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David Didau – “Outsourcing Education To The Internet Is Misguided At Best, Dangerous At Worst”

  • David Didau – “Outsourcing Education To The Internet Is Misguided At Best, Dangerous At Worst”

We might be living in the information age, but the ability to acquire and use knowledge remains as important as ever, says David Didau…

Technology has been transforming education for as long as either have been in existence. Language, arguably the most crucial technological advancement in human history, moved education from mere mimicry and emulation into the realms of cultural transmission; as we became able to express abstractions, so we could teach our offspring about the interior world of thought beyond the concrete reality we experienced directly.

This process accelerated and intensified with the invention of writing, which Socrates railed against, believing it would eat away at the marrow of society and kill off young people’s ability to memorise facts.

He was right. The transformative power of writing utterly reshaped the way we think and how we use knowledge. From the point at which we were able to record our thoughts in writing, we no longer had to remember everything we needed to know.

But education was very much a minority sport until the advent of the printing press, when suddenly books started to become affordable for the masses. Before Gutenberg, there was no need for any but a privileged elite to be literate – but as the number of printed works exploded exponentially, the pressure on societies to prioritise universal education slowly grew until, by the mid 20th century, education became not only a requirement but a right.

Knowledge is strength

The rate at which we now produce knowledge is staggering. The architect and inventor, Buckminster Fuller identified what he called the ‘Knowledge Doubling Curve’. He observed that up until 1900, human knowledge had previously doubled approximately every century. By the mid 20th century, however, knowledge was doubling every 25 years. Today, on average human knowledge doubles in just over a year. Some estimates suggest that soon, what we collectively know is set to double every 12 hours.

It’s no wonder that many now argue there’s no longer the need to learn facts, since we can always just look up whatever we need to know on the internet. This erroneous belief has certainly had a transformative, if largely nugatory effect on education in the last decade or so. I say ‘nugatory’, because knowledge is only knowledge if it lives and breathes inside of us.

There’s a world of difference between knowledge – the stuff we don’t just think about, but with – and information. We need knowledge to make sense of the vast swathes of information available to us.

If you doubt this, consider what happens when you ask a student to look up an unfamiliar word in a dictionary. They may well need to look up a further five or six words in order to understand the definition of the first. Some things we just need to know.

Yet in response to this apparent obsolescence of knowledge, schools have started reinventing themselves as places where children learn transferable skills, which in theory allow them to navigate the shifting, uncertain world of the future. Maybe the traditional curriculum of school subjects has had its day, as tech guru Sugata Mitra claims.

Maybe all we have to do is teach kids how to use Google, and they will magically teach themselves all they need to know? After all, most of what schools teach is a waste of time. According to Mitra, the Chinese and Americans “Don’t bother about grammar at all”. Children don’t need to know how to spell, and the less arithmetic they need to do in their heads, the better, no?

Same difference

Not on my Apple watch! Knowing where to find something is not the same as knowing it. What we know makes us who we are. You can’t think about something you don’t know – go on, try it for a moment.

The more you know about a subject, the more sophisticated your thoughts become. In order to critique the world, we need to know as much as possible about its science, history, geography, languages, mathematics and culture.

There is nothing more philistine, more impoverished than reducing the curriculum to the little that’s visible through the narrow lens of children’s current interests and passing fancies. How do they know what they might need to know? And in any case, do we really want to educate the next generation merely in what they will need? Attempts to outsource education to the internet are misguided at best, dangerous at worst.

The one thing we can be reasonably sure of is that technology will surprise us. Those Tomorrow’s World visions of flying cars and silver suits can be smilingly dismissed as caricature, but we are routinely suckered by the same urge to predict. I have no idea how nanotechnology, virtual reality and 3D printing might affect the business of educating children and neither does anyone else, no matter what they might tell you.

I do, however, feel pretty sure that the current generation of edtech products won’t transform teaching any more than the last generation did. iPads are to laptops what interactive white boards are to blackboards; what data projectors are to OHPs; what photocopiers are to Banda printers; what paper was to the slate.

The future is definitely coming, but so far the present is just a quicker, more convenient version of the past. The future will certainly be different, but much of it will also be startlingly familiar.

David Didau blogs at learningspy.co.uk and is the author of several books, including What If Everything you Know About Education Is Wrong?; you can follow him at @LearningSpy

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