Exponential change waits for no one: a curriculum of right answers in a world of increasingly difficult questions
23nd October 2011Apdfof this scribble is also available.
This is a rant. It makes no claim to be politically correct or to follow the usual polite protocols when it comes to talking about formal education in Australia. This is not a time to be polite.
If you think curriculum is about children being able to produce right answers then don’t waste your time reading further.
Australia is in the process of negotiating a national curriculum, i.e. stuff that older folk think younger folk should learn while at school. Curriculum is a much studied and written about beast in education. It has been elevated to all kinds of theoretical heights that largely serve to bemuse and confuse each generation of would-be teachers. In this short rant I want to lay out what to me are some of the more prominent idiocies associated with wanting to have, let alone implement a national curriculum in its current form.
Australia, it should be noted, is a federation of states with a not inconsiderable tension between states (she got more than I did) and between states and the foster mother, aka the federal government (do as I say, or there will be no video games after dinner). This in a country that has a chronic history of being unable to agree about simple things like the separation of rails on railway tracks. This is bureaucrat heaven1. The greater the difference in jurisdictions, the greater the need to have more bureaucrats working out ways to shore up the position of their Minister against the barbarian hordes (aka states other than ours that got more than we did). Leaving aside the colossal expense2 to maintain eight, fat educational bureaucracies that are busy controlling, limiting, policing, restricting, granting the odd exception (yes, you can access that educational website because we have ascertained there are no images of humans having sex with dragon flies), there is the very real effect these structures have on the work of the folk in the trenches (aka teachers) who struggle each day to provide the very best they can for the kids with whom they work.
Australia, like most over developed countries, faces a very real challenge. How best do we prepare kids to live in a world that is changing rapidly and a world which shows no signs of addressing the real disadvantages that particular groups of people face. When these circumstances are coupled to education systems that are managed by folk who have turned management into a self-serving art form there is little basis for hope. One might have expected that a national curriculum would have been acutely sensitive to difference and to the way the contemporary world plays out so differently for each sector of the population. But it seems that an imaginary ideal population for whom it is “obvious” what is needed in order to cope with the contemporary world has been determined. It seems that turning eight “one size fits all” approaches to one large “one size fits all” is what is happening.
The logic, if I can be kind for a moment, of the national curriculum is that it purports to describe an entitlement:
“The Australian Curriculum describes a learning entitlement for each Australian student that provides a foundation for successful, lifelong learning and participation in the Australian community.”
I agree. Every kid in the country is entitled to have as good a shot as possible to survive and even flourish in a world that is risky, wildly unpredictable and replete with dangers that those who are designing the national curriculum appear not to have noticed.
OK. So does it matter if we are being sold a pup, albeit an expensive one? I’d hope that if the National Curriculum does not provide the foundation as described above that those who are inflicted with said curriculum will rightfully sue those who made false representations about it? Let’s not be coy here. The claim is a big one. If I were in their shoes, my claims would be a good deal more modest. The national curriculum is a product, a product of negotiation between warring states and an interfering foster parent. But it is a product and it has promises for the consumer. It’s not dissimilar to other product promotions that purport to cure warts, baldness and sexual impotence. If they don’t work you get your money back. So how much does it cost to mount a national curriculum? And, if it does not work for ALL kids, do these kids get their money back?
I have another query. Annoying I know, but to me, teaching is now the most important and the most difficult job on the planet. It has been for some time. I want to know how this will help what teachers are trying to do, as opposed to what well intentioned well paid old folk (WIWPOF) are telling teachers to do. And yes I understand how important it is for WIWPOF to collect data from the field to ensure that whatever program they have inflicted on schools is meeting the targets they have set for them. Whether this has anything that is remotely associated with helping a child, any child, is of no consequence. What matters is accountability. Accountability has gone horribly wrong as Dave Weinberger suggests. It has become “accountabalism,” the practice of eating sacrificial victims in an attempt to magically ward off evil3.
If we leave aside the nonsense of self-serving accountabilities that operate within education bureaucracies, I have some accountability questions. How have externally imposed targets (pick a target, any target) helped the Principal with a large indigenous population of students, to improve the reading of these kids? How have externally imposed targets helped the Principal who struggles to keep a school with a high representation of almost every disadvantaged category you happily record, interested in attending school, let alone becoming engaged and passionate about the work they do while at school? I do understand that the reporting of these numbers, no matter what they are, is important in keeping lots of people employed in managing the data. The internal wheels of accountability have to be kept well greased. And we all now understand that if those targets are not being met then it is clearly the fault of those terrible folk we call teachers or their leaders, aka Principals. So after they have been sacrificed to appease one of the angry education idols (NAPLAN, ACARA, PISA… take your pick) the ‘support’ they receive is to be slapped around the ears with even more performance targets. This is one part of the problem. What these targets don’t get at are things like passion. Passion is the stuff teachers have about helping the kids with whom they work. Kids matter, all of them, every last one. Education bureaucrats don’t seem to understand that this simple truth is a non negotiable for every teacher. Turning a kid or a school into a database entry only serves the interests of those who maintain the database. Education is always more than a database.
But let’s return to this notion of having a curriculum that is national. Like so much of schooling, it has its origins at the time when schools were invented. There probably was some logic to having some uniformity in what schools did then. After all, you wanted folk who could be slotted into predetermined spaces in factories, on assembly lines (another wonderful innovation that schools have managed to mimic) or in offices where what matters is following the rules. The rules mattered. The world was more or less predictable, at least over the medium term, and workers who could comply were all that was required. The world was more or less ordered so being orderly, thinking orderly was how to play the big game of life4.
The world that built a wonderful industrial infrastructure and then lots of stuff to support that infrastructure, including schools and universities has been undergoing change that is not comprehensible in industrial terms. We have been under the influence of a number of driver technologies for many decades. They have the annoying characteristic of doubling their performance and halving their costs every 18 months to two years and then having the gall to feed off other technologies and reproduce even faster, this is a highly unpredictable world with all kinds of risks and challenges that flow from exponentially changing technologies.
I wonder how many of the WIWPOF actually understand what an exponential is5. This kind of growth means that the kinds of social, economic, cultural and political change that the young folk currently in school will experience during their lifetime is likely to be orders of magnitude greater than anything the WIWPOF have experienced.
Let’s take a simple mapping. Ray Kurzweil6 argues that the human brain carries out about 20 million billion calculations per second. He estimates that around the year 2023 you will be able to purchase a $1000 computer with that computational power. By 2037, the same computer will cost about a cent. In 2049, he argues, that you will be able to buy a $1,000 computer that has the computational power (measured in instructions per second) of the entire human race. In 2059, he predicts that the price of this computer will be about one cent. This is serious computing grunt. What this will mean for the automation of lots and lots of jobs is anyone’s guess. This isn’t going to happen in five or six lifetimes. This is going to happen in the lifetime of the kids currently at school and about to “enjoy” a national curriculum7. The conventional wisdom about automation and job loss suggests that it is the routine, low paid jobs that will be lost. Recently, David Autor hasarguedthat the current patterns of job loss are in the middle tiers of employment.
There are lots and lots of other mappings that might be made. And I point to a couple of what Kevin Kelly8 calls the GRIN technologies: G(eno), R(obo), I(nfo) and N(ano) technologies. I wonder if the spectre of robots that build robots that build robots9 keeps WIWPOF awake at night? It should. Perhaps the promise of self-cleaning materials (sorry to all the cleaning workers), or the promise of home manufacturing10 (sorry factory workers), or the reality of inexpensive gene sequencing (sorry your genetic sequence has determined that you are uninsurable)… might be cause for alarm. Apparently not. We are going to have a national curriculum and the world be damned.
How any or all of these play out is unknowable but to pretend that these technologies will go away or have minimal impact is galactically stupid. The kid going into primary school in 2012 will live through all of this and much more. I’d like to hope that this new fangled national curriculum was going to prepare her for life and not merely be a recycling of the products of the well established vested interests in curriculum development in Australia.
I have another annoying question at this point: why do Australian kids need to learn stuff that machines are either good at now or soon will be? A curriculum of knowing the right answers is a curriculum that machines excel at. It’s a good deal more challenging to frame questions as Thomas and Brown suggest11:
What if, for example, questions were more important than answers? What if the key to learning were not the application of techniques but their invention? What if students were asking questions about things that really mattered to them?
I’d add another to their list. How do we teach kids about how to deal with getting machines to do work of all kinds for us? This is a seriously non trivial question.
In the spirit of more questions can I ask a few more? Can the WIWPOF developing the National Curriculum guarantee that what is going to be delivered is not a remix of what we have had before? We already know what that does. We know ‘the system’ tells about two thirds of each cohort that they are stupid. We know the patterns of disengagement it produces. We know how it does not do anything for the various disadvantaged kids in our society. We know it manages to turn lots of kids off any further exploration of science and mathematics. We know lots of stuff about how bad, stupid and mindless it has become. We’ve known all of this for a very long time. Yet “we” persist! Please reassure me that this is not a re-packaged more of the same. It was Albert Einstein who suggested that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is a perfect definition of stupidity. In the face of what kids will have to deal with in their lives, more of the same would qualify as a new benchmark in educational stupidity.
I do understand that shifting to the kinds of framing that Thomas and Brown and others like Ken Robinson suggest is not easy. Clayton Christensen12 has documented the institutional blindness of a large number of ogranizations that did not allow them to see developments that were literally staring them in the face. What used to be a virtue, reproducibility, stability, predictability is actually a huge handicap as Christensen has shown over and over again. Having way too much invested in keeping things more or less as they are, in seeing the world in a particular way makes the kind of change that is necessary unthinkable in the corridors of the Australian curriculum factory.
There are ways to get around this but I guess the maintenance of the new status quo13 is all that really matters. So I have an idea. If you can’t change much, let’s throw in a lot of cool adjectives. Online is good, so is authentic, and then there is engaging but, hey, what about national14? A savvy watcher of similar stunts elsewhere calls it process pantomime15.
The only reason there is not the kind of backlash that the planet’s money systems and leaders are currently experiencing is that the effect of this will take a long time to show up and it will be masked by the heroic efforts of the many thousands of amazing teachers in the trenches doing wonderful things with kids despite the intrusions of a national curriculum. So, another question: I’d like to know how many cohorts of kids get to suffer this before WIWPOF accept that the emperor is naked and has been for a very long time?
Russell Ackoff16 puts it eloquently:
The righter we do the wrong thing, the wronger we become. When we make a mistake doing the wrong thing and correct it, we become wronger. When we make a mistake doing the right thing and correct it, we become righter. Therefore, it is better to do the right thing wrong than the wrong thing right. This is very significant because almost every problem confronting our society is a result of the fact that our public policy makers are doing the wrong things and are trying to do them righter. (p.2)
I have a suggestion for a learning entitlement. Just one. Every child in this country has the right to be outrageously, absurdly, disgustingly, and wonderfully successful in at least at one thing as a result of being at school.