Education in the 21st Century
Parksville BC, Canada/Jakarta Indonesia
We can no longer see education as the acquisition of information nor can we continue to see teaching as the dissemination of information; that paradigm is obsolete. Until now, learning involved acquiring knowledge; studying to learn facts and incorporating them into an understanding of the world. But as what we so tritely refer to as the Information Age progresses, we need to recognise that it is impossible to learn any subject thoroughly within any sort of educational institutional context. In fact, Information is so abundant and so accessible that it is beyond the scope of the educational process to convey any useful specialised information at all beyond the fundamentals of ‘readin’, ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmitic. That and the fundamentals of information acquisition are all we should be attempting to teach, if we look at teaching as the transmission of information. Teaching, however, is absolutely not obsolete, nor is learning. It’s just that we need to rethink what we mean when we talk about education.
One of the universities at which I have lectured was largely an information technology and business school; it was obvious that the students enrolled primarily so that they could be at the cutting edge of the information age and could be functional within a society in which progress occurs at a rate that was unthinkable in the lifetime of their parents. Anyone who knows how an institution of higher learning works also knows that teaching courses in IT is simply not compatible with the old paradigm of university learning.
If a faculty member has an idea for a new course or an improvement on an old one, he or she writes it up along with a proposal for a syllabus and the materials required for the course. Between semesters the department head will look at the proposal and decide whether it has any value. If it gets green lighted, it will go to a committee that will tweak, rethink, revise, rewrite, and otherwise modify the course. By the end of the semester break it might be approved in a very different form. Then it will languish for a semester while lecturers are recruited, materials acquired, textbooks purchased and academic calendars describing the course and its value printed and distributed. By the time the first lecture is convened, the course, if it is an IT one, or one that deals with any subject in which there is ongoing progress, is prepared to present obsolete information and utilise obsolete technology in the computer labs. The students, if they are IT geeks to begin with, or are in any way committed to the subject, are way ahead of the curve before the course gets started. Everybody knows that if you have a problem with your computer, and you want it solved right away…you find a twelve-year-old.
This occurs now and it will continue to occur at an exponentially increasing pace; that is the nature of today’s world. The fact is that the teaching profession is behind the learning consumer at every step of the way and always will be, as long as we maintain the current paradigm.
It’s time that we at any institution of higher learning recognise and accept the fact that we don’t teach; we facilitate learning. And it is with this in mind that I want to advocate an expanded focus on learning how to think. I have lectured and taught variations on that theme for most of my adult life and I believe that it is the study of critical thinking, logic, and reason that is the key to any progress that any but the dullest student will make. We can’t give them the information as it is developed; the pace is simply too fast. But we can teach them how to discriminate among the true, the likely, the unlikely and the bullshit. And that may be the highest calling of a teacher. Otherwise we are merely journeymen with a trade passing on traditional techniques to apprentices.
And while passing on a trade is an admirable endeavour, teaching people how to think has far reaching consequences that simple imitation of behaviour couldn’t begin to approach.
Learning to distinguish between reasonable ideas and crackpot ones, between ideas that prevail because they are traditional and those that prevail because they work, separating faith from knowledge, employing the tools of intellectual discrimination….these are the skills that need to be passed on. The specific trade or professional skills that one may attempt to teach will be outdated before they make it onto the syllabus.
Teaching students to enquire beyond simply paraphrasing Wikipedia (or more often cutting and pasting) to look into the sources of the information they can find is far, far more important than giving them that information in the first place.
Teaching students how logical fallacies work and encouraging them to look for them in day-to-day life will have an effect that will last a lifetime and will encourage the habitual employment of reason over superstition, habit, and moribund thinking. An adult who understands the basic principles of informal logic and is able to recognise a Straw Man, a Red Herring, Begging the Question, an Ad Hominem, and other simple fallacies is more likely to be able to have a chance at real success than a diligent student who has memorised the date of the Battle of Hastings. Need to know the date of the battle of Hastings? (1066) Look it up! Takes about 3 seconds. Moreover, looking it up might lead to further inquiry…if the subject is of interest or value.
Who was Casanova? That’s not likely to be taught along with the history of the Age of Reason. And yet a reading of his memoires gives a much more visceral and lively understanding of the period during which Rousseau, Voltaire, and Jefferson made their more famous contributions to cultural progress. But encouraging the search for knowledge is more likely to lead to Casanova’s writings than the dissemination of the dates of the events of the 1700s. Those dates will come up anyway. An interest in any subject is of vastly greater value than a collection of rote dates and occurrences.
We are past the point where we can teach knowledge. It can’t be done in any reasonable way. We are at a much better place; we now should be teaching how to learn. That’s the best skill that can be passed on.