Emmanuel Davidenkoff, in a stimulating essay entitled The Digital Tsunami, recalls that teenagers in developed countries are now spending more time in front of their screens than in classrooms. Of course those 1500 hours are not devoted to following MOOCs from Stanford or Ecole Polytechnique. But the way they exchange, learn, access knowledge, as well as their rhythm or their capacity to focus, are no longer the same. This trend, impacting as it does a growing number of children over and above the developed countries, is now here to stay.
In the context as observed, we can only be struck by the collision course of two very different rhythms: on one hand, the slow pace of reformers, who for decades now have tried to change educational practices; and on the other hand the revolutionaries who wish to rapidly tip the table.
Education practices and doctrines started to change far before for digital technologies. In 1999, Unicef published its satisfaction in Revolution in Education, providing, as it did, better access to school and significant changes in pedagogy. In the span of just a few decades, the experiments and ideas of Maria Montessori and Jean Piaget, or those of radical innovators such as A. S. Neil and Ivan Illich, who in their time seemed so outspoken in the way they promoted children and their freedom in choice of learning methods, have been partly integrated and absorbed into modern pedagogy.
Since 1999, the widespread dissemination of PISA surveys has largely contributed to the ongoing evolution, throwing light on the performance indicators of more innovative educational cultures, such as, for example, the Finnish model.
But today, in 2015, another story is going on. The modernizing visions of reformers at Unicef and elsewhere now meet with consensus, while other, more radical visions have appeared. They are coined by a new generation of authors who have in common that they are not education but rather innovation specialists. They are accustomed to thinking outside the box; they have a very precise idea about emerging technologies and a very acute awareness of major changes ongoing in the world. One of the most listened to is Seth Godin, who published in 2012 a noteworthy essay on education, entitled Stop Stealing Dreams.
Our current education systems, he recalls, were developed in parallel with the industrial revolution. “Part of the rationale used to sell this major transformation to industrialists was the idea that educated kids would actually become more compliant and productive workers. Our current system of teaching kids to sit in straight rows and obey instructions isn’t a coincidence—it was an investment in our economic future. The plan: trade short-term child-labor wages for longer-term productivity by giving kids a head start in doing what they’re told. (…) Large-scale education was not developed to motivate kids or to create scholars. It was invented to churn out adults who worked well within the system. Scale was more important than quality, just as it was for most industrialists.”
A similar line of criticism was leveled, in Europe, at the propensity of German and French schools, towards the end of the 19th Century, to produce good soldiers rather than enlightened citizens. The insistence on obedience, discipline and punctuality were not simply pedagogical artifacts, they translated the social and economic challenges of then day, reflecting the need for discipline and for ways to organize the armed forces and the factories.
Seth Godin even singled out certain tools, such as the multiple choice tests invented in 1914 by Frederick J. Kelly, as being characteristic of a scientific organization of labor, with the same underlying ambition to simplify, decompose, rationalize, optimize and measure activities. If run-of-the-mill students could check the boxes correctly, they would become standardized workers, before succumbing to the pleasures of mass consumption.
However, in a global economy where a growing fraction of production work has become automated, the current school system becomes absurd. Says Godin: “If you do a job where someone tells you exactly what to do, he will find someone cheaper than you to do it. And yet our schools are churning out kids who are stuck looking for jobs where the boss tells them exactly what to do.”
Godin does not touch on the question of robots, but their introduction still further reinforces his point of view inasmuch as they have taken over a certain number of operative skills. There are more and more activities that robots can carry out faster, better and cheaper than humans, in particular areas that require a capacity to implement a logical chain of tasks.
Technologies in this light condemn the current structures, schools where the kids listen to the teachers and carry out their instructions. Not only educational technologies, nor even the smartphones that students cannot help consulting instead of listening to the teachers. But the whole disruption that is reshaping the economy and redefining human work.
Seth Godin’s aim is not so much to criticize today’s system but rather to imagine what education might mean tomorrow. One of his key thoughts here relates to connections: “The industrial revolution wasn’t about inventing manufacturing, it was about amplifying it to the point where it changed everything. And the connection revolution doesn’t invent connection, of course, but it amplifies it to become the dominant force in our economy. Connecting people to one another. Connecting seekers to data. Connecting businesses to each other. Connecting tribes of similarly minded individuals into larger, more effective organizations.”
The impact of this “connection revolution” is far-reaching. “In the connected world, reputation is worth more than test scores. Access to data means that data isn’t the valuable part; the processing is what matters. Most of all, the connected world rewards those with an uncontrollable itch to make and lead and matter. In the pre-connected world, information was scarce, and hoarding it was smart. Information needed to be processed in isolation, by individuals. After school, you were on your own. In the connected world, all of that scarcity is replaced by abundance—an abundance of information, networks, and interactions.”
The sheer abundance of accessible information has led to a new rapport to knowledge and radically redefines what the school institution should be: “The industrial structure of school demands that we teach things for certain. Testable things. Things beyond question. After all, if topics are open to challenge, who will challenge them? Our students? But students aren’t there to challenge—they are there to be indoctrinated, to accept and obey. Our new civic and scientific and professional life, though, is all about doubt. About questioning the status quo, questioning marketing or political claims, and most of all, questioning what’s next.”
Godin summarizes his position: “It’s about abandoning a top-down industrial approach to processing students and embracing a very human, very personal and very powerful series of tools to produce a new generation of leaders.”
Godin’s radical and critical thinking has its own limits and, as is suggested in his last sentence above, deals rather offhandedly with the several billion ordinary citizens who do not possess the inventor’s or the entrepreneur’s fiber. Nonetheless, the vigor of this thinking throws light on the ongoing dramatic changes. Godin and his peers invite us to rethink the entire issue: from the basic concepts, such as the students, the teachers, the classes, knowledge … to activities such as learning or assessing. As he says, “it used to be simple: the teacher was the cop, the lecturer, the source of answers, and the gatekeeper to resources. All rolled into one.” School belongs to history. The future is open.
Godin proposes to start working on some ten topics, adding detailed proposals for some, suggesting guideline principles for others, or simply proposing to set aside our taboos: homework during the day, lectures at night; open books, open notes, all the time; access to any course, anywhere in the world; precise, focused instruction instead of mass, generalized instruction; an end of multiple-choice exams; experience instead of test scores as a measure of achievement; the end of compliance as an outcome; cooperation instead of isolation; amplification of outlying students, teachers, and ideas; transformation of the role of the teacher; lifelong learning, earlier work; death of the nearly famous college. And so on.
Seth Godin’s reflections are set in a precise context, with yet another collision of two rhythms. On one hand, the education revolution is an unavoidable outcome of the digital transformation of our world. On the other, a certain number of technological evolutions are now beginning to take shape in this domain, offering more detailed prospects.
A series of articles – of which the present paper is the first – will analyze these changes. ParisTech Review has already covered some of the issues, such as the gamification of the learning process in serious-games, the rise of MOOCs , neurosciences and their discoveries on the way we learn, and also collaborative knowledge. A “base zero” project for-secondary-education, disconnected from any existing structures, has even been imagined. But there is still a lot of work to be done to offer more intelligibility to today’s intellectual agitation in respect to these issues.
It is all the more important to clarify matters that powerful interests are at stake and that traditional institutions appear to be overtaken. As Markus Witte, CEO of Babbel, a language learning Internet based platform, notes: “The learning revolution is taking place beyond the control of the public authorities. There are excellent reasons to hope that this trend of changes will lead on to real progress, but it is patent that our governments, the ministries and various committees are not yet ready to adopt new digital technologies. Just for a simple field experiment, we must take into account the time needed to implement it (often more than a year) – and this is not all a ‘revolutionary’ rhythm. It is clear that is that it will no longer be necessary to wait for these changes to be vetted and passed by national organizations, given that the learning revolution will take place without them, and the private individuals can make their own decisions.” Witte adds that real changes and upheavals are generally set in motion in a bottom-up manner. “If we look at the introduction of automobiles, of the Internet, of computer pads, it has always been individuals who latched on to the new technologies, and not the politicians, and who decided to adopt the changes.”
From a less naive standpoint, Davidenkoff observes that a large fraction of the ongoing changes are imported from California and do not rely on spontaneous adoption by private persons, but more on shaping up the offer in a rapidly expanding market segment. “From all over Silicon Valley, higher education institutions, corporations, public research centers have set education into their work schedules, on a par with other recently established priorities, such as nanotechnologies, the 300 $US genome map, biotechnologies, green energy … The eco-system that has converted billions of humans to smartphones and Internet over the span of just a couple of decades is now bringing to bear all its fire-power and capacity to innovate to reinventing education.”
Davidenkoff outlines three consequences: first, a global, economic change that leads to a drop in private school fees and also a radical change in terms of the school and university markets; second, a switch from public service users to school consumers, quite shocking in a European context; and third, the growing influence of collaborative organizations as opposed to traditional institutions.
No wonder if these institutions are disoriented. One of the aspects of the current revolution is that institutions are by-passed, both by the students and by the new actors who are moving in to this market. As Markus Witte sees it, “learning tools such as Babbel are directly adapted to the users, without any go-betweens: everyone decides if the product is satisfactory or not in regard to their objectives.”
The technology does not directly generate a new demand, explains Witte, but “it does create possibilities and multiple choices: virtual classrooms, Internet tutoring and video chat sessions, total sharing of knowledge contents among the web-surfers, translation services based on source comparisons and inter-active self-teaching services. Other training offers, ranging from software programming to exercising the brain, are constantly cropping up round the world, with private individuals making their personal choice to learn something new.”
And if students were to learn by themselves and make their own decisions, why not? But who teach them how to decide and how to make appropriate choices? Institutions still have a role to play. Schools, for the past two centuries, have been the priority focal points for learning, supplanting the traditional settings of family, village, and trade. Today this historical monopoly is fading and the very relevance of schools are questioned. But, though there is a utopian vision of self-teaching today, the question of organized learning is more relevant than ever. The schools we know probably already belong to the past, but some “teaching institutions” will continue to exist for a long time to come, because we need them.
What will these institutions look like? It’s high time we started thinking about this question and, indeed, it is one of the aims of this series of articles. Let us provisionally accept the conclusion of Stanislas Dehaene, a reputed neuroscientist who spent a lot of his research time analyzing possible contributions that his specialty could make to the widespread debate on learning processes: “A school must not only be able to provide a structured, enriched, demanding environment for the magnificent human machine, but must also be seen as hospitable, pleasant, generous and strategically tolerant enough to admit errors.”