The end of education- as we know it?

Education in the 21st century is a multi-billion dollar business. It wasn’t always that way. Ancient cultures provided an education based on the foundations of literacy (writing, reading & numeracy) underpinning further studies in languages, culture, religions, philosophies, the sciences and the mathematics of their era. The Islamic world in particular contributed significantly to developments in mathematics and the sciences, yet this was seldom widely acknowledged in the western intellectual traditions from the late Middle Ages through to the mid-20th century. This has changed today with a growing understanding of the interconnectedness of all intellectual traditions and the contributions made to the growth of modern civilizations. The Middle East, the Indian sub-continent (inclusive of the modern state of Pakistan), China, Europe, Greece, Rome and the cultures of the Americas, Melanesia and Polynesia all made significant contributions from a cultural, religious, sociological and anthropological perspective to modern civilizations. Humanity has grown and developed through the combined wisdom of the ages.

Education as a basic human right grew out of the charter of the United Nations, and as recently as 2011 this was reaffirmed in UN resolution 66/137 on human rights, education and training. Three key components of the resolution are worth mentioning here:
1. Reaffirming further that everyone has the right to education, and that education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society and promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups, and further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace, security and the promotion of development and human rights,

2. Reaffirming that States are duty-bound, as stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and in other human rights instruments, to ensure that education is aimed at strengthening respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms,

3. Acknowledging the fundamental importance of human rights education and training in contributing to the promotion, protection and effective realization of all human rights (United Nations)

These are noteworthy and important because the concept of a 21st century education seems to have been navigated away from such essential ideals upon which the human condition relies for its betterment. The renowned Pakistani writer and columnist, Dr. Shahnaz Khan makes a compelling case on this point when she writes:
“Education is…a fundamental human right, however under capitalism education has been converted into a commodity-just like many other necessities of life-to be bought and sold with the sole purpose of generating profit. This has led to drastic changes in how society perceives the role of knowledge in human life and how it is
imparted and acquired” (Khan)

Today the cornerstones of a 21st century education are defined and understood within the confines of a pre-determined political-economic dialectic. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills makes this very clear:
The partnership for 21st century skills has emerged as the leading advocacy
organization focused on infusing 21st century skills into education. The
organization brings together the business community, education leaders
and policy makers to define a powerful vision for 21st century education
to ensure every child’s success as citizens and workers in the 21st century
…to triumph in the global skills race that is central to economic
competitiveness for the next decade. (21st Century Skills: Education & Competitiveness)

Williamson and Payton’s argument in their handbook on innovative curriculum is not dissimilar to The Partnership for 21st Century Skills claim that a 21st century education is simply about preparing children for work and subsuming even those as young as 3-4 years old into an advanced capitalist work principle:
“It is our aim to supply a critical but practical overview of the drivers
and factors influencing curricula innovations. We look at the most
recent policy shifts, and identify how these situate the work of schools
in larger debates about equipping…people for changing economic
circumstances and conditions. The development of ‘world class skills’
twinned with the contemporary focus on ICT and on heightening
employability for a competitive economy, are all parts of the modern
educational policy discourse…” (Williamson and Payton)

Translated into the ground reality of schooling in the 21st century this means educational outcomes are predetermined before a child gets through their primary and secondary schooling. Their career pathways have been decided and the myriad possibilities of a child’s innate potential; including their ability to expresses themselves creatively and to be innovative have been predetermined. It is education as an end in itself, rather than a means to a greater end. In essence this is called the ‘global knowledge economy’ and its aims run counter to the real purpose of education:
“to gain knowledge, to enrich human life, enhance the intellectual capabilities of people, promote curiosity, and enlighten and broaden minds in order to propel human society towards achieving the goal of creating a just, fair, and equitable world free of prejudices, conflicts, want, hunger, deprivation, oppression and exploitation”. (Khan)

Today isn’t the end of education as we know it-that was yesterday. But, our schools of tomorrow can redress the balance and work towards creating a more just, fair and equitable world for future generations to come.

Khan, S. International: The News. 29 April 2015. 23 11 2015.
Partnership For 21st Century Skills. 21st Century Skills: Education & Competitveness. Washington: Partnership For 21st Century Skills, 2008. Print.
United Nations. United Nations Human Rights: Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights. 23 March 2011. 23 November 2015.
Williamson, B and S Payton. Curriculum and Teaching Innovation: Transforming classroom practice and personalisation. Handbook. London: Futrelab, 2009. Print.

Technology: How much is too much?

One of the more comic technology items introduced in 2013 was the iPotty. A simple device was attached to a toilet training potty for very young children. They could play with apps and Google away while waiting for nature’s call. Now in itself it may seem harmless, yet the problem is that this key developmental stage in an infant’s life has a lasting impact on their personality. Harsh punishment during toilet training create a submissive personality. The theory being if we can control little children biologically, they’ll be equally submissive adults and seek out authority figures to tell them how to live their life. There’s some evidence for this view. In the former East Germany toddlers in State run crèches were all sat upon a toilet training bench and required to toilet on cue. Later they became submissive citizens of an authoritarian state. The theory goes that an iPotty creates co-dependence on technology. As the child grows and develops, every time it answers the call of nature, it would need access to an iPad. One doesn’t want to over analyze here, but there are obvious developmental issues as the child grows into adolescence and adulthood. In fact I’ve often wondered why so many people enter public conveniences with an iPad or digital device in hand.
There’s no doubt that the iPad and its multiple applications, along with other mobile devices have brought additional resources into the daily lives of everyone. Yet most of us are conflicted. On the one hand we argue for creating more civilized societies, becoming interconnected and building a better world; while on the other hand we embraces technologies some of which have the most devastating and alienating effects on families and communities and undermine the very concept of nurture and a duty of care towards one another.
For example, there’s evidence to suggest people behave more rudely and aggressively online. Psychologists call this the dis-inhibition effect- a name for bad-mannered, anti-social behavior. It is suggested that people feel less inhibited when not seen and can express themselves more freely and without feeling vulnerable to criticism. But the result of this kind of reasoning put into practice can have devastating and tragic consequences. One of the cruelest examples of online anonymity and the dis-inhibition effect is the tragic and untimely death of 13 year old Megan Meier. Megan began receiving nasty messages from a boy a few weeks after she met him, via her MySpace account. After many messages of kindness and support she received one telling her the ‘world would be a better place without you’. Megan believed she had been rejected by the boy and committed suicide in her home. However, the boy never existed. He was a virtual character created by Lori Drew, a 47 year old married woman and a mother herself, who lived four houses down the street. Whereas parents were once the bridge between home life and the social interaction of their children, today technology is taking on that role. The once strong, stable pillars of family and community are being replaced by bridges of aluminum and fiberglass courtesy of Apple Inc., Samsung and Microsoft
For the most part I can fully appreciate and understand the gains to humanity through the development of technologies which assist and aid us in understanding and improving the human condition. Yet, on occasion events occur which cause me to pause and reflect on where we are heading. Such a moment occurred after reading a BBC news report about a company which markets neuroscience educational kits for children. It developed a very small electronic device which is glued to the back of a cockroach. This can be controlled through a downloadable app on a mobile phone. The child is able to control the movement of the creature. The company argues that allowing children to dissect another creature, place electronic devices into it and control its movements is giving them a 5-10 year head start on those in graduate schools studying neuroscience. They further claim they are aware of the shortcomings of the kinds of experiments their peculiar equipment enables kids to perform on other creatures, but suggest they are justified due to the inaccessibility of neuroscience in our current primary, middle and secondary school curricula. It is by all accounts a misleading and false argument.
Those of my generation learned a lot in primary school about neuroscience without being asked to cut-up another creature. I recall wonderful teachers who would take us for walks and lets us smell the earth, flowers, sea, and explain why we had such a painful reaction to accidentally standing on a broken shell, or nail or piece of glass-it was all quite wonderful, intriguing and followed up with diagrams and drawings of humans and other creatures showing how the brain and central nervous system functions. It was an interactive, highly sociable communicative process which instilled in us a lifelong love of science and a mutual respect for all living creatures-even those we didn’t like-the cockroach, spider and ants to name a few. We learned their role in the wonderful complex Eco-system called life, along with the importance of a human being’s necessary moral relationship with other creatures.
To argue that allowing children to capture and mutilate then insert electrodes into the head and body of another creature will ‘create the next generation of neural engineers, scientists and physicians’ is fabricated nonsense. Humans and other creatures have an equal interest in maintaining an Eco-system – even in the digital age-which ensures the survival of all species. Humans and other creatures matter a lot. It is this key relationship between ourselves and other living things we need to understand in the digital age. So, how much is too much technology? Today we’ve gone beyond an answer to such a question. A more meaningful question is whose brave new world do we want to live in, our own or one belonging to someone else?