Educating for a future we can't imagine

How and why we educate students today has a direct and fundamental bearing on the world they will create for the future. So let’s consider something: are we doing it right?

AUT University Professor of Education Jane Gilbert fears that if we don’t change the way we are teaching our young people, they will be staggeringly ill-prepared for the future. Having worked as a teacher, university lecturer and researcher for 35 years, she’s spent the last decade digging deeply into the future of education, and she urges us all to get thinking – to re-evaluate the principles on which we build our educational frameworks, and to consider what education and knowledge actually mean in a rapidly changing world.

“Today’s teachers are told to focus on quantifiable outcomes, rather than looking at the much bigger picture,” says Gilbert. “They’re thinking about how they can help kids get their NCEA levels to get into the university course of their choice and secure a good job. But many of today’s jobs won’t exist in the future because intelligent machines will do that work instead. We’re feeding students this dream: work hard and get your qualifications, go to university and get a nice middle-class job. But it’s just not true; they won’t be able to.”

Gilbert points to the Ministry of Education’s target for 2017: 85 percent of 17-year-olds will have NCEA Level 2 or above. But the focus, she believes, must shift from churning out students with qualifications to fostering innovation and the creation of novel ideas.

“It sounds good that more kids are getting more qualifications, but what they’re actually learning and what that’s preparing them for is incredibly dubious.

“We have to have people thinking about a future that’s more than two years away, and imagining what people will need to deal with that. We all fund New Zealand’s public education system, and it should be the prime space in which we try to create the kind of society we want in five, 10 or 20 years’ time.”

Equipping kids with iPads in the classroom is nice, but Gilbert advocates a fundamental shift. She urges us to think beyond surface features such as technology in schools and to consider how our learning environments are structured to create inquiring minds. Without these skills, future generations can never hope to solve significant issues such as climate change, social inequality and the impact of globalisation.

         

“Future-focused education has become the flavour of the month with concepts like twentyfirst century learners and digital natives, but actually, a lot of what’s being said isn’t at all future focused.

"We’re still working within the same twentieth-century framework. The thinking hasn’t changed. "It’s just couching what we’ve already done in much fancier production values. It looks cooler and more digitised, but the underlying educational objectives have not changed.

Gilbert goes as far as to say that what we’re currently doing now in the education sector – trying to do things better and smarter with higher production values – is not only misguided, it’s morally wrong. Instead, she believes we need to focus not on how children are learning, but on what for?

“With the digital revolution, computers are far more powerful and ubiquitous, and this will change the nature of work. Having an education system where we talk about what job you’ll have in the future is completely futile. We need to think about education for non-work because not everyone will have a job. So how do we tailor education for a world that we can’t even conceive?

“We have to repackage the traditional goal of the education system, which is to build the intellectual capacity to think in ever more complex ways. It’s what Plato argued. It’s all about developing the individual and their thinking capacity. Our education system is meant to serve the collective good and create the kind of society we want to live in.” Gilbert advocates a complete change in how we teach our youth. Creating a better future for our planet involves opening up our thinking in the present instead of closing it down by simply following pre-existing pathways and rules. “In simple terms, if you want to produce innovators – as we claim we want to – everything you would do is the opposite of what we are currently doing in the education system.”

The AUT postgraduate course Professor Gilbert runs is designed to get teachers to consider the conceptual, intellectual aspects of educating future generations. Her current research investigates outcomes from this course.

“It involves work on adult cognitive development – getting them to shift their meaning-making system, the way they think about the world. Instead of thinking about their children’s intellectual development, they think about their own.

“The goal is to research the features necessary for teachers to shift up a notch. Teachers can’t provide programmes or experiences for children if they haven’t experienced it themselves. Without having made that intellectual shift themselves, there’s no way they can imagine a programme like that for children. Those who volunteer for this adult development workshop are interviewed regularly to ascertain how their thinking has changed.”