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Education is not the solution; it’s the problem

Every day we understand the world less. Things are happening around us in societies, jobs, cultures and technologies that just don’t make sense. Our environment is constantly changing. And, consequently, so are our plans for the future. The things that we have been working towards are becoming less clear. If you are a parent, this out-of-control feeling sometimes borders on panic.

In troubled times, it’s human to retreat to the relative comfort of what we know: the formula that worked for our parents, grandparents and even our great-grandparents. Focus on education. Find the top (most expensive) schools and prove your love by stretching your budget to send your children to them. That will secure them, right?

I work at the cutting edge of technology amid the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The company I work for is developing ed-tech, artificial intelligence, machine learning, augmented and virtual reality, and big data-enhanced products. We derive our livelihood from exporting this technology to countries such as China, Germany and the USA.

What my time on the front line has shown me is that no-one knows what lies ahead. Every ‘expert’ guess fails to predict the changes happening on a daily basis and the tectonic shifts they cause, or don’t cause. Think predictions on cryptocurrency.

The attempts by our ‘leading’ educational institutions to placate the concerns of the parents they serve is comical if not outright deception. The most common reaction has been to suddenly offer “coding” classes.

In the last six months, my team of 15 has developed and deployed an iOS App, two Android Apps and one Progressive Web App, all linked to platforms hosted on Amazon Web Services cloud servers. Of these 15 co-workers, only two are developers. And what they would tell you is that teaching coding to children today to prepare them for coding in the future is as useful as learning Spanish in order to move to China. Until you know where you’re going, you cannot know what language to learn.

Other educational institutions boast robotics in the curriculum while casually forgetting to mention that robotics and automation were defining characteristics of the Third Industrial Revolution, not the Fourth.

From expertise to exploration

When planning for our children’s future, we must have the courage to challenge the comfort zones of the very institutions that have served us for generations. In an unknown future, we must shift the focus from expertise to exploration.

I believe, as humans, we are all born with the necessary skills. Just look to the most human of humans – our children. Specifically, our five- and six-year-olds. Old enough to display the miracle of our natural abilities and young enough to be unindoctrinated by our prejudices. By age six our children have shown, in abundance, the quintessential human attributes for journeying into the unknown: curiosity, creativity, collaboration and compassion.

Take a moment to contemplate the light in the eyes of every six-year-old. If you are a parent, you have seen this light. We don’t teach our children at that age. We simply watch from the side, and keep them safe, fed and occasionally clean. We provide stimulation and observe with awe the daily transformation. They display such autonomous curiosity and creativity that we have no choice but to collaborate with them on one expedition after the other. We forgive their failures and inconvenient passions. We do this through our equally spontaneous love and compassion for this innocent little human.

And then we send them to school.

Curiosity. Creativity. Collaboration. Compassion.

From that moment on we commit them to a system that at best ignores, and at worst suppresses, these core human attributes.

Let’s start with curiosity. Our system replaces curiosity with curriculum. Can you remember the last time a teacher asked, “Well, class, what do you feel like learning today?”? For the next 14 years we never ask, and we get frustrated with our teenagers when they don’t know what they want to do with their lives. It’s not their fault. We spent years training them out of it. To quote Albert Einstein: “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”

Second is creativity. Sir Ken Robinson did a Ted Talk many years ago titled “Do Schools Kill creativity?” in which he explains that they do. It is the most-watched Ted Talk of all time. By definition, creativity is the ability to produce new and unexpected outcomes. In our system, the expected outcomes for our children are defined by grade. How can you be creative in that environment? It’s like trying to teach an artist using paint by numbers. You’re missing the point.

Third is collaboration. As Yuval Noah Harari would say, it’s our single biggest differentiator from all other life on earth. Our education replaces it with competition. From the time our children enter school we measure them. We give them marks and determine their ability by comparison to others.

Even if we don’t explicitly verbalise it, our children know that their worth is determined against and not with their peers. No matter how many group activities our classes have, in the end our children are held to their individual scorecard – or matric certificate.

In today’s world this fuels the depression teenagers feel when looking at social media. The perceived achievements of their friends versus their own relative failure. We trained them to feel this. They didn’t have this at six.

And finally, compassion. It’s simply not valued in the system. If it were, it would be on the matric certificate. It is essential to our technologically superhuman future and ignored in the present.

Education isn’t the solution, it’s the problem.

Re-imagining education

In our search for a replacement, we shouldn’t try to adapt or improve our existing system. That’s like trying to iterate a train into a plane. They have vaguely the same purpose but are built on completely different models.

Having spent a career in manufacturing, it’s impossible not to recognise the model on which our current system is based – a production line. We take raw materials and pass them through a series of stations, adding components at each one. We establish quality gates at different points, and reject or recycle units that don’t pass our strict criteria. We set our tolerances tighter to reduce variability and increase output. And we do this again and again until the line is fully automated and has lost all of its humanity. Lights out… factory.

The Covid crisis has inadvertently caused a momentary pause on the education train, and offered an unprecedented opportunity to get off.

I don’t have the answer. It will take time to transform education. And for the parents among us, I fully understand the hesitance to abandon the safety of the known. All I can ask is that, in the meantime, we fiercely protect the curiosity, creativity, collaborative and compassionate spirit of our children.

Alanis Morissette said it best in a song to her own children: “My mission is to keep the light in your eyes ablaze.” DM/BM


About the author:

Ajit Gopalakrishnan is the head of Odin Education, a division of Jendamark Automation.

His work experience spans several industries and functions, such as education, engineering, marketing, factory and project management, including leading two significant factory transformation projects for a multinational FMCG organisation. Ajit holds a degree in engineering from UCT and a master’s degree from Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.





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