Learning is natural. We begin to learn before we are born. The wonderment of childhood in largely because of the excitement that comes with learning. What happens to the excitement and what value do we put on learning?
In a world where we are facing problems of epic proportions (climate change, aging populations, dysfunctional democracy, uncertain energy supply, hungry mouths to feed) we need to harness the power of human creativity. I am, at heart, an optimist, (although the evidence around me would suggest I'm starry-eyed and need to wake up to reality) and I believe that we can learn how to deal with the monumental problems that face us today.
As an educator, I don't believe that the education world is anywhere close to harnessing the power of learning. Creativity, critical thinking and analysis, and creative applications of thinking define the milestones of human progress. We live in an age when more people receive an education than ever before, and we have reaped the massive benefits that have arisen because of the massification of education at all age levels. We live in an age where information, a vital component of learning, in ubiquitous. However, we have now found ourselves in a state of defending the status quo because it has become one of the largest and most powerful cultural institutions in the world. We are expending massive energy clinging to outdated and restrictive models of education. We didn't get where we are by refusing to change, we are here because, in the past, a few were willing to risk everything they were to change the world with new and outlandish ideas.
We need to do this again, and one of the most fundamental changes that is needed is the re-evaluation of learning.
Although there are arguments that education is already too expensive, I believe that in order to really harness the potential of the creative and learning mind, the value of learning has to be increased. I'm not talking about money (although that will be needed), I'm talking about the value we put on learning. We don't just need to increase learning's value, we have to really increase it.
In much of the developed world, classrooms of children, teenagers and (young) adults in formal learning environments are large and getting larger. As a result, much of our energies have been focused on making teaching more efficient, forcing conformity, and putting out a uniform product. How can we process huge numbers of minds uniformly and simultaneously when we are all unique.
If we look at our society today, while we strive for ever greater efficiencies in teaching, we find that fewer and fewer of our graduates find meaningful employment that uses the real creativity and talent that they really have. Much of what we have traditionally done as people is, due to the miracles of technology, being replaced by gadgets, mechanisms, and algorithms. Machines and technology are doing many of the jobs we have relied on, in the past, to provide meaningful employment to millions. We are on the cusp of seeing millions more displaced by ever evolving and brilliant technologies. We have found ourselves in a state of massive social and cultural upheaval, with our values anchored in a mercantilist past. A money trader is worth a million times more than a teacher. Even though money trading can (and has been - to a large extent) automated.
I would say that teaching can't and shouldn't be automated. Certainly, parts of education can be automated, but the real learning of complex ideas, complex information, and complex skills involved in thinking and creativity, that would really unleash the power and brilliance of individual minds must still be learned in a face to face, supportive environment with very low student/teacher ratios. Shaping and molding an individual mind to reach its full potential is a customized process that can't be achieved using the factory methods developed early on in the massification of education.
As a society, why don't we really value learning? With millions of people unemployed, why are we creating ever larger lecture theaters and classrooms to do nothing more than transmit information?
Would there need to be endless testing and measurement necessary if a teacher of six-year-olds had only five children to work with? If a middle-school teacher could really inspire a handful of young teenagers to love the beautiful simplicity of math (if that's what the teens found interesting)? How enjoyable would the teaching and learning experience be in higher education if a teacher (wouldn't be lecturers in this world) worked with a few eager students to help them learn to think and be creative as opposed to setting continuous memorization exercises for the hundreds or thousands?
If we were to revalue learning, we could provide meaningful and fulfilling careers for millions - think about how you feel inside when you see the bulb light up in one of your student's eyes. We could harness the power of human thinking and creativity instead of churning out ever greater numbers of graduates who have learned the two most important skills we focus on in today's world: memorization and conformity (the opposite of creativity). We are talented and brilliant people. We have been entrusted with molding the minds of the next generation. We have, in our hands, the opportunity to really make a difference today. I believe we can and will come up with solutions to the world's most challenging problems, but not if we continue to try to address tomorrow's world with yesterday's methods.
Let us work together to change the world by making thinking and creativity the goal of our teaching and not just passing on information. Thinking and creativity will find solutions to the challenges we face, not ticking a box on an MCQ answer sheet, writing a single essay with no opportunity to defend arguments through a number of iterations, or presenting a single talk channeling all of their creativity into using a canned theme for impact.
We can do this.
How have we made something as exhilarating as learning, as oppressive as education?
Jesse is a world leader in the integration of the science of learning into formal teaching settings. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge and Director at The Academy for the Scholarship of Learning. Huge advocate of the science of learning, he provides people with ideas about how they can use it in their classrooms. Jesse holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wales, Bangor.