process of negotiation. Teachers freed to do what they do best – to teach, to work with young people to help them get the best out of their own efforts, to advise, to counsel, to cajole, to persuade, and, yes, to impart knowledge where required – will go a long way towards enabling that ‘open architecture’ that will better reflect the needs of the digital age and the global village.

Conjunction of Education & Technology

Of course, it is not to education alone that we must look for the transformative agent needed today – we must instead look to the necessary conjunction of education and the digital technologies for the means to create an educational experience for learners that will reflect the realities of the 21st Century. The rapidly flattening (and rapidly warming) world in which we live means that the belief in the transformative powers of some optimum conjunction of education and technology is a global phenomenon. Just as technology is making it possible for the so-called emerging nations, increasingly, to compete economically with their already-developed neighbours, so these same countries are realizing that they can exploit technology to help them take a decisive leap in educational terms. Where so many industrialized countries are still firmly wedded, given their economic dominance over decades and centuries, to the model of schooling that helped get them there, the emerging nations, some of them at least, have no such baggage to hold them back. Such countries are more than capable, over the next few years, of leapfrogging the industrialized nations by recognizing the potential of the new learning and by finding ways to implement a form of education or schooling based on the new reality described here.

This will not be a straightforward process. The relationship between education and technology is a complex one and certain traits that they share can, when brought together, lead as readily to our advantage as to our disadvantage. Both can be used to enhance life or to blight life. They are, neither of them, neutral instruments in the hands of Man. Perhaps Richard Fenyman’s insightful words about Man’s use of science, based on a Buddhist proverb, can be applied just as effectively to this powerful confluence of education and technology:

To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven. The same key opens the gates of hell.

Feynman himself, indeed, made exactly this connection when he said:

It was once thought that the possibilities people had were not developed because most of the people were ignorant.  With universal education, could all men be Voltaires? Bad can be taught at least as efficiently as good.  Education is a strong force, but for either good or evil.

If neither education nor technology is a neutral instrument, how they are used is a then matter of choice, and that choice will always have a moral and ethical as well as a merely instrumental dimension. The nature of digital technologies means, however, that should schools or regions or countries continue to make the wrong choices, should they continue to depend on an industrial model of education that has had its day, learners across the world will begin to make the right choice for themselves and will eventually render the industrial-age schools and industrial-age schooling irrelevant despite those choices of those in authority.