OVERCOMING INERTIA IN EDUCATION

OVERCOMING INERTIA AND REFRAMING EDUCATION TO FOCUS ON THE FUTURE

Jon Torfi Jonasson , University of Iceland

[Based on a presentation at the CoRk Symposium, Silesia Botanical Garden, July 2012]

Our systems of education should attend to three issues that they are not used to contemplate but are all very important.

One is the future, i.e. what we know about it despite enormous uncertainties. But in a strange way we know more about some of the long terms trends than the short term fluctuations. But this is a neglected topic of educational deliberations.

The second issue are the impediments to change or development of education. The benign but enormously strong inertial forces that control education threaten to make it in many ways gradually obsolete.

The third issue are the aims of education itself. With the enormous expansion of education, both at the initial level (including tertiary education) and LLL, and also with substantial changes in our societies, its basic aims need to be thoroughly reconsidered. Too many people have little clue what education is intended to do.

Why should a serious attempt be made to totally renovate the curriculum?

Here we try, by way of enumerating a variety of arguments, to underpin the claim that education should contemplate the future far more proactively and aggressively and deliberately than it is accustomed to; it should change gears in this respect.

  1. The laws on education in many countries call for this. This is definitely the case in Iceland. They claim that education should prepare for the future. It is also the task for education as seen by the EU.
  2. The discourse in many countries in the past few years indicates that our education systems are not doing nearly enough in the ethical arena. In Iceland our failure to do so is generally accepted (we educated those somewhat irresponsible young bankers!).
  3. The changes in Icelandic economy calls for a discussion of the role of the education system, not only to respond to the employment market but to have a proactive influence. Education could play an active role rather than the thoroughly passive one it is accustomed to.
  4. Global changes in the labour market, both cultural and technical within the jobs themselves, but also mobility issues. Jobs change fast, people move fast within a particular labour market; the situation in many sectors is already very different from what was the case only 10 years ago.
  5. The overuse of the world’s resources and the general claim for a self sustainable local and global economy and culture. See e.g.  UNESCO’s Teaching and Learning for a Sustainable Future.
  6. The fast development of scientific and technological knowledge calls for a thorough revision of curriculum in a number of fields but probably even for totally new subjects for study. This should be taken into account. The doubling time in many fields of science is down to 5-15 years, this is very fast. This should be taken into account. But very few people who control education have any inkling about this.
  7. Global or grand challenges are now considered to call for a total rethink of the funding of research; similarly it calls for a re-evaluation of the educational system for the same purposes.

See e.g. 2009– Lund declaration ; climate change, food and energy security and the ageing society; also the title “New worlds – new solutions”. See also 2008, Challenging Europe’s Research: Rationales for the European Research Area (ERA).

  1. Technological development allows for dramatic changes in a whole spectrum of tasks. In the computer field the doubling time is around 2-3 years. All kinds of tools for designing, writing, calculating etc. will be used. Many tasks of today are already obsolete.  Assume our kids will use these tools. Technological development allows for dramatic changes in a whole spectrum of tasks.

In the computer field the doubling time can be around 1-3 years. All kinds of tools for designing, communicating, writing, calculating etc. etc. will be used. Many tasks of today are already obsolete.  Assume our students will use these tools; all of them and much more.

General-purpose computing capacity grew at an annual rate of 58%. The world’s capacity for bidirectional telecommunication grew at 28% per year, closely followed by the increase in globally stored information (23%). Martin Hilbert1* and Priscila López  2011 Science April 1 http://www.sciencemag.org/content/332/6025/60.full.pdf

  1. Communication technology similarly calls for important changes – Whether it is the environment afforded by Web 2.0 or Web 3.0 (semantic web) , 4.0 (symbiotic web) we should anticipate important changes. The recent development of GSM, tablets etc. underlines that  much of the technology the children use today will soon become obsolete, in fact before they leave school; but some of our schools still operate as if not even these  instruments are there as normal tools of their lives.
  2. The demand for new skills for our new economy. The call for new skills has not had much success despite the new key factors introduced by the ministry in its national curriculum guide. This is a discussion that has got furthest but perhaps has made least headway.  Now there are easily 20, 25 years since this claim started to emerge (forgetting Dewey in the 1910s). The call was for new skills., but the matter has not had much success until with the new key factors introduced by the European Union LLL programme.
  3. Substantial research on education, teaching and schooling, thousands of research papers are published on every aspect of educational practice producing many suggestions for change, but it is very unclear what impact they have on education; interaction between the research and practice is weak and research often appears only to inspire research.

Educational Inertia in the face of exponential crises?

Educational systems evolve notoriously slowly; their history manifests this very clearly; this applies to their form, operation and content.  The concerns, criticisms and visions of those concerned with education at the beginning of the 20th century were more or less the same as of those expressing themselves at the beginning of the 21st. We are still grinding the same stone. Traditions and traditional values keep education excessively in the throes of old time. The traditions are strong and so are the forces of inertia which stem from many sources. They relate to old values, old content and old ways of doing things. Of course some old values should be cherished, but which, and definitely not all.

Reasons for inertia

  1. A conservative discourse and ideas of many outside the educational system who naturally control the course of its development. I am here referring to the views of many parents and politicians; somewhat conservative impetus from industry that the education system serve the economy (yes, but how is that best done ?); teacher education and practice, its content and organisation – related inter alia to the time since a lot of the teaching force graduated; conservative ideas proposed by the university as a European institution about the education of young people and generally outdated notions about content and how new techniques, new content and new cultures could permeate education. As an agent in this would be some well established standardised tests, which volunteer to gracefully take the central stage, marginalising other contenders.
  2. The new ideas that are to replace the old, are often woolly or cloudy, not well moulded and sometimes even vacuous. Some might even not be very good! e.g. in the last century – discovery or project learning, ideas fostering creativity, arts or moral values; this also applies to some of the 21st century skills programmes which have been proposed repeatedly for the last 20-30 years or the EC eight key competencies. I think many of these ideas should be introduced into the system but then they must be understood and also their implementation.
  3. The stronghold of vested interests. Replacing old with new may seriously threaten a variety of vested interests and ideals of those who are already there. It is especially important for those who want to argue for replacing new with old that one may seriously threaten a variety of vested interests and ideals of those who are already there. This may operate at several levels and perhaps present the most formidable obstacles of all I mention here.

Here we may also introduce a variety of intra-institutional tensions that may stifle change.

  1. People who did so well in the traditional environment still think the ideas they adopted or fought for or introduced stand the test of time.
  2. Nothing dramatic happens if we don’t exchange new ideas for old ones. In fact nothing happens. If young people are not given the opportunities to do a variety of interesting things, that new ideas, new technologies or new cultures might afford them; they will survive nevertheless.
  3. Standards are conservative. The metrics or indices that are used to indicate standards may in many cases be resistant to change. These are implicitly very conservative, and the higher the stakes the more so. They are probably normally proposed and defended by those who have a relatively secure position to defend. This is not meant to criticize their genuine ambition to retain high standard.  Standards are also conservative. This is not an argument against standards, but it is imperative to understand their implicit inertial character.
  4. Lack of overview and lack of foresight and lack of overarching responsibility. Very few people in the field of education have the overview or wide perspective over all the different but pressing reasons for change. Very few have the responsibility or opportunity to follow the many quite substantial changes in the social and ethical and technological and cultural environment and speculate about the possible educational implications. The perspective we, in the educational arena, have is often very narrow, far too narrow.  Fragmentation is one of the problems of education in general.

 Injecting perspectives on the Future into Education

  1. The future; we must think about the future with same enthusiasm as we think about the past, and are doing partly about the present. But the future has been conspicuously absent from current educational thinking. This must be corrected and very professionally. When doing this we must retain a wide angle of vision. There is no doubt in my mind that sustainability is certainly the greatest challenge we face. But there are other issues that must also be high on the agenda and some intersect with the sustainability discussion, such as the ethical issues, but other less, such as the new cultures afforded by technology and the issues of creativity.
  2. As for the straightjacket of inertia in educational systems and schools. I suggest that pessimistic angle has two rather different sides to it and I have only talked about one.
  1. “We are too late angle” or “we are moving too slowly” is one, and I have not included this, even though it might be adopted. I think the main issue is to understand why we are moving slowly.
  2. The restraining forces that I am sensing more and as being strong impediments to normal and healthy progression. Some people ask me why we suddenly have to move now, what has suddenly changed? I sense an incredible lack of urgency or initiative or creative ideas e But my answer is quite simply that there is nothing new, we should have moved ahead a long time ago and my own sense of urgency is simply rooted in my perception of our sluggish reactions. (I am just thinking about a metaphor, where somebody had predicted that the sea level would rise gradually, but we only accepted this by the time we were standing ankle deep in water). I urge a proactive reaction rather than a reactive one, but we are being pushed towards the latter at some speed.
    • So how should education be remoulded in this context? I think people have been too preoccupied with the traditional reformist thoughts of infusing new methods or technique into schools. I certainly support this as long as we would understand that we need to reform the culture of education, not simply our operational modes. But I think it is no less important to rethink the curriculum and remove it from the old scaffold demanded by the sciences. We should also introduce the exiting and optimistic stance: we want to to understand what are is our future potential and challenges so we can benefit from them and address these. I think there are at least three potential scaffolds (there might be more):
  3. The traditional scaffold, “The basics”, plus the sciences, with the fundamentals of mathematics and natural sciences as the ground pillars.
  4. But we could also have “The grand challenges” framed as the basis for education. Here we would come to some agreement about these, such as sustainability, cultural differences, climate changes, technological developments … (If you claim that all of the grand challenges could be subsumed under sustainability, all I could say is “well, perhaps, but … “.
  5. “Sustainability”. I think this overarching issue could well serve, for say three decades as the basis for education, with, from my part, also the issues of technology. It would be a worthwhile exercise to take all the traditional stuff out and put sustainability instead (of course some of the old stuff would be retained in the process).

Thus education should reframed by considering the future but dealing with the reasons for inertia in the education system. Emphasis should be on:

  1. reconsidering the role of education,
  2. the culture of education.
  3. the content of education,
  4. the connection between LLL and basic education (where the latter becomes obsolete quite quickly)

A new and quite prominent topic (subject) in the new curriculum is “the future”. I think there is no doubt that this deserves to become a special topic for discussion and is not only connected to the sustainability issues, even though these would be parts of it. I have even entertained the idea that the three main pillars of the “new” curriculum could be, the past, the present and the future:

  1. The past, respecting our roots, a great variety of classical values, continuity
  2. The present, ensuring our capacity to live in harmony with our present, with all it skill demands, and social and technological turmoil.
  3. The future, gauging the future, understanding what will evolve, understanding development, growth, etc.
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