Our preparation for the future is an education system that prides itself in cramming information into your brain, so that come summer term, you can regurgitate this information onto paper and receive a grade. In the past this made sense because information was scarce. In the fourteenth century, a bestselling book would only have several dozen copies in existence and these would be found chained to a desk or lectern in a university library. Information was not portable so it was imperative that you could remember what you read and studied.
Today, we are so inundated with information that it is wiser to be worried about misinformation and irrelevancies, rather than a lack of information. It’s a struggle to know what to believe. On the positive side, we can learn almost anything using the internet, we can take free online courses, watch TED talks and read Wikipedia. But the utopian vision of using the internet to create a highly educated populace or for self-improvement is the exception. In reality, most of the traffic on the internet is dedicated to social media, gaming and pornography. I mean, between learning to code in Python or watching pornstars, you don’t need to read a book to know which is the most popular option.
Perhaps then we don’t need teachers to give us more information. We have far too much of it. Instead, we need the ability to make sense of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is unimportant, and above all to combine many bits of information into a broad narrative of the world. Measuring school performance on these metrics presents a rather woeful picture. Do teachers help us make sense of information? Yes, if that information will be required for an exam. It’s cliché for a student to ask “Why do I need to know this?” We have become trained test-takers rather than knowledgeable masters of our subjects.
Secondly, do schools help us determine what is important and what is unimportant? Any student, who has had a major exam question dedicated to one sentence from slide 64 of their lecturer’s presentation slides, can attest that our current model does not help us determine what is important in our subjects. The exams set precedence and these do not necessarily reflect the actual significance of topics within a subject. Private agendas play a part, as lecturers want to prioritise their research interests and governments want to spread political messages.
Finally, do teachers leave us with a broad narrative of the world? Studying distinct modules that are further divided into topics allows for little to no crossover of ideas. Chronology and understanding are substituted with giving students lots of data and encouraging pupils to ‘think for themselves’ in the hope that students will create their own picture of the world. The trouble is a 15 year old’s picture of the world is not grounded in physics, mathematics and philosophy. Rather it’s a blurred image of social status, rampant hormones and sexual frustration, complemented by Fortnite, Snapchat and house parties. We are now relying on this generation to determine the future of life itself, and without a comprehensive view of the world, the future of life will be decided at random.
We can argue that school gives us valuable skills. But what happens when A.I can code software better than humans, and Google Translate can conduct conversations in every language around today? Human skill will become worthless. So what should we be teaching instead? Shifting focus away from technical skills towards general-purpose life skills may be the solution.
By this, I do not mean teaching students about how to get a mortgage rather than teaching economics. Your ability to deal with change, to learn new things and to preserve your mental balance in unfamiliar situations should be paramount. The current system advocates that you learn about Mathematics and French without giving you a robust framework and understanding about how we learn and how we think. To paraphrase an old proverb, we are not teaching students how to fish. We are giving them a fishing rod and leaving them stranded on a boat, while their teacher signals frantically from the shoreline.