School’s out

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There is something wrong with our education system, and it needs fixing now



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12 December 2018 | 0

Paul HearnsRobots, fake news, AI and automation – this is a fairly familiar list but in this context it may be a rather cryptic set of clues to the prompt the Jeopardy style response: what is threatening our education system?

Let me illustrate.

In various outings recently, where learned people spoke on various topics, whenever they came to the future and how to prepare our children for the world of tomorrow, the recurring theme was education and how it needs to change.

At a VMworld panel on AI, which you can read in the News section, it was stated that creativity and critical thinking were going to be the attributes needed in the future workplace, because anything that is purely task or process based can be automated. To retain value in the workforce, people will need to be able to do what machines cannot – to think.

To outsmart the hackers, we heard at the ICT Skillnet launch of the Cybersecurity Skills Initiative, cybersecurity professionals need to have a short, sharp education programme that releases them faster than a 4-year degree, but provides a basis to be not only immediately effective in their roles, but also prepared for the lifelong learning that is required in the discipline.

“People should be taught to split thinking processes into their respective states, making each more effective. This will, he argues, allow children to retain more of their unfettered approach from which comes their creativity and originality. It is only after the mind gets a free run, as it were, that it is necessary to reflect, evaluate and sort the wheat from the chaff”

To combat fake news in the ‘post-truth’ era, we need to instil the discipline of critical thinking, to allow new generations to evaluate information for themselves and determine if a source is trustworthy, or if it is coming from Donald Trump.

However, all current thinking is that our education system, as it stands, is entirely unprepared for this.

It has been said that were a teacher from 100 years ago (that’s only 1918) to walk into a classroom today, there is little with which they would be unfamiliar. This is extends, unfortunately, to curricula and methodologies.

Despite the furious pace of development elsewhere, our education system is still very much 20th century.

For example, at the recent ICS Leaders conference, Raomal Perera, consultant, and adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship, INSEAD, highlighted a study that was begun for NASA but carried on by its authors, George Land and Beth Jarman, that found the school system was effectively killing young creativity and problem solving.

The study began in 1968, but became a longitudinal work that followed children through their education and into adulthood.

It found that among 5 year olds, the proportion who tested at ‘genius level’ for creativity and problem solving was 98%! However, by age 10, this had fallen to 30%, and by age 15 just 12%. Later, the same tests were given to some 280,000 adults, and the results were just 2% – their average age was 31.

This is quite damning in terms of trying to encourage people into the sciences and engineering, as Dr Mae C Jemison, an American physician and NASA astronaut, noted the “majority of scientists say they developed their passion for science by age 11. That means that the educational experience children have in grade school profoundly impacts our nation’s ability to graduate a prepared STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] work force.”

Land argued the primary reason for the drop off is that there are two types of thinking processes when it comes to creativity: convergent and divergent.

In convergent thinking, where one judges ideas, criticises them, refines them, combines and improves them, it happens in conscious thought.

In divergent thinking, where one imagines new ideas, original ones different from what has come before but which may be only rough to begin with, often happens subconsciously.

Land noted that throughout school, children are being taught to try and use both kinds of thinking at the same time, which, he reasons, is impossible. He posits this is due to competing portions of the brain effectively fighting over the same resources, but to be used in different ways.

Instead of this impossible approach, he suggests people be taught to split thinking processes into their respective states, making each more effective. This will, he argues, allow children to retain more of their unfettered approach from which comes their creativity and originality. It is only after the mind gets a free run, as it were, that it is necessary to reflect, evaluate and sort the wheat from the chaff.

This study has been backed up by various others around the world. An Adobe study from 2013, found that globally, the top barriers to teaching creativity were firstly current education curricula, secondly a misunderstanding of the importance of creativity in education, and a lack of resources and freedom to go outside the curriculum.

The research was carried out in the US, UK, Australia and Germany among parents, teachers and pupils. In the UK, Germany and Australia, the top steps needed to promote and foster creativity in education were improving the curriculum, providing tools to educators that enable creativity more effectively, and making creativity integral to the curriculum and rewarding educators who inspire students to be creative.

Writing in the Irish Times in October of 2017, Dr Ellen McCabe, researcher and lecturer specialising in media and education, said that our rigid system that is so exam focused cannot hope to appropriately determine crucial skills such as collaboration, interaction and negotiation.

“While teachers are ideally positioned to assess and respond to all aspects of their students’ learning, independent examination deprives them of this responsibility,” writes Dr McCabe. “In this way teachers, like their students, are confined by a model of conformity that is utterly outdated. They are thus robbed of their professional agency and creative capacity.

“The uniformity of standardised education is failing students and teachers. Until teachers are granted a central role in assessment, they will be confined by the futile rigidity of teaching to test.

“Reformed education requires respect for the professional autonomy of teachers, granting them the freedom to make independent decisions with regard to what is best for their students. Education isn’t a product, it’s a process.”

Our education system is evolving but is still heavily biased toward a system of evaluation that is no longer relevant to the modern world. And this is doubly so for the world of information technology. We need to ensure that from an early age, creativity and critical thinking are facilitated and encouraged, with educators free, and supported, to recognise and nurture free learning. Otherwise, we will be swamped with generations of people entering the workforce only to find they are not only unprepared but unable to adapt to the conditions they encounter.

Adaptability, creativity, openness to new ideas and the ability to communicate freely are going to be what elevates us from automated systems and robots. But if we are stifling those capabilities, what hope have we for the future?


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