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What Kind Of Future?

One of my favourite columnists John Naughton recently wrote an exceptional piece on the inadequacy of our national curriculum, and more specifically the part of the curriculum called ICT ('Information and Communication Technology'), in equipping our children for the challenges of the future.

Whilst we're moving into a post-PC age, he writes, the ICT curriculum is firmly rooted in desktop computing running Microsoft Windows. Compartmentalising ICT as a separate, discrete part of the curriculum is as absurd as it would be to have 'books' as a seperate part. Instead of educating our children about the potential of open software, collaborative tools and cloud-based services, we are training them in how to use Word and Excel. This "chronic mismatch between the glacial pace of curriculum change in a print-based culture, and the rate of change in technology" is effective only in establishing an outdated utilitarian relationship with technology. Instead, we should be opening young minds to the creative possibilities of computing, and encouraging tinkering and experimentation.

John Naughton goes on to talk about the powerful impact in the 1980s of the BBC Micro, the small home computer launched as part of a campaign by the BBC to stimulate interest in the possibilties of computing in schools and homes.

Sadly, I never got to use the BBC Micros that my secondary school brought in (yes, I am that old) but my Father (I think in recognition of the potential of this new techology) bought me a Commodore Vic20 to use at home, much like this one.

 

The thing about computers like the Vic20 and the BBC Micro was that (apart from the very basic games you could load onto them using tapes and a connected cassette recorder) in order to get them to do anything, you had to write a programme. So, in short order, I'd learned how to make it do stuff and the screen of our telly in the living room became filled with different colours, scrolling words and patterns and shapes. It was basic stuff, but the point (and the point that John is also making) is that I had established a relationship with the technology where it was OK to get under the hood and start mucking about.

Unfortunately, perhaps in no small part due to the fact that tinkering with computers at home wasn't supported with more structured and purposeful tinkering with computers at school, this learning went no further. But it makes me wonder what might have been.

I then read this interview (which Ben linked to) with Cathy Davidson, author of a new book in which she argues that our education systems are poorly preparing our young for an interactive, globalised and contributory world. Davidson's book quotes one estimate that 65% of today's grade school children will end up working in careers that haven't been invented yet. Like her, I have sympathy for the in-the-trenches teacher who is constantly being asked to change without good reason, and often with poor support. But I also have much sympathy for the argument that our education systems are structured to produce workers for a punch-clock economy that will not exist when today's students enter the workforce.

This makes me wonder what kind of future we're creating. Davidson and Naughton talk about the need for our education systems to unlearn old working methods and habits that are unsuited for such a rapidly changing, technologically driven world. Such outdated practices undermine the authority of the education system by showing tech-savvy children how antediluvian it is. And I think the same is true of organisations that are failing to create working environments that are relevant to the needs and expectations of a generation of young talent who use technologies in a wholly different way to collaborate, customise, communicate, and create.

My real concern is that we're in danger of creating a lost generation whose experience and use of technology outside the school and the workplace is increasingly different to that within it. That environments which are designed to equip our young for the challenges of the present, and the future, feel increasingly irrelevant and disconnected from the reality of the way in which that generation behave every day. But in order to change, we first need to let go of what we think we know.   

10 responses to “What Kind Of Future?”

  1. @duh_sponge Avatar
    @duh_sponge

    BBC micros came in to secondary school at the same time as me, but in a school of 800+ kids we only had 5 computers and you basically had to do maths and physics (and excel at both) for the teachers to deem you worthy. I was not.
    I played at home on a ZX Spectrum, but I’m no mathematician, so, like yourself, my ‘play’ with computers and electronics never really got going.
    As I’ve become more interested in the Internets, the maker community, working for myself outside of my 9-5 and other ‘special projects’, my lack of hard IT skills, most notably code (front front-end to hardcore), has become something of a hindrance – making me reliant upon a couple of friends who have the tools and expertise at their disposal.
    (This is why I was grateful for your tweet re ‘teach yourself code’ the other day – thanks again).
    Now I’ve got children of my own. They are 7 and 5 yrs old. I also have nieces who are 11 and 12. I want them to be comfortable with both using and creating tech – as this is likely to be the shape of the future. My concern is that it may already be too late for my nieces.
    Whilst they are quick to adapt to new tech and UIs – give them an iphone4 and they are off and running in seconds – they have no hard IT skills and the education system hasn’t inspired them to try to obtain any.
    As a result, I have recently started to encourage their interest in maths, sciences, electronics, programming, etc., explaining that these are the tools they will need in the future, even if what they want to do isn’t directly in IT.
    I want my children to be more open to experimenting with technologies, more open to developing ideas and tools themselves, more comfortable with the idea of making things: so we’re starting with ‘instructables’ – things like ‘stomp’ rockets’, ‘cork rockets’ and other ‘do’ stuff that is fun and has an end result – where they can see what went in to making something and enjoy the outcome of our effort. I want to move them on to arduino and other ‘electronics’ fairly soon, certainly before they go to secondary school, so that the sense of inquisitiveness inherent in all kids is nurtured and they don’t ‘fear’ IT, electronics, making things and getting their hands dirty.
    Agile approaches, speed to failure and other concepts are really interesting – when you’re young you don’t fear anything, particularly failure – it just happens and you start again, or pick up the best bits of what you had and re-work them in to something new.
    This is what I want to encourage in my girls – so that they are equipped for the future, regardless of what they decide they want to do or be (at this rate the youngest is going to be in PR, as she is a magnificent blagger).
    So why isn’t the education system seeing this shifting requirement and adapting – perhaps because it is too difficult to stop and oil tanker and change direction – but that isn’t an excuse, is it?
    Once we’ve had a play with an arduino at home I think I’m going to put my hand in my pocket and buy a couple for the girls’ school. Budgets are tight and, as you point out, tech isn’t high on the list of priorities, especially at this early age – but they could develop something, anything, whatever they like and hopefully it might inspire all of the kids, open their minds and help them to be confident with tech. The component parts can then be broken back down and re-used to develop something else by a different class or year group.
    I firmly believe that children should start to learn these skills and experiment with these concepts at the earliest possible age (with supervision, obviously). In primary school the kids want to play – so let them make things to play with. By the time they are 12 the fear of failure put a much bigger cap on experimentalism – so catch them early and make agile processes, development, iterations, failure, etc part of the fun. Perhaps primary schools should look at agencies like Ideo as a template for parts of their curriculum, applying learning through play to tech skills that can be acquired and developed whilst they are too young to be scared of getting it wrong.
    I absolutely believe that the education children receive needs to change radically – and if the system won’t do it in time to help my kids then I guess I’ll just have to hot-wire the system for them.
    Great post – great read – sorry for the rambling rant it induced.

  2. @duh_sponge Avatar
    @duh_sponge

    BBC micros came in to secondary school at the same time as me, but in a school of 800+ kids we only had 5 computers and you basically had to do maths and physics (and excel at both) for the teachers to deem you worthy. I was not.
    I played at home on a ZX Spectrum, but I’m no mathematician, so, like yourself, my ‘play’ with computers and electronics never really got going.
    As I’ve become more interested in the Internets, the maker community, working for myself outside of my 9-5 and other ‘special projects’, my lack of hard IT skills, most notably code (front front-end to hardcore), has become something of a hindrance – making me reliant upon a couple of friends who have the tools and expertise at their disposal.
    (This is why I was grateful for your tweet re ‘teach yourself code’ the other day – thanks again).
    Now I’ve got children of my own. They are 7 and 5 yrs old. I also have nieces who are 11 and 12. I want them to be comfortable with both using and creating tech – as this is likely to be the shape of the future. My concern is that it may already be too late for my nieces.
    Whilst they are quick to adapt to new tech and UIs – give them an iphone4 and they are off and running in seconds – they have no hard IT skills and the education system hasn’t inspired them to try to obtain any.
    As a result, I have recently started to encourage their interest in maths, sciences, electronics, programming, etc., explaining that these are the tools they will need in the future, even if what they want to do isn’t directly in IT.
    I want my children to be more open to experimenting with technologies, more open to developing ideas and tools themselves, more comfortable with the idea of making things: so we’re starting with ‘instructables’ – things like ‘stomp’ rockets’, ‘cork rockets’ and other ‘do’ stuff that is fun and has an end result – where they can see what went in to making something and enjoy the outcome of our effort. I want to move them on to arduino and other ‘electronics’ fairly soon, certainly before they go to secondary school, so that the sense of inquisitiveness inherent in all kids is nurtured and they don’t ‘fear’ IT, electronics, making things and getting their hands dirty.
    Agile approaches, speed to failure and other concepts are really interesting – when you’re young you don’t fear anything, particularly failure – it just happens and you start again, or pick up the best bits of what you had and re-work them in to something new.
    This is what I want to encourage in my girls – so that they are equipped for the future, regardless of what they decide they want to do or be (at this rate the youngest is going to be in PR, as she is a magnificent blagger).
    So why isn’t the education system seeing this shifting requirement and adapting – perhaps because it is too difficult to stop and oil tanker and change direction – but that isn’t an excuse, is it?
    Once we’ve had a play with an arduino at home I think I’m going to put my hand in my pocket and buy a couple for the girls’ school. Budgets are tight and, as you point out, tech isn’t high on the list of priorities, especially at this early age – but they could develop something, anything, whatever they like and hopefully it might inspire all of the kids, open their minds and help them to be confident with tech. The component parts can then be broken back down and re-used to develop something else by a different class or year group.
    I firmly believe that children should start to learn these skills and experiment with these concepts at the earliest possible age (with supervision, obviously). In primary school the kids want to play – so let them make things to play with. By the time they are 12 the fear of failure put a much bigger cap on experimentalism – so catch them early and make agile processes, development, iterations, failure, etc part of the fun. Perhaps primary schools should look at agencies like Ideo as a template for parts of their curriculum, applying learning through play to tech skills that can be acquired and developed whilst they are too young to be scared of getting it wrong.
    I absolutely believe that the education children receive needs to change radically – and if the system won’t do it in time to help my kids then I guess I’ll just have to hot-wire the system for them.
    Great post – great read – sorry for the rambling rant it induced.

  3. neilperkin Avatar
    neilperkin

    @duh_sponge thanks for the thoughtful comment. I’m also the Father of two girls at primary school, so can definitely relate to what your saying

  4. neilperkin Avatar
    neilperkin

    @duh_sponge thanks for the thoughtful comment. I’m also the Father of two girls at primary school, so can definitely relate to what your saying

  5. Charles Frith Avatar
    Charles Frith

    An excellent post Neil. I’ll be candid. I think the sclerosis in education is deliberate. It’s the Occams razor explanation, and furthermore I can outline in considerable detail why it suits the elite controlling classes to have a dis-empowered and dumbed down school population. It’s harsh but it’s the most cogent and coherent argument. The rest is talking shop and hand wringing. Who is in the way? They are the problem.

  6. Charles Frith Avatar
    Charles Frith

    An excellent post Neil. I’ll be candid. I think the sclerosis in education is deliberate. It’s the Occams razor explanation, and furthermore I can outline in considerable detail why it suits the elite controlling classes to have a dis-empowered and dumbed down school population. It’s harsh but it’s the most cogent and coherent argument. The rest is talking shop and hand wringing. Who is in the way? They are the problem.

  7. Holycow Avatar
    Holycow

    Brilliant post Neil and timely. Agree entirely with the synopsis. Perhaps the onus should be on the private sector to get involved and up the ante.
    Interesting how the culture of failure prevents children after the age of 12 from really experimenting.
    I wish in many ways that we had the American system of promoting those subjects that children are really good at as individuals as opposed to making them average at those they are not.
    Also that we are creating skills for a workplace that won’t need them in future. I think Ken Robinson’s presentation is brilliant in highlighting some of these issues:


    But I really don’t know the answer. Hmmmm…
    Hope your well
    M

  8. Holycow Avatar
    Holycow

    Brilliant post Neil and timely. Agree entirely with the synopsis. Perhaps the onus should be on the private sector to get involved and up the ante.
    Interesting how the culture of failure prevents children after the age of 12 from really experimenting.
    I wish in many ways that we had the American system of promoting those subjects that children are really good at as individuals as opposed to making them average at those they are not.
    Also that we are creating skills for a workplace that won’t need them in future. I think Ken Robinson’s presentation is brilliant in highlighting some of these issues:


    But I really don’t know the answer. Hmmmm…
    Hope your well
    M

  9. web design Landon Avatar
    web design Landon

    I have recently started to encourage their interest in maths, sciences, electronics, programming, etc., explaining that these are the tools they will need in the future, even if what they want to do isn’t directly in IT… I can outline in considerable detail why it suits the elite controlling classes to have a dis-empowered and dumbed down school population

  10. web design Landon Avatar
    web design Landon

    I have recently started to encourage their interest in maths, sciences, electronics, programming, etc., explaining that these are the tools they will need in the future, even if what they want to do isn’t directly in IT… I can outline in considerable detail why it suits the elite controlling classes to have a dis-empowered and dumbed down school population

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