In March, the House of Lords told us what has long been obvious: that we need to pay far more attention to the internet by coordinating our efforts towards improving children’s “digital literacy”.
A report, published by the Lords Communications Committee, states that students’ lives – “from health to education, from socialising to entertainment” – are now “mediated through technology”.
It also suggests that the best way to protect children online is through mandatory content control filters and privacy settings, and that a new children’s “digital tsar” should be appointed.
All of this is commendable and, like so many education initiatives, long overdue. But if we are going to teach children to use the internet properly we need to do more than controlling its ‘threats’.
Whether we like it or not, artificial intelligence, algorithms, advances in genetic engineering, nanotechnology and biology are already shaping our world at a pace we can scarcely comprehend. Rather than adding another ‘subject’, we should be looking at the whole purpose of education and asking whether our current systems are still fit for purpose.
For generations now we have viewed children as either tabula rasa, blank slates waiting to be filled with knowledge, or, as those who adhere to innatism maintain, minds brimming with knowledge from day one.
Both philosophies fed into the assembly line pedagogy, funneling talent into the narrow and restricted neck of an hourglass, to prepare them for world of work and leisure. What is increasingly evident, however, is that this approach is inadequate, even for those leaving school in the next decade.
Yes, by all means, let us give the internet a far more prominent place in our curriculum (although I doubt whether including it as part of the many-headed beast that is PSHE is the right place), and better still, embed it across the curriculum.
But let’s look further, much further, at what we are teaching, and its relevance over the next decade. We need to ask: should we even continue to teach the “3 R’s” in their conventional form.
In his recent TED talk “The Future of Learning”, education guru Sam Chaltain said that we “have to prepare our children for their future opposed to our past”. And that, clearly, is the challenge we face.
While we know change is coming (and the J curve for knowledge is likely to be with us by 2030), we do not appear to have a unified approach on how to prepare for it. Instead of being reactive, education has to become proactive, even predictive, looking beyond what we already know to a rapidly changing future.
As Yuval Noah Harari notes in his book ‘ Homo Deus’ , a report prepared in 2013 by Oxford researchers Frey and Osborne revealed that up to 47 per cent of current US jobs risk being replaced by computers and automation in the next 20 years – including doctors and pharmacists.
While we remain sceptical as to whether humans can really be replaced in such professions, we should take note of the pharmacy that opened in San Franciso in 2011. Providing two million prescriptions in its first year without a single mistake, this new high-tech pharmacy owes its success to the specialised algorithms and iPhones which now run the show.
As many occupations disappear altogether, in the same way that streaming has decimated video and music stores, new professions will undoubtedly surface, but it is likely they will require more flexibility and creativity than our current education system allows.
Artificial intelligence and algorithms are already playing a significant role in our day to day lives, so it will be no surprise when teachers also become surplus to requirements.
Meanwhile, we are so hung up on data that we are wasting huge amounts of human potential, squeezing the creativity out of young minds. Looking forwards, the workforce of tomorrow will not be judged on their content knowledge, but rather a set of skills and dispositions which enables them to thrive in an economy that is changing, fast.
Recently I was visited by a friend who was New Zealand’s entrepreneur of the year in 2016. When I asked him about the quality of his new and prospective employees, he said his greatest concerns were their inability to problem-solve, their lack of imagination and the analytical skills to address causes rather than just managing the effects.
Sadly there is little in our education system that prepares children for employment now – let alone in 2040, when the world of work will be more complicated still.
So while we may welcome the paper from the House of Lords on internet safety, even accepting that it is reactive rather than pro-active, it is a small step on a very long journey. We know we cannot keep adding to an already full and essentially backward-looking curriculum.
If the students are to succeed in the future, we need to begin considering how we can best teach new competencies, new skills, new applications and new knowledge.
And that starts by acknowledging that today’s education system is still stuck in the past.