What would your grandparents make of reality television? What would they say about marriage equality? About non-binary gender identification? What would they say about mental health, or veganism? What would they say about middle aged men on scooters? Bottled water?
What would your great grandparents say about these things?
It is easy to forget that attitudes and values change so much over time. The White Australia policy was demolished less than fifty years ago. In 1960, there was great shame in having a child out of wedlock. Being gay was a criminal act. You did not need to wear a seatbelt.
If you share these facts with a fifteen year old now, what would they say?
You can disappear easily down this rabbit hole into speculation, but the truism persists that some things change and some things do not when it comes to values.
In the realm of education, what has changed in that time? Well, it could be argued that the answer is a lot and not much.
Certainly, the tools and reach of connectivity is different. In many schools, learning spaces and buildings have a space age quality, all glazed bricks, huge screens and funny shaped tables.
Conversely, much has not changed. If you travelled back in time and kidnapped a teacher from 1900, then deposited them in a modern school, how much would be unfamiliar?
Chances are, they would recognise a great deal in the dynamic. Sure, it would be noisier and there would be less whacking, but the process would be familiar – teacher in charge, students consuming and interacting with work in chunks of lessons broken up with summative assessment.
The learning objective would be familiar also – to progress students along a pathway into, after thirteen years, either further study or work. The way meandered through high stakes summative assessment and ranking, then into narrower and narrower channels until a vocation was reached and specialisation achieved.
What was rewarded was the consumption of knowledge and recall, the accumulation of knowledge transferred from a knowing entity (the teacher, the textbook, the curriculum) to the receptacle (the student).
The values inherent to the system were the same for students as those desired for employees – diligent, reliable, consistent, steady. A good student met deadlines, wrote legibly and never, ever interrupted the teacher. For most, specialisation was the ideal rather than general range.
Information was the currency of exchange, measuring the success in learners. We would refer to a student’s ‘general knowledge’ and promote the development of this through interaction with a limited number of resources. Test scores quantified this process.
The Encyclopedia was critical for most home scholars, preceded by books and newspapers as sources of information.
These sources were carefully curated and refined through the publishing process. Newspaper editors and style guides protected the reputation and standards of reportage.
Publishers forced authors to meet extremely high standards of quality on the arduous road to being published.
One could look at nearly all resources and understand that a lot of time and effort went in to the information we consumed to build knowledge.
The crime of passing off another’s work as your own was heinous. The integrity and provenance of information was highly valued and demanded.
The reward for making this journey was a stable job for life. Society valued those who stuck fast and were loyal to their employers and their needs. They desired workers who were predictable and specialised.
Education, and the values behind it, served the function of creating workers for an industrial system.
By and large, when you reached the workforce, learning was a thing left behind. You were allowed to put your feet up if you liked. Apart from certain occupations, like medicine, the majority of people could thrive while the tools of learning atrophied.
Would you agree that this world no longer exists?
The very notion of a career or job for life seems quaint in the volatile global environment. Moreover, the idea of a steady job for life is not that appealing to many people anymore.
Employers don’t have the same need for a steady workforce who will do what they are told and deliver the same limited thing week in, week out until the gold watch is passed over.
If the outcome we desire from education has changed, have update what we value? Should we be asking what is it all for?
I have fallen for the lazy generalisations all too readily. These kids are lazy. They have it too easy. They won’t read. They don’t care about the world around them. They only want to spend time on a screen. Their writing is atrocious. They don’t proofread. They write like they text. Add in your own here…
What if we have it wrong? What if they can do these things, and more, and they are curious about the world? What if they just value different things to what we do? What if they know that most of what we do isn’t relevant to their needs?
This is where I find myself at the moment.
We value handwriting because it was drummed into us as a measure of a grown up (albeit, I never understood why one benefit of the status of doctors was appalling handwriting).
We valued information because scarcity made it so – a set of 32 hardback Encyclopedia Brittanica volumes will set you back 1400 bucks, even though it has been out of print since 2010.
We valued the ability to recall and regurgitate vast amounts of information in a high stakes environment as a measure of intelligence.
The Encyclopedia Brittanica app is now free to download on the app store, but unlimited, advertising free access costs 14.99 per year.
If there is an easier way to demonstrate the reduction in value for information, I’d like to see it.
Going a step further – the open source version, Wikipedia, is free.
The Internet changed the world forever. As Mark Manson declared – the best thing about the Internet is anyone can publish. The worse thing about the Internet is anyone can publish.
The Internet didn’t just take the gates down, it shot the gatekeepers.
In doing so, information that once needed to be retained was now on demand. Anyone on earth with a device and internet connection can access the galaxy of human thought and endeavour if they know where to look.
Therefore, the retention of information and knowledge is not as valued as it once was.
Will they know what to do with the information?
Well, that is a curly question. Plenty of dogs around the world can go and find the newspaper, but I’ve not heard of one that can read it.
Which leads me to the sacred cow of purpose. What is a school education for?
Beyond the basics of literacy – the ability to read and write is a minimum standard not up for debate – we need to consider the purpose as students head out into the post school world.
For our roadmaps are not always accurate. They do not lead where they once did, and what used to have value when they arrived no longer does.
At the risk of getting waylaid in the debate over twenty first century skills, we should focus instead on developing twenty first century values.
Which are not so far removed from the best of the old bunch when you think about it, with one major difference.
We should not prepare our students for a world where learning only belongs in schools.
We should not construct our learning on consumption ahead of creation.
We should not value the retention and regurgitation of information over the ability to interrogate and criticise where information comes from.
The impact of this shift fundamentally changes the role of teacher in the learning process. As well as curating learning materials and experiences, teachers need to be model learners. They need to demonstrate and live desirable mindsets.
Teachers need to take risks. They need to make mistakes. They need to keep learning. Curriculum and assessment should serve this purpose.
We should value range, not specialisation, perhaps. We should encourage students to be flexible and transfer their knowledge to new settings.
And in tackling the question of the purpose of education, we might identify the ghosts in the machine and allow them to finally rest in peace.
Function over form, process over outcome.
What is it for?