Educators today face no shortage of challenges. Perhaps the greatest of these is in deciding precisely what skills and content they should be teaching. As society transforms and diversifies at an ever increasing pace, schools have been compelled to develop broad curricula that seek to bring out the best in all students. Welfare and leadership programmes, culturally sensitive pedagogies, IT training, and concerns about health and fitness have further stretched the time and other resources of schools, and a new idea or strategy seems always just around the corner.
The danger is, of course, that this greater width in education has come at the expense of depth. It is no longer certain that education has a clear purpose, but is instead trying to create whole citizens out of too many parts. Ask a teacher, parent, administrator, politician and student what they think is the role of schools, and chances are you’ll get five different answers.
The dilemma is that education needs to address today’s problems and concerns while trying to prepare young people for an ill-defined future. Historically, this is a new problem. Traditional ideas about the purpose of education – preparing children for the workforce, teaching culturally important facts, creating good citizens – may no longer be valid in a world where consumerism outranks culture, globalisation dismantles the notion of citizenship, and jobs for most of our children have not been invented yet.
The old idea that an education is the pathway to success still holds true for many people. Indeed, the statistics repeatedly show that there is a clear correlation between a person’s level of education, their likely income, and their chances of being unemployed. Schools are obviously getting some things right. What the numbers don’t show, however, is whether this education can make a person happier, or more caring, or a better parent.
Martin Luther King identified this problem in 1947, while still a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA. In the ‘Maroon Tiger’, the campus newspaper, King claimed that education should be utilitarian – teaching knowledge and reason – but that it should also be a moral wellspring. He was deeply concerned that purely academic teaching might produce intelligent and even gifted thinkers, who nonetheless lacked a moral compass. “Intelligence plus character,” he wrote, “that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.”
Recent thinking suggests that the way forward will be to teach young people how to learn, so that they can better cope with a rapidly shifting cultural landscape. Noam Chomsky, for instance, has stated that “Education is really aimed at helping students get to the point where they can learn on their own.” Nicholas Negroponte, a noted professor and founder of the MIT Media Lab, believes that “The children should be making things. The children should be writing computer programs. They should be learning by doing. The thing is not to learn excel or such programs, it is to learn to learn.” Negroponte sees technology as a way of making this happen, and in this he is supported by James Gee, who argues that more use should be made of video games in schools, both as a learning tool and as a template for teaching strategies.
These ideas are also endorsed by Daniel Pink, whose book, “A Whole New Mind” (2005) argues from a historical perspective that right-brain thinking – creative, big-picture and intuitive – will dominate society in the near future. According to Pink, the Information Age has been supplanted by a Conceptual Age in which innovation and design are crucial thinking skills. Instead of testing a student’s memory and an ability to analyse, schools should be testing for original thinking and for problem solving competencies.
This is easier said than done. There is still a reluctance to break new ground in education, and most schools would prefer to slap on a new coat of paint than tear down the walls. A few schools, particularly in Britain, are trying new methodologies which include revised learning spaces, radically shortened lessons, and innovative subject choices, and although they have their critics the early results are promising. Other schools, however, are turning blindly towards technology in the belief that a few extra laptops might make a difference, and although the term ‘thinking curriculum’ is being freely and glowingly discussed, there is no consensus on what this might mean. What all these schools do have in common, though, is a mutual recognition that education, as it stands, is not meeting the needs of its young customers.
At its basest level, the purpose of education today is pretty much what it has always been: to produce contented and useful members of society. The challenge that schools face is to work out exactly what that means in a modern context, and how they might realistically achieve it.
Perhaps courses in semiotics and philosophy – subjects rarely taught – might help students to decipher their mass media world and help them to achieve the moral education that Martin Luther King speaks of. Perhaps building and artistic materials, from Lego and crayons to handsaws and ripped cloth, might replace all textbooks for a while so that students can create and invent, and learn through doing. Or perhaps, as James Gee suggests, classroom lessons might be modelled on – and even use – video games like ‘Sim City’ and ‘Oblivion’ to become the kind of exciting and engaging learning experience that students currently get from their interactive entertainments.
Modern education is awash with ideas such as these. Right now, however, a lack of clear focus and a dilution of the curriculum threaten to undermine the potential for education to make a profound difference in the lives of tomorrow’s leaders, workers and parents. Perhaps, in the end, the true purpose of education should be to help these people discover their own purpose, whatever that might be, and to give them the skills and the initiative necessary to place it within their reach. To do that, all parties involved in education will need to recognize that independent learning and adaptability are more important skills than those that are currently necessary for graduation.