Schools should be a looking glass into the future

Every generation probably feels like they live in a time of fast-paced change. I’m in my late forties, and the world I live in is almost unrecognisable from the one in which I grew up. Sometimes it’s easy to think that change is the only constant in life...

Acceleration is a measure of the rate of change of speed, and currently we’re at a time where societal change driven by technology is accelerating faster than at any time in human history since the Industrial Revolution. 

The rise of robotics, Artificial Intelligence, collective intelligence enabled by the internet, self-driving cars, drones and the disintermediation/algorithmic mediation of labour and services by companies like Uber and AirBnB mean that the world of work that our current school-attending generation will enter will be markedly different to that we have now.

The title of this piece that schools need to be a looking glass into the future is, of course, slightly facetious. They can’t be. None of us can perfectly predict the future 10 years out, which we’d need to do if we were to equip the current primary school cohort with the exactly what they’ll need to learn. 

We can have some good guesses about the sort of technology that is around now, such as electronics/sensors, 3D printing and the Internet of Things, which will grow exponentially and is good to expose to children as part of their learning experience. What we may need to do is rethink fundamentally what a school is. Schools have been about learning enough facts and principles to be a useful worker in the economy of today or the slightly different near future. In the 19th century it created efficient and obedient staff for the Industrial Revolution and Empire. What could we possibly teach children now to give them their best start in life?

Read: Is STEM education failing to prepare entrepreneurs of the future?

Some of the answers to this have been with us for a decade. In 2005, Steve Jobs gave the commencement speech at Stanford. In it he exhorted students to be curious and join the dots later, never to settle, to follow their passions. What if we turned education around to focus around these principles?

My generation who fell into jobs in the early days of the web industry weren’t trained for what we were doing, but we’d been curious. We’d learnt new skills as we explored the technology of the web, often playfully. We’d also been tenacious and determined, much of this experimentation was extra curricular, and still is. 

Maybe this gives us a pattern for how our schools should be – places where curiosity is encouraged and developed, where children learn through their passions and play and through excitement about what they’re learning and through the joy of learning become determined to explore more. All of this in an environment where they’re encouraged to touch things, to experiment, a classroom full of technology, not for the sake of it, but to make connections with and through, would make for the best training for an uncertain future.

It will require teachers to feel truly comfortable with new technology and this is a challenge not for them alone, but for education technology companies and governments. There is both a mission and a profit for education technology companies in fixing this challenge. The missed opportunity cost for nations of not having a skilled, curious, tenacious workforce is huge. Just as companies such as Apple, Facebook and now even the UK government focus relentlessly on ease-of-use of products and services for normal people, we should all do the same. 

Teachers are not always technological natives, but we should make products that make them feel that they are. Teaching is so often about confidence, and will become more so as teachers need to let children explore technology increasingly by themselves. The onus is on us, as companies, to make the complex seem simple to educators so that the technology gets out of the way and the impact of its use is left behind. All too often the technology industry looks for ways to use the latest shiny things; at I Can Make, we feel that we need to make the shiny things so simple they feel mundane. It’s not measured in lines of code, it’s measured in hours of thought and empathy.

Read: Teaching girls to code with a bracelet

Just yesterday a story hit headlines which is so pertinent to this piece I had to write about it. In Texas, 14 year old Ahmed Mohamed was arrested for taking a home made clock to school. Ahmed is a passionate maker and was keen to show off his creation.

His teachers, not understanding what it was, called the police who have arrested him and accused him of making a hoax bomb. His creation is now sitting in an evidence room.

We should celebrate Ahmed for his creativity, yet people fear it for many reasons. Social media and the Maker movement have been outraged about the situation and so they should. 

The fault however lies not entirely with teachers, or with the police but with all of us. The technology industry has run headlong and obsessively into the possibilities of the future without making them readable to normal people. We need to have more empathy with them to make sure they feel natural to use in all situations. By doing that, coupled with making classrooms about curiosity, joining the dots, play and determination we’ll create schools which can be looking glasses for the future and help form a generation ready to take on whatever the world of work will contain or need of them.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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