If knowing is obsolete. . .

Speaking in 2013 at ‘TED’ Sugata Mitra (2013) posed the question ‘Could it be that at the point in time when you need to know something, you can find out in two minutes? Could it be that we are heading towards or maybe in a time when knowing is obsolete?’. This question has merit and far reaching implications for education. 

A range of factors make this question worth exploring. Firstly is the matter of what we teach and the curriculum documents we follow. For those in Australia we have the new syllabus to implement and while this makes progress in some regards by placing such things as concepts and skills at the centre of our focus there remains a good degree of content to be taught. Secondly the technology that makes it possible to ‘know’ something on demand is with us today. Through the devices we carry with us, with the resources of the Internet and thanks to the power of search it is possible to find any chunk of knowledge whenever and wherever it is needed. 

Speaking to a group of Year Six students the director of digital for a large Australian telco described the near future of technology. He started with a brief history of technology and described in pictures how computers have changed from the time he was a teen experiencing computing for the first time to the technology we all carry with us today. He described how Gordon Moore of Intel had predicted a doubling of chip speeds every two years and how this came to be known as ‘Moore’s Law’. He demonstrated how computing technology has continued to shrink and described how this has allowed for technology that we can not only carry in a pocket but also wear. If the tech companies are right and wearables begin to gain traction in the market our reliance on ‘knowing’ will only further decrease. Once the watch or glasses that I wear are able to provide me with the answer to my knowledge based questions why would I burden my memory with these details?

The New Media Consortium, Horizon Report: 2014 K-12 Edition identifies Wearable Technology as one of the important developments in technology for school with a time to adoption in the four to five year category. Wearable technology is defined by the report as technology that can be worn in the form of jewelry, sunglasses, backpacks or items of clothing. The impact is described as being most significant in the enhancement of field trips and excursions and augmented reality. But this ignores the great ease of access to information that this style of device offers and ignores the potential for these devices to provide context aware notifications. How far can it be from a time when my watch or my glasses prompts me with potentially relevant ‘knowledge’ based on the data it is gathering from my environment, my online presence and the online presence of the people and things around me.

As we move towards a Web 3.0 world we will increasingly rely on machine learning to access and present data from diverse sources, including an expanding ‘Internet of Things’ in ways that we are able to make use of. The early signs of an internet populated by articles and sources created purely by computer are the ‘Knowledge Graph’ results Google provides and the emergence of articles written by algorithms. The ‘Knowledge Graph’ presents information based on a search query and compiled from a mix of sources as a result of Google’s algorithms. Steven Levy wrote an article for ‘Wired’ titled ‘Can an algorithm write a better news story than a human reporter?’ in which he describes technology produced by ‘Narrative Science’ that produces articles based on the data fed to its algorithms. A BBC report from 2014 describes the writing of an article for the LA Times that is reportedly the first written for a newspaper by a robot. The challenge for machine generated content will be finding an audience for the content that is generated and most likely this will be facilitated by models of content delivery where the information finds its user rather than relying on the user finding the content.

The implications of the evolution of technology, of search, machine learning and of ubiquitous access to knowledge are yet to be fully understood and explored but are part of the rationale for Ian Jukes to declare, while speaking at EduTech in Brisbane in 2014, that knowledge work or routine cognitive work will become a thing of the past at least in Western nations and that schools need to stop preparing students for jobs that will not exist. We need a greater emphasis on what Ian and others refer to as ‘Long Life Skills’ (creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, problem solving and social intelligence) and an ability for individuals and even groups to learn and unlearn the skills required for specific tasks. New opportunities for enterprise bring with them new challenges for learners e.g the birth and growth of the app developer. But this does not mean we teach app design in the same way we taught grammar, the skills needed now will be outmoded by next year or sooner, according to Ian we need teach the mind set required for app design.

Ian says ‘Our present system is not broken, it is obsolete, outmoded. We cannot make little modifications, it is time to redesign’ and that if schools are in the content delivery business then we are going to be out of work soon. Looking for the silver lining in this the future of education and of teaching is exciting. Freed of the need to teach content we can focus on teaching what matters most, what excites and challenges our students and builds capacity for creativity, knowledge creation and innovation. 

By Nigel Coutts






Preaching to the School Choir: Why do we need Sir Ken Robinson?

I like Sir Ken Robinson, his TED Talks combine humour, insightful commentary and a perspective on education that I agree with. But after watching his latest speech (see video) I was left wondering, who is he preaching to and why is there a need for it?


On a number of occasions I have seen presenters use the words of Sir Ken as part of their presentations for Professional Development days. The response is always the same; general agreement and a room full of teachers who are inspired to do great things for their students. I have read some of his books too and agree that education should inspire creativity, teach to the individual's passions and allow teachers to plan units of work that are tailored to the needs of their students. Teaching to the test is seen as a problem and a trend that benefits no one. Teachers need to be valued and treated with respect as highly trained professionals. Students should want to be at school and should leave school equipped for life in a modern world possessing the skills valued by their future employers. 

I agree with all of this and so do the colleagues I speak to about these ideas. So too do many of the most valued researchers in the field of Education. David Perkins, of Harvard's Project Zero, in his book 'Making Learning Whole: How seven principles of teaching can transform education' outlines many of the same ideas. Using a sports metaphor he argues that education should teach the 'whole game', make it worth playing, encourage students to focus on the hard parts, seek opportunities to test their skills in new situations, go beyond the surface detail, learn from others both peers and teachers and learn 'the game of playing the game' or 'metacognition. Again, there is very little here to disagree with. Possibly the one criticism I have heard aimed at such theories of education goes something like; 'Well, that's just good teaching with a fancy name'.

Several years back I had cause to write a philosophy of education, a set of guiding principles to be shared with my class' parent body. It included words and phrases such as 'enthused', 'challenged', 'partnership' and 'powerful learners with the ability to determine their level of success'. It speaks of 'an environment that celebrates learning and education as integral parts of life'. I have shared this philosophy with many groups of parents and colleagues since then and have never had any disagreement.

I work in a school that seeks to develop students who are ready for the unique challenges they will face beyond school. I have had the opportunity to study 'Teaching for Understanding' and 'Making Thinking Visible' as these courses support the development of highly transferable skills and dispositions for learning. I know many other schools have provided their staff with similar opportunities and that the teaching skills developed through such courses are desirable among candidates for employment. I have not read advertisements for teachers which focus on a knowledge of standardised testing or rote learning.

So with all this agreement from educators why does Sir Ken Robinson need to spread his message? Why is there a climate in schools that proves he is correct when he states 'Great things are happening despite the system'? As a profession where did we go wrong? When did it become OK for politicians to set Educational Policies that fly in the face of what the profession agrees is best practice? Maybe it is time we started writing educational theories in Latin to keep the 'commoners' off our patch of turf?

By Nigel Coutts