Educating for the Unknown

What will tomorrow bring? What will life be like in 2028 as our youngest students of today exit school? What occupations will they enter and what challenges will they face? These are not new questions but with the rate of change in society and the pace at which technology evolves they are questions without clear answers. How then do schools prepare students for this uncertain tomorrow? What shall we teach our children today such that they are well prepared for the challenges and opportunities of their tomorrow?

The complexity of responding to these questions and the inaccuracy of most forecasts allows for never ending debate and there are as many perspectives on what the future may bring as there are people making predictions. Such forecasting is an unsteady platform on which to plan something as important as a child’s education. There is perhaps a better way and it takes us to a thought exercise proposed by French philosopher Rene Descartes in 1637. In this famous piece of philosophical thinking Descartes proposed a scenario in which every aspect of reality, every observation and sensation was torn away and the individual becomes an imaginary brain in a vat with stimulus being fed to it by a malicious demon. The more modern take on this is an individual wired into a computer with reality generated by the computer’s software. The challenge for Descartes was to work from this premise to an understanding of that which he could be certain of. The result is the philosophical statement ‘cogito ergo sum’ or ‘I think therefore I am’. Descartes ability to question his own existence was seen as proof that as the thinker of these thoughts, he must exist.

Let us imagine then a world in which nothing is certain. All that we know now has been in someway replaced. Perhaps we live in virtual worlds which emerge from present models of virtual and augmented reality. Perhaps automation has risen to new levels and human work has been replaced by machines which serve every rudimentary need. Maybe our colleagues are machines in robot form or online chat bots with whom we converse never knowing who is human and who is not. Such imaginings while fanciful and frightening are not too far removed from some of the predictions being made and are built on trends in technology already emerging. Our goal is however not to imagine the possible but to look for a broader response, one that is suitable for any scenario. As likely as these techno fantasies may be is a world where technology has imploded upon itself and we must resort to more fundamental skills. Or perhaps the future will be very much like the world we live in today. If nothing can be known of the future how shall we preparer for it?

A metaphor might help here. For your next holiday you plan to try something very different to the norm. Instead of a well planned itinerary you opt for a mystery flight. Knowing you have no way of knowing where you will end up you begin to ponder the challenge of packing. Clearly you can not take everything you might need for every possible location, climate and activity set so you resort to packing for flexibility. Every item that does into your bag must be able to serve you well in a variety of hugely differing scenarios. Even in this scenario there are some items you know you will need and this allows a modicum of planning but the specialist ‘single use’ items you might pack if you knew your destination are left in the cupboard.

This is the scenario we face as schools planning for our students tomorrows. What are the items we know they will need? What are the ones which are sufficiently flexible to serve their needs in many scenarios and which are the ones which must be left behind? As daunting as this task may be we seem to have already discovered the answer. Most models for a 21st century are built on a set of common elements even if the names are changed. We can be quite certain that our students will need to be creative, collaborative, effective in communication, critical thinkers and compassionate. These common elements are well understood and while we may struggle to develop these dispositions and skills we have little doubt that they play a key role in defining the purpose of education. Beyond these immensely flexible skills are the ones around which there needs to be more discussion. Mathematical thinking is a widely flexible disposition but it is not applicable to every scenario. In our mystery holiday scenario, it is more flexible than a set of skis but less so than a woolen jumper. There are many skills and dispositions which fall into this category, useful very often and reasonably adaptable but not required in every conceivable situation and even then perhaps not in its entirety. Much of the mathematics taught in schools falls into the very seldom used category even if the broader patterns of thought behind them are relevant.

The daunting prospect in this is what we may have to let go of. There are aspects of the current model of education which will not serve our students in this unknown tomorrow. Chestnuts of wisdom that we as teacher hang on to, obscure pieces of knowledge and ways of doing things that are heavily specialised and fit very few of the scenarios we encounter even today should not be carried forward in the minds and doings of every child. Such specialised wisdom has its place but that place is in the books and the archives of memory which we cherish but access as we need them.

So the world our students will inherit may be a great mystery but the challenge of preparing them for that rests in the broad dispositions we most cherish. That which makes us most human is that which will best serve us in this unknown future.

By Nigel Coutts