Does technology have the power to transform education? Undoubtedly. But not necessarily in the ways we expect and not necessarily for the better. Technology has been transforming education for as long as either have been in existence.
Language, arguably the most crucial technological advancement in our history, moved education from mere mimicry and emulation into the realms of cultural transmission; as we became able to express abstractions so we could teach our offspring about the interior world of thought beyond the concrete reality we experienced directly.
This process accelerated and intensified with the invention of writing. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates rails against writing saying it will eat away at the marrow of society and kill off young people’s ability to memorise facts. He was right. The transformative power of writing utterly reshaped the way we think and how we use knowledge. From the point at which we were able to record our thoughts in writing, we no longer had to remember everything we needed to know.
But education was very much a minority sport until the advent of the printing press when suddenly books started to become affordable for the masses. Before Gutenberg, there was no need for any but a privileged elite to be literate, but as the number of printed works exploded exponentially, the pressure on societies to prioritise universal education slowly grew until, by the mid twentieth century education was viewed but only as a requirement but a right.
The rate at which we now produce knowledge is staggering. The architect and inventor, Buckminster Fuller identified what he called the ‘Knowledge Doubling Curve’. He noticed that until 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By the mid twentieth century knowledge was doubling every 25 years. Today on average human knowledge doubles in just over a year. Some estimates suggest soon what we collectively know is set to double every 12 hours.
No wonder so many have been persuaded that there is no longer a need to learn facts as we can always just look up whatever we need to know on the internet. This erroneous belief has certainly had a transformative, if largely nugatory effect on education in the last decade or so. I say nugatory because knowledge is only knowledge if it lives and breathes inside of us.
There’s a world of difference between knowledge – the stuff we think not just about, but with – and information. We need knowledge to make sense of the vast swathes of information available to us. If you doubt this, look at what happens when you ask a student to look up an unfamiliar word in a dictionary: they may end up with five or six more words they have to look up in order to understand the definition. Some things we just need to know.
But in response the apparent obsolescence of knowledge, schools started reinventing themselves as places where children would learn transferable skills which would allow them to navigate the shifting, uncertain world of the future. We now regularly hear the battle cries of ‘21st century learning’ bandied about and the idea that the tradition curriculum of school subjects should be abandoned in favour of critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication skills has much traction across the educational landscape.
But are these really 21st Century skills? Are we actually claiming that no one did any of this stuff in previous centuries? In fact, haven’t these things always been pretty important? And if it was important for Socrates to think critically, Julius Caesar to solve problems, Shakespeare to communicate, Leonardo da Vinci to be creative and the builders of the Great Wall of China to collaborate, how on earth did they learn how to do these things without a specific 21st century learning curriculum?
The point is, these skills are innate human characteristics. We don’t need to be taught; we all, to a greater or lesser degree, do all these things all the time. How could we not? Of course we can encourage children to be creative, critical and collaborative, but can we actually teach these things as subjects?
The one thing we can be reasonably sure of is that technology will surprise us. The Tomorrow’s World visions of flying cars and silver suits can be smilingly dismissed as caricature but we routinely suckered by the same urge to predict. I have no idea how nano-technology, virtual reality and 3D printing might effect the business of educating children and neither does anyone else, no matter what they might tell you. I do, however, feel pretty sure that the current generation of edtech products won’t transform teaching any more than the last generation did. iPads are to laptops what interactive white boards are to blackboards; what data projectors are to OHPs; what photocopiers are to Banda printers; what paper was to the slate.
The future is definitely coming, but so far the present is just a quicker, more convenient version of the past. The future will certainly be different, but much of it will also be startlingly familiar.