Behind the rhetoric and politics, education is about the outcomes it achieves for its learners. More than being about the nuances of technology, learning space design, curriculum structures and pedagogical practices schools should have effective answers to questions that focus on what they hope to achieve for their learners. How we answer this question should then dictate the measures we utilise to achieve these goals and it is to these ends that we must apply our efforts.
The prime goal of educational institutions is not as clear as one may consider. Many will point towards preparation for the future as a key goal and this is what drives much of the educational policies we see at present. Certainly calls for a STEM or STEAM based curriculum is linked to notions of preparedness for a future in which the economy and industry will require graduates with these dispositions. Much of the criticism levelled at historical models of education relates to the manner in which school prepared young people for jobs central to the needs on an industrial age. The command and control structure of schools, the focus on discrete disciplines and rote learning of essential knowledge served the needs of industry throughout the past century and only now is the validity of that model being questioned. If schools are to learn anything from the rapid changes occurring within industry at present it is that our students will require no one set of skills but the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn skills on demand. Preparation for industry is one model for what schools should hope to achieve for their students but it is a model fraught with danger if the focus of that preparation is too narrow.
An alternate perspective to preparation for participation in the productive processes of society, its economic life is one that sees the early years of education as preparation for an academic life beyond school. In this view Primary School prepares students for High School which in turn prepares students for University which prepares students for a life as an academic. The obvious dilemma here is that society needs a limited set of academics and at some point education must do more than prepare students for a more academic study. There is an element of this view present in much of the mechanics of learning that we focus on with school and beyond school in University where correct detailing of referencing systems as dictated by a specific faculty seems to more important than the learning that occurs or does not occur in a broader sense. Preparation for a life of academia is right for some but not for all but learning does have value and knowing how to learn seems to be a valuable use of our time.
Preparation for a life of learning may be a more appropriate foundation. If students leave schools equipped with the skills they will require to be self directed learners then they may well be equipped to adapt to a changing world. The life-long learner goal is a common one and it does have merit as the ability and desire to continuously learn new skills and knowledge is a worthwhile goal. Such a model may not be the complete answer as the learning that is linked to such a model may not always include the learner becoming actively engaged in the creation of new knowledge. Mastery of a broad set of skills and knowledge has value but we will require people who are seeking answers to questions not yet asked or not yet answered. The life-long learner model does not guarantee that the learner will have a disposition towards problem finding only that they will when required endeavour to learn the new skills identified for them by others. Such an approach was once valid, when knowledge had value acquiring more of it made sense. Academics pursued this model and an individuals success was closely linked to the number of books and journals they had read and the obscurity of the knowledge they could recall. This model has been squashed by the internet and with ready access to all of the knowledge the question is not what do you know but what can you do with what you can find, what problems can you solve with your wit and your unlimited knowledge resources.
So perhaps preparation for a life as a problem finder and solver is most appropriate. If our students leave school with a belief in their ability and capacity to identify problems and find solution to them, then maybe they are prepared not only for what ever the future may bring but possess the capacity to shape that future. Design thinking and problem based learning become the preferred methodology and students engage frequently in a search for problems. Multidisciplinary approaches seem to have value here and proponents of STEM and STEAM will indicate that their approach is built upon a problem finding model even if that is not a necessary condition for such a programme. But problem solving alone may not be enough. If the problems we find serve the needs of those who have power and freedom in society then education has failed to produce learners with the capacity to empathise with those less fortunate. The reality of the world we live in, where money and power results in educational advantage, where industry and economic rationalism dictates what problems get solved and where those with the greatest need have difficulty accessing equitable outcomes through the educational system, dictates that some thought to how our learners will understand and relate to power be included.
Problem solving with empathy might be the desired goal then. The design thinking process can and should include empathy as a starting point and a reflection point throughout the process. If our students learn to ask questions about who their ideas will impact, whose needs most require a solution, what the real or economic cost of their actions will be they may shape a world where not only are the problems of the privileged solved. Teaching for empathy within the power structures and politics of educational systems can be challenging and requires a considered approach if teachers are not to be labelled activists but this is a goal worth achieving. Understanding that education is a part of a political process, that it is gendered, racialised and interwoven with power structures is essential.
But all of this ignores the aesthetic beauty of learning for the sake of learning, of art, literature, music and wonderment. Education for utility and purposeful application towards the betterment of society should not occur without suitable acknowledgement of human activity that adds to the aesthetic worth of humanity. As Robin Williams said while playing John Keating in ‘Dead Poets Society’ 'We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.’ So perhaps the answer is to prepare our students for a world that will require them to learn continuously, to find and solve problems, to act with empathy so as to bring hope and equity to many and strive to live a life full of a passionate pursuit of beauty and wonderment, to live and learn today as da Vinci might have done.
by Nigel Coutts