Murmurings from the tech world this year indicate that many are hoping that, in the not-so-distant future, education will be replaced with brain implants.
No more (say proponents of this kind of progress) will a student be subjected to the arcane approach to education that sees young folks forced to memorize and parrot things to pass tests. The idea is that any information will be directly available by simply thinking of a question. Imagine a world where you can think “What is the capital of Poland?” to yourself, and some voice or signal from your Google chip answers: “Warsaw.”
There’s lots of excitement around what is still science fiction; but it’s not all about brain implants. The idea that students of the future will experience a deeper integration of artificial intelligence into their learning experience — along with other technologies — is also a common discussion among futurists and education specialists.
Whatever technological integration with school systems is up for discussion, the benefits of “eliminating teachers,” “accelerating learning,” and, of course, the grand claim of “solving education” are the kinds of statements being thrown about that are meant to excite people about the future.
Ultimately, proponents of this kind of progress say they are working towards the “education solutions” of the future. Discussing the different solutions here would be interesting, but I find myself more interested in looking at the problem they are claiming to solve.
If technology is supposed to create efficiencies, streamline processes, and eliminate older and sloppier methods, then the “education solution” that aims to eliminate all those pesky things that get in the way of “learning” (teachers, schools, student interactions, and standard classroom contexts) in favor of more direct-to-brain facts and figures is a solution that clearly sees the problem with current methods of education as the following: It doesn’t enable access to information and the development of marketable skills as well as it should. “Woe,” says the hammer, “I see no nails.”
Assuming that learning a bunch of information is what “education” is all about, then these folks are in the right. If that were the case, I wouldn’t blame technologists and innovators for seeing a deeper integration of efficient technology in school systems of all levels as the solution to the problem they’re defining — it seems that a lot of people would agree that the purpose of education is ultimately “training” with information and skills to prepare folks for their preferred career path.
The politics of changing the education system in favor of more (or less) technological integration will inflict massive collateral damage: The squabble about how best to mainline training, skills, and lessons into students to set them up for their future puts us farther away from considerations on discussions to what the overall approach and outlook on an “education” should be.
Being an educated person should not be judged upon how many facts you know or how much information you carry with you. Having a chip in your brain that gives you instant access to information is comparable to buying as many encyclopedias and reference books as possible, reading them, memorizing them, and being able to spew out information when queried.
An educated person should be recognized as someone who approaches thinking in a certain way, not one who thinks certain things. Education should be understood as the training of the mind with certain powers and preparing an individual with the tools they need to think critically about subjects and form their own opinions. A system that approaches education from this perspective would be one that necessarily creates an environment of academic freedom and exploration where individuals build their own character and attempt to, dare I say, enlighten themselves. The end goal would be to produce critically thinking individuals, not merely workers — students would then be forging their own path and opinions, not simply following and adhering to ones they’ve selected. It’s akin to the difference between being involved in a political discussion rather than “choosing a side.”
If the goal of education is to produce more financial advisers, accountants, business operations managers, computer programmers, software engineers, etc. (i.e., the workforce of the future) then the technologists are right — we can be done with this whole schoolhouse approach to education, slap some computer chips in brains, and allow people to download answers and train themselves on certain skills as they please.
Yes, of course, “education” as it exists today doesn’t involve soldering chips onto brains, but it is still clear that most school systems in developed nations desire the effect that such a thing would ultimately have — the journey and process required in training a person to approach subjects critically and ideas skeptically is nowhere near as much emphasized as the importance of getting that piece of paper upon graduating from high school or post-secondary.
Many can’t understand how, as the government pumps billions into public education, people can get their pieces of paper, make (at least) high five-figure salaries in white collar jobs, and not believe in vaccinating their children. It would be easy — and lazy — to dismiss this as simply: “How society is today.”
People who consider themselves learned can throw a hissy fit about “the way people are now” and how “it’s all going to hell in a handbasket anyway,” but there is a major problem staring most taxpayers in the face that we can start to have a serious discussion about:
Most people spend at least two decades of their life in educational institutions — say from the age of 4 to 24 — either in a linear or revolving fashion (some would call it their “most formative” years), and that time sees students building sets of skills that enable them to pass examinations rather than building their character which would help them navigate life and assemble informed opinions.
The approach to education I personally experienced through elementary, high school, and post-secondary reflected as much — especially in high school, where the focus was certainly on facts, and where you could pass off an “argumentative essay” by simply providing elaborate explanations of certain facts and siding with one side of the other with no original thought. I can think of two teachers that broke this mold. Much to the rage of the “dedicated students and studiers,” these teachers would not accept the idea that a 100% accurate recitation of times, dates, places, events, facts, and concepts was sufficient to get an “A.” If you couldn’t show that you: thought for yourself; could seriously analyze something; and, after understanding both sides of debate or topic, successfully take, articulate, and defend your position after a challenge, then, to them, you weren’t being “educated” at all. Unfortunately, the two I have in mind were exceptions and definitely not the rule, and were still chained to a curriculum structured counter to their sentiments.
Yet this is what the current arrangement encourages. We cheer for the honor roll student that can ace tests, and we assign social weight to the amount of papers and stamps someone can collect through the course of their life. But we wonder how they achieved all that while being the type of credulous person that just put $1000 worth of “healing crystals” on their credit card. It’s almost as though a person trained to indiscriminately absorb information might also absorb some bizarre things — and someone believing in the power of crystals is thankfully on the more benign side of the scale of bizarre beliefs.
I have a friend who is currently a high school teacher, and he once told me in a depressed tone that “the system is not setting students up for failure necessarily, but it certainly isn’t setting them up for success.” (In the context of conversation here, he was talking about the whole of someone’s individuality, rather than their skills.)
If we hope to see a future that features new generations of people who are open to discussing and exploring important questions of life, politics, and philosophy in pursuit of improving them, then we need to set them up for success.
We need to seriously upend what we all view as an “educated person.” Clearly half a semester of civics, non-mandatory philosophy, but a boatload of courses that are sold to high school students as “the start of your career stream” isn’t cutting it. All the education technologies and futuristic solutions are addressing the wrong problem.
1Yes, of course there are exceptions to the rules here. You can find exceptions in the way of amazing liberal arts colleges, or private elementary and secondary schools that have a very liberal approach to education with more consideration of character and thinking over skills, but as anyone can tell, the majority of kids and young adults going through the system now, and the ones who will, won’t benefit from what can now be classified as a “classic” education.
Photo from GoodCall.