Time To grow Up

The future for learning

You could be forgiven for thinking that institutionalized learning is no more than a formalized requirement for conveying information to young people so they can join the workforce. That is certainly the public veneer of schooling, along with its raison-d'etre. Conventional educational systems also play a role introducing youth to the putative narrative and mores of society. It is a form of conditioning; one requiring creative expression to be restricted, radical thoughts to be kept in check, memory continually tested, and vocational goals to remain uppermost in mind.

Without exception, the models we have used throughout recent history to inform educational curricula and to design pedagogical methods, have reflected the prevalent moral code, while shaping the immediate trajectory of the society. Schooling is intended to precede a lifetime of working in private enterprise and public institutions as productive members of the community.

Failure at school is often taken to mean that those individuals - lazy, inattentive, or deficient in specific skills - are likely to be a burden on society, even though some of our most successful entrepreneurs were either bored or performed so badly at college they dropped out before completing their courses.

Why should this matter? Because if educational models do have an intrinsic purpose - other than skills acquisition and devising individual pathways best suited to earning a living - then they must be able to adapt to the changing circumstances facing humanity so as to remain fit-for-purpose. In an age of individualism, for example, they must also shape communal purpose. In an era of separatism they must seek to connect humanity with nature.  In a fractured world they must find reasons for accord. And in a decade of disruption they have a responsibility to imagine futures expressing who we desire to become, as well as who we are becoming, rather than just replicating opportunities that are passing, and are consequently of less significance. Needless to say they must also cater for those in society who, for whatever reasons, learn best in non-conventional modes and settings.

Sometimes statistics can surprise us, holding up the mirror to a reality both uncomfortable and disconcerting - a solitary pattern flowing unnoticed beneath the surface of ritualized normalcy. Hidden amongst all the positive economic news identifying increasing wealth, fewer wars and less disease, greater life choices, and most of us living longer, healthier lives, are some truly unpalatable data we prefer to ignore or simply treat as an anomaly.

Examining a range of entangled factors, including suicide rates, substance abuse, antisocial behaviour, mental health issues, long-term unemployment, homelessness, family violence, bullying, addiction, and crime, it seems we are dancing to a macabre tune. We have been busy creating a materially prosperous society that is choking on its own anxieties. A society less hopeful than previous generations. One fearful of the future. A society whose underlying mental health is decidedly jaundiced and sickly. 

If we investigate the issue of why these symptoms of an unhealthy pathology are so prevalent in a time of relative prosperity, we surface a number of possibilities.

In spite of unprecedented interconnectivity, the levels of disengagement and separation, from each other and from nature, must rank high. The gradual collapse of our most life-critical systems - like the global economy, agriculture, water security, democracy, energy distribution, and the breakdown of our climate – in addition to our exasperated reactions to the negative impacts on governance and supply chains, for example - is extracting a toll on our need for order and certainty.

The palpable lack of trust in many of our most venerable institutions, including governments, the judiciary, the police, corporations, universities and research establishments, is damaging societal cohesion, and putting the integrity of our civilizational model in doubt. Very worrying, too, is media culpability in accentuating bad news, stoking discord and disunity, scripting events that are presented as 'reality' and inculcating a passive, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, dumbing-down of society - which then creates a milieu of overwhelming despair for many.

We can also add to this list our insatiable addiction to consumerism and novelty. The numbing certitude of escalating state surveillance. The hours spent interacting on social media, where fictions posing as facts, generate ambiguity, uncertainty, and outrage... This list of disruptive factors could go on and on. You will have your own to add, I am sure.

However, if we seek some deeper understanding of what is going on, if we look beyond the obvious warning signs for underlying continuities and behavioural drivers, there are really only four potentially existential threats impacting humanity that are easily identified. The problem is that the tail then feeds the head, in an unrelenting cycle of desire and consumption:

  1. Social norms correlate personal worth and identity with the possession and utilization of material goods. This then generates...

  2. Untold pressure on our most life-critical systems - sufficient to cause distress, failure, and collapse. These tensions result in...

  3. An erosion of cultural norms leading to condemnation and blame. The resulting dissonance pushes individuals into depression and a consequent...

  4. Crisis of consciousness – especially regarding personal meaning, direction, and belonging.

Collective activities arise from widely-held beliefs in society. The most prevalent belief globally is the marketing credo of capitalism - that the quality of life is determined purely by the goods and experiences we can buy and that the only national measure of any substance is Gross Domestic Product [GDP]. Sooner or later this unrelenting dogma was bound to lead us into a sense of entitlement as well as a craving for more and more stuff. Now, over the course of the past half century or more, it has become an unrelenting cycle to which we are addicted.

Economic growth is essential as it allows us to buy more and more stuff. We need more and more stuff to feel as though we are making progress, so economic growth is essential. This modus operandi seems normal and permanent. But if that is the case we are in real trouble.

The unforeseen consequences of this prescription, on the planet and on our social institutions, whereby 7.8 billion people all follow, or aspire to follow, the same dogma is proving to be calamitous. Most of our life-critical systems were not designed to deal with such numbers. Their collapse is inevitable, unless we decide to redesign them from a different perspective. But we are not inclined to do that. Why? Because these systems have worked exceptionally well for the people that built them, who own them, and who now benefit from their outputs. Wealthy proprietors, landlords, shareholders and investors – people who also happen to own the power and influence that prevents substantive change – are reluctant to kill the goose that laid the golden egg.

We know this, and we find it troubling. That is why we have started searching for scapegoats and resort to blaming each other. But condemning others for our predicament is maddening – especially when those 'others' are quarantined from our annoyance by geography, ideology or position. It leads to a worsening of our sense of alienation and feelings of powerlessness. Eventually we either succumb to a banal technical utilitarianism, bereft of any commonality or regenerative mindfulness, or resort to the kinds of activism and civil disobedience we are witnessing from young people around the world - depending on the depth of our irritation with an unjust and inequitable status quo that works for fewer and fewer people.

If we undertake a deep analysis of these four crises and their interdependencies, we discover a single factor overwhelmingly driving the current narrative and the sum total of its outcomes.

The root cause of the problem is the fundamental structure and impulse of the educational model used to socialize and induct young people into society - especially the prevailing order we have inherited and are so reluctant to mess with. Specifically, this model defines how and why we learn. What information is acquired (or not) and when. How that information is turned into know-how, and what is needed for that to occur. And to what end, and for whose benefit, that knowledge is then applied.

I cannot help but be concerned by flaws in the prevailing orthodoxy of the educational model, particularly as these are entrenched in the industrial idea of schools as factories - deliberately designed to manufacture consent, nurture conformity, and uphold ambient conditions that are increasingly unsustainable.

To make it more personal. My youngest son is 9 years old. He will graduate from secondary school in 2029. But then what? How will the world have changed by then? Will work still be the motivating impulse, the chief measure of individual worth, and the key mechanism whereby labour is exchanged for money? Or will robots have taken over the mind-numbing drudgery of today’s industrial humdrum?

If the latter happens, which seems most likely, what opportunities will be available to a gentle young man with Asperger's Syndrome who finds it difficult to read and write fluently, is easily distracted, but is as fascinated by airplanes, wildlife, and Marvel comics as any expert in those fields? One presumes a university education will be out of the question. But does that mean existing in a limbo of social inconsequence, where only personal whims and obsessions are pursued, and where a financial pittance from a ruling elite is his sole means of subsistence?

Is that the apotheosis for the next generation? Is the model of socioeconomic stratification, so unjust yet so deeply etched into the phenomenon of global capitalism, the culmination of what we have been meticulously building for our children and succeeding generations?

As learning is so central to the human condition, a giant leap of consciousness might be the only hope for viable structural change. In that context it is instructive to observe what reforms are taking place today, and what innovations are forecast for tomorrow. If we attempt to avoid the bleakest of scenarios, will the more exciting predictions concerning education turn out to be true? Or will kids still be required to commute daily for instruction to a physical campus, supervised by tutors who know more and more about less and less, tested on their ability to comply with the norms of a standardized curriculum set by an educational establishment still entrenched in the tenets of an earlier era, and be indoctrinated into becoming obedient cogs in a technologically-sophisticated, yet socially sterile, machine?

Formal education, you may recall, evolved around the time of the first Industrial Revolution. The earliest schools were less about improving children’s minds than producing a punctual, obedient workforce for the new factories. As a human conveyor belt for sorting, training and controlling future workers, schools catered to the new world of machines - a world of confined toil and repetitive tasks, smokestack industries, crowded living conditions, and collective discipline.

In spite of heated objections from well-meaning advocates in the current system, a majority of classrooms today still mimic those industrial models of proficiency, efficiency and consistency through repetition. Indeed, they are even administered in much the same way as prisons and factories were a century or more ago.

Just as those machine-like institutions failed to reform prisoners into contributing members of society, or help labourers find joy in their work, today’s schools and schooling conventions are failing to keep up with even the most fundamental shifts in the modern world. In effect schools are grooming our children for a world that no longer exists. They are not even trying to equip our children for what is already appearing on the horizon. And as for the future of 2040 and beyond? Forget it. They do not have a clue. Schooling as groundwork for life in the future still anticipates a social order that disappeared last century.

So here are a few things to consider. Reinventing education as a viable generative system requires us to step into new epistemologies and redesign every factor involved in learning from the ground up - and from within alternative design ontologies. Rather than repeating the habits of an obsolete industrial model, by means of an occasional aesthetic tweak to the architecture and other skin-deep minutiae, we must return to first principles. That means asking questions like:

What is the purpose of education in the Anthropocene era? How should it differ from previous models given changes in external conditions and dynamics? How can the experience of learning help clarify individual purpose, postpone the development of righteous mindsets, and contribute to a shared appreciation of how the world works, and could work better for more people?

How can we design learning processes that are not dominated by tools that stall learning potential and reduce creativity? Can the world itself become both the context and playground for learning? How can we ensure that children are able to study and learn what they want, when they want, and for as long as they want? How can we personalize learning, giving students more physical, emotional, creative and spiritual freedom as well as the opportunity to spend more time socializing with family and friends? How can we remove excessive peer pressure, competition, boredom, and bullying from the process of learning?

These are not easy questions to construct or to answer. Taken separately they are challenging enough. But taken as a set, as the basis for deep philosophical inquiry, they are intimidatingly complex – especially when put to incumbent stakeholders such as teachers, parents, public education bureaucrats and politicians.

The immediate rejoinder is too often defensive, cynical and self-justifying. I know because I have experienced their indignation at first hand. You are insulting my professionalism. Are you qualified to criticize me? This is how the system works. I challenge you to do better with the resources we have. How dare you question my ability to teach children what they need to know...

These answers are all ill-disguised attempts to preserve integrity and to justify the status quo. They are not at all helpful in terms of setting the scene for redesign.

Less theoretical, more practical questions, even those from within the familiar paradigm, are often felt to be even more threatening: How do you justify the cost involved in maintaining physical premises that are used less than eight hours a day? Is a standardized curriculum really necessary in order to optimize self-paced learning? How do teachers stay relevant in an age of immediate access to information? Which physical environments actually boost and accelerate creativity, curiosity and cooperation? Are school uniforms, along with all the other visible paraphernalia of schooling, just compliance marketing, or do they have a genuinely educational function?

No single remedy can heal or even band-aid the cracks in today’s system – no panacea, either, for the future of learning. I know of no universal model, and no top-down approach, that will suffice. That is as it should be in a pluriversal world. But how can we ensure the educational models we adopt in future do not tumble into the same epistemological trap - producing the same results, and causing more of the societal symptoms that are distressing us, as those of yesteryear?

The answer surely must be a willingness to experiment, to monitor the results, and to throw out what is clearly not working. We need not start from a blank slate. Some things we already know:

  • We already know that learning occurs constantly - anywhere and at any time. It cannot be confined to the time spent in custom-built physical spaces. The mental health and well-being of children improve when they take part in practical activities conducted outdoors and in a variety of different environments.

  • We already know that children who are brought up closer to nature show a significantly higher regenerative consciousness and pro-environmental attitude compared to those who have not.

  • We already know that classrooms were originally intended to focus attention, close off the rest of the world, and create a controlled environment where rote learning was optimized. But using classrooms as the primary 'touch point' now makes very little sense. Classroom-centric education is entirely unnecessary given that learning takes place from the moment we wake up in the morning until we fall asleep at night.

  • We already know that online technology platforms, increasingly incorporating virtual and augmented reality, can expand and fast-track the learning experience as well as providing opportunities for negotiation, collaboration, and a healthy exchange of ideas.

  • We already know that play and project-based learning, especially in collaboration with others, enable learning experiences that are more creative and practical. Games that help kids code, toys that teach robotics, and apps that deliver information to students with little effort, are increasingly common.

  • We already know that standard tests and exams are obsolete, having given way to multi-faceted assessments focused on critical thinking, problem solving, emotional and social maturity.

  • We already know that the schools of today will inevitably disappear under the burden of irrelevance, or transition into multifunctional community learning centres, as the real world of nature and smart cities replace the need for traditional classrooms.

  • We already know that with a world of readily searchable knowledge at our fingertips, we no longer need to memorize facts. Actually, many skills we learned at school might feel a little pointless today: handwriting, spelling and grammar, learning foreign languages, the ability to read a map, for example. What is in no doubt is the need for new skills to help us manage the formidable new tools on the near horizon. We need to know how to interpret search results, critically assess the quality and veracity of information, and make ethical judgements about how to use it. We will also need to think creatively in order to arrive at solutions to increasingly complex global problems.

  • We already know that the application of a single universal model of teaching and learning is outdated, detrimental, and has no role in the future of education. We know, too, that the notion all children should undertake the same work, regardless of ability, skills or interest, contributes to boredom, disengagement, disorderly conduct and less than optimal results.

  • We already know that in order to optimize learning, children must become partners in designing their own learning. The role of a 'teacher' in this context is not to control but to liberate and help co-design relevant and compelling learning experiences. Designers who can diagnose and navigate a child’s interests, opening up new fields of inquiry, rather than warders whose aim is to maintain strict discipline purely to help them pass on their own partial grasp of the world to groups of obedient pupils. As co-creators of the learning experience, the primary function of these enablers will be to guide students in the areas where they need most assistance as innovators, designers, communicators, problem solvers and creative thinkers.

Today’s pervasive educational model, in alignment with other mechanistic qualities we find in modern-day society, started to fail us towards the end of the last century. It has since become a pressure cooker of anxiety and compliance. Indeed, it most closely resembles the penal and correctional systems of the 19th century whereby internees were inducted into a process of replication – each product the same as the last in terms of knowledge, grades, expectations...

That system was never socially fair, nor was it emotionally sustainable. A relic of another era its endurance today is merely an abuse of power by an unimaginative bureaucracy over serfs in a system which they do not control.

It is unsurprising that parents shape their hopes for their children's future based on a construct with which they were familiar and helped to create. Although that world has become a figment of memory, parental expectations have not moved on. A great many still urge their child to get good grades at school, study the law or medicine at college, and choose a professional career as the first step on a ladder of life-long security. That promise can no longer be guaranteed. It is becoming more ephemeral with each passing year.

To continue with old operating models when everything around us is changing so rapidly, is a sign either of intransigence, ignorance, or myopic negligence. It can only do a disservice to our children and the realities they are going to inherit.

Marshall McLuhan’s description of the world as a 'global village' has been around for some time. It is easier than ever before to connect with anyone, anywhere, for any reason. We can work on tasks in virtual contexts with others from around the world at any given moment. Likewise, learning as inquiry occurs everywhere all the time. Along with so many other facets in life, it no longer needs to be confined to a classroom, a city, or even a country. Nor does it need only to apply to younger people. Why should they have all the fun?

The experience of real-time inquiry-based learning is a universal phenomenon where there are, quite literally, no borders. A world-wide information ecosystem stretching back into the annals of the distant past is readily available at the click of a button or a voice command, as technology continues to transform how we live, work, play and think. This transformation is happening more rapidly, and on a larger scale, than at any point in human history. It is critical that we evolve our learning experiences and educational models accordingly.

That is easy to say but so hard to pin down. Effective educational systems need to equip us all with the knowledge and skills to thrive in tomorrow’s world – even if we do not know with any precision what that future will look like. Some things are more probable than others of course.

We do know the convergence of artificial super-intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, along with virtual and augmented reality, is the next frontier. This seamless technosphere will bring with it totally immersive learning experiences, allowing each of us, in some capacity, to design the world we want to live in.

From imagination to manufactured in moments, anyone will be able to find answers, design products, accomplish tasks, conceive, play, empathize and interact, simply by expressing their desires. This new frontier will infect most occupations within the next decade. By 2040 almost nothing will feel like the world we inherited.

Albert Einstein famously said, I have no special talent, other than being passionately curious. That statement accurately portrays the human condition. There is no grand plan. We are all on a different voyage, one that we conjure up through our innate curiosity and creativity. In the final analysis, opportunities for learning encourage us into experiences for extended group and individual improvisation, experimentation, and discovery. It really is as simple as that.

If future education systems can free themselves from the strictures of formal socialization and the arbiter of unwarranted state regulations, be scaled to foster the innate curiosity to be found in children, assist in our search for meaning and truth, help instill a moral compass and a mindset of abundance to guide our endeavours, while preparing us for adapting to changing external conditions, they will be doing the job our society needs for them to do.