Education, aiming slowly at a fast moving target

Education is probably one of the most sensitive subjects one can touch on, and where there is surety of never to reach a general view that guides and explains all efforts towards improvement. From a way to examine life beyond traditional faith rules, to a conduit of new inventions and the torrent of change they bring; education have had to question its purpose many times as a way to be a useful activity to prepare for an uncertain future. The forces of: time-tested traditional methods of education vs. a societal demand to adapt to new times, where changes are coming faster than ever; has been a repeated conflict in need of balance by educators, legislators and parents towards the side that most benefit the young generation, and the renewal of society.

In a process that takes about 20 years to see its results, constant changes doesn’t seem the way to go about improving outcomes. Like the finest spirit maturing in a set of casks for 15-25 years, the distiller-blender only knows how good the process was towards the end, and the changes to improve it are slow, because results take a long time to be produced. However, for him the product has remained the same for a 100 years and likely to remain very similar for a 100 more. The product does not suddenly need to meet a different standard, use, or public that changes ahead of the rate, where it can be adjusted to avoid delivering something that is not required in its original form anymore. The target doesn’t move ahead of the shot.

Contrast it with another long-term process: the standard education system, aiming at forming the man of the future. In its current form, education to generate a workforce for jobs (that most likely won’t be there in its current form anymore), or education so specific, on the here and now, that misses to teach the fundamentals that are unchanged in time. They are probably the main issues for the community of parents, school, and governments trying to leave the best legacy for the future generation, but unsure of where to focus their efforts. In itself a long-standing problem since education was made public and taught en mass, where the response has so far been to keep things about the same. More an answer to the difficulties of getting everybody to agree on a difficult subject, and the reasoning that even with its shortcomings education has been delivering generation after generation of men and women ready to contribute to a changing world. The deep review of the education system, its purpose, and the best way to deliver it has largely been postponed.

Now, let’s look at an era way before our current education system, when only a few were initiated into enquiry, reflection about natural things, and wisdom. The ancient teachings were mostly about things that were likely not changed by time; the informal curriculum was designed to be relevant then, and for a thousand years after it. Virtue, ethics, morality, logic, philosophy all tools to form a mind of enquiry that would look for answers on their own with the best interest of their land, city or kingdom in mind. In those times, everything needed to be touched and known by man for the first time — concrete teachings of facts and fundamentals was not a possibility. But, yet in its original form, education was to allow an individual to be a man of honour for their family and city, and acquire the mindset to search for the best ways to go about the issues of the present. A man left to believe in the transforming power of its intellect. Relevant no matter how many years or changes where in between; no set time to consider one “educated”; mostly viewed as a journey that never ended, and that has the reward in the journey itself.

Fast forward to 19th century where the conception of education was viewed more as a way to transform societies of peasants and slaves into one of workers ready for the nascent industrial revolution. Machines were invented everywhere, but they were rudimentary at best, and required a very high component of labor still. “If we could educate to get a consistent worker, no matter where it was trained, that was able to read, write and do basic math, then we had a piece of machinery in human labor; useful and replaceable” — A dialogue that can be attributed to F.W. Taylor, Henri Fayol or many of legislators and business man of the time. Different trades and professions started to form, and education towards specialisation institutionalised. The world knew by then a few fundamentals and facts, and was ready to hard-wired them in the next generation, so they could be ready to be the artifacts of the progress machine that was to come in the 20th century. The past, were only a few had access to knowledge was gone, now everybody will be — in a form—as long as that prepared them towards a job. This is the system we still have now, a process designed to deliver the industrial revolution worker, for a world that was changing, but where trades, professions and commerce were unchanged during the length (10-15 years) of an education span.

Little by little, we are starting to see the cracks of a system designed for change at a slower rate. More and more, parents and educators are questioning whether teaching the facts and fundamentals of science, in the traditional way, is relevant in an age where information is flowing free. Even the delivery of the message in a one to many fashion, and physical presence into a school for one to be “educated” (at the heart of the current education system) is something up for challenge. The commonality of use of many tools in the net, primarily outside the school, where access to the very best worldwide knowledge is abound in a written form, video, or even as a program, or design to be modified and tailored to individual needs in the form of software or even a 3D printing, is a reality the community cannot ignore for long. The conflict between: relevancy of the many years invested in education towards a world that might not be there vs. the lifelong journey of preparing a mind of enquiry to discover the world; a conflict about the main purpose, and appropriateness, of our education system, is more alive than ever. Like trying to fit a square into a circle of the same size. The societal environment is changing faster than what the education system can change itself, and adjusting it at a faster rate might mean not delivering anything at all, instead of just delivering partially.

The interesting development is how the new generation is serendipitously discovering a new way to go about being educated. One that is largely not mandated by any central government, or even a community of parents. Where an average guy can find the facts, techniques and blueprints to anything, as well as, a community of like-minded mentors willing to give up some of their time to teach how to solve specific problems in the net. The knowledge and the teacher aspects of education, redistributed and broken down to pieces, so anyone can pick and choose the angle it wants to takes. Yet not recognised as valid by the establishment, neither organised enough to be considered an alternative for the next era of education, but a real and actionable argument of the new generation asking the question: why do I have to go to school?

More and more it seems, we are returning to the stage where education is asking to be based again on the premise that we don’t know anything new and everything is for us to discover. One that recognises the limitations of teaching towards an unmovable target; one where the aim is not to only produce workers; and one where human creativeness is the real thing to be nurtured as a society.

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