For literally thousands of years people have ruminated on the purpose of education. While there has been, and remains, much debate, it seems to me that the core concept that comes from all of that thinking is that the purpose of childhood education is to prepare children for adult life. Put another way, it is to have the grown-up child take up their role as a functioning member of our society. Exactly what skills are needed to be a fully functioning member of society will vary from place to place and time to time, but the core purpose of education remains unchanged.
There is however are more brutalist view of education – that it is there to give people the skills they need to participate in the workforce. We can see that view in the focus in Australia, and other nations, on university entrance scores above a well-rounded education. I recently met a wonderful, articulate year 12 student who was discussing why she did not choose any STEM subjects. It was not because of peer pressure, she enjoys the subjects and is good at them, her parents support her – no, the reason she rejected them was ‘opportunity cost’ she would get a higher university entrance mark if she steered away from STEM subjects. We are creating cohorts of students focused on a mark beyond an education.
But that focus on marks also forgoes any real focus on not just the technical but the surrounding skills required to function in a modern society, let alone in a modern workforce. As a simple example, employers want people who can work in teams, but our final exams are entirely based on individual, dog-eat-dog results. So we don’t teach teamwork. This was driven home to me when further contemplating Sydney Grammar’s move to ban computers in classrooms because, amongst other reasons, they are disruptive and cause inattention. You see it’s not just about academic results.
People today use computers all the time, that is the reality of our modern society and there is absolutely no sign that will change. With that context, surely it is the responsibility of our educators to ensure that children finish schooling best able to take their positions in a society where computers are ubiquitous?
That means the people need to find a way to stay on task even when the computer is open in front of them. They need to be able to divide their attention in a meeting between what is being said and what they see on a screen. They need to know when and how to signal that they are in fact paying attention. They need to understand the etiquette around the use of the technology (leaving aside being able to use the technology itself). What’s the point of a great university entrance score if you find yourself unable to properly participate in the first business meeting you attend, or appear rude to those around you because you haven’t been taught how to use technology in a formal environment?
Our schools and families owe it to our children to teach them properly how to take their place in the reality of the society we live in. We do them a great disservice by trying to change that society by pretending it doesn’t exist. Sure, there are other modern skills we need to be teaching such as working collaboratively in team environments – and we should be teaching those – but the most material challenge that faces today’s adults and the next generation is how to deal with technology. Students will not learn how to deal with technology if they are denied the use of the technology on a daily basis. Sure the result might be a better HSC score, but it wont be a better educated person in the terms that matter in our society.
There was a time that one of the foundations of an educated adult being able to take their place in society, or a certain strata of society was being able to speak Latin. That’s simply not the case today (although it is notable that Sydney Grammar still requires students to learn Latin). I would argue that we will, if we do not already, be judging people by their capacity to deal with technology. It will be noted when your email address is ‘you and your husband’s name at bigpond.com’. When you miss an appointment because you scribbled it down rather than setting an alarm. When you are at a loss when asked to print something out. When you can’t effectively divide your attention between screen and meeting. These will be the social markers of a good education.
This is not just about schools of course. Educating a child is the responsibility of schools, parents and the rest of society. Schools and the workforce are nice simple examples to work with, but the issue applies just as clearly in the home: Children, for example, need to be able to juggle the lure of computer games and social media with their other commitments. That’s a skill we parents need to teach them; and we wont teach them through prohibition or turning off the router.
Now we may not all like a society where we’re so entangled with technology. In fact many have argued over the centuries that part of being a well-educated adult is the capacity to take part in the political process and change society. I would argue that our entanglement with technology is not going to change, but you should feel free to try to change the course we’re travelling on. But, and this is the big ‘but’, you wont change it by pretending it doesn’t exist. Hiding your head in the sand, not educating people in the reality of what they face, focusing solely on short-term goals such as a HSC mark, have never been a means of creating change.
In any case, for the moment the change in our society is all about greater entanglement with technology. Our role as adults, whether within the school system, as parents, is to educate and prepare our children to take a place in that society. We need to educate our children to use the technology, to control the technology, and how to work and live around the technology. And we wont do that if they’re not using it.