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curriculum change in a print-based culture, and the rate of change in technology" is effective only in establishing an outdated utilitarian relationship with technology.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.