Learning for Today and Beyond Tomorrow
“We are at the very early stage of a major learning revolution and we are responsible for giving future generations a much better world of what we have today.”
It would be wrong to suggest that no progress has been made over the last twenty-five years in improving and extending school education throughout the world. But judging from the quantitative and qualitative results, school enrollments fall short even of real demand, not to mention desirable or Utopian requirements.
Martin Carnoy has been argue that cognitive ability is closely related to social class, and that achievement is due to the combination of social class and the amount of instruction a pupil receives, rather than to actual cognitive ability. In other words, the demand for knowledge springs from the social hierarchy and not from knowledge as such. Education is organized in such a way as to maintain the hierarchical structure of the development-oriented approach, and the foremost aim of teaching is to educate children to compete for a limited number of jobs at the top of the industrial pyramid rather than to work together to improve their common condition. An aggravating factor is a selection of class subjects corresponding neither to the social purpose of schooling nor to the difference drawn between science and technology. For example, progress in physics in the exploration of outer space is described as ‘technological’ but not the planning and running of a health center. Bowles and Gintis also argue long time ago that the most pertinent skills learned by pupils about their future role in society are behavioral or non-cognitive abilities connected with social class, variously developed by different kinds of schools and even among students at the same school.
It must be stated that the strategy of school enrolment has been inadequate in terms of both quantity and content: (a) it caters for only part of the school-age population; (b) survival rates, especially in Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia, are very low; and (c) the subjects taught reflect neither recent advances in knowledge nor the attitude to social reform which is a human duty. Nowadays, education is a tool for the perpetuation and reproduction of existing social structures, rather than for the improvement of individual and collective systems of values and the creation of skills that will give human beings control over their environment and over decisions affecting their future. In a word, the development-oriented system has allotted to education the sole function of training resources for the machinery of production, rather than perfecting humans as an overall biological, psychic, social and cultural entity. Mankind, the real focus of development, has been supplanted by one of development’s creatures, the production of goods.
Part of this second problem facing education today is its failure to adapt to the advances in science and technology. Educational institutions and their teaching systems lag far behind when it comes to adapting to new forms of knowledge and learning. While the education system shapes some of the components of society, it is also conditioned by society, and has therefore to adapt to society’s many and increasingly varied changes. The requirements of changing ways of thought, scientific discoveries, new technologies, the steady turnover of the school population and the emergence of parallel education in the form of Internet and virtual systems are only some of the factors which formal education has difficulty in assimilating. The education system itself is reluctant to accept new teaching techniques and aids. In the age of the satellite and social electronic networking, schools are still using blackboard and chalk or in the best scenario power-point presentations. This is not even realistic planning; it is enslavement to the past.
Digital learning or online education is an example of a technology that can bridge the gap between scientific discoveries and their popularization. It would be impossible for a formal education system, based only on the face-to-face interaction between student and teacher, to keep apace with the breath-taking advances of science and technology. Distance education offers a way to tailor education to present and future technology. The rapid spread of its popularity in almost every country offers hope for new patterns of institutional education. We are in favor of this kind of education, though we have some criticisms of the lines along which it is developing. Distance or online education requires a careful approach, since there is no guarantee that an innovating process will produce new results. Even revolutionary systems can produce extreme conservatives, thus reinforcing the development-oriented mentality.
Online education or other virtual educational technologies may be of valuable assistance in educating people for the second quarter of the twenty-first century, but it could also turn into a system which widens the gulf between us and Utopia. The present author has frequently criticized distance education techniques that consist in generating information in order to produce trained manpower. What the world really needs is educated people, capable of understanding the contemporary driving forces in the world, and who can adapt to them and transform them. The trained person produced by distance education will soon see his or her instruction become obsolete, whereas an educated person will develop or create new abilities when necessary. Education is a learning combination of cognitive and affective and social skills. We need to develop cognitive and metacognitive competences at the same time that we learn self-responsibility and self-control, compassion, team work, learning to care, learning to share and learning to carry out learning.
Online education should therefore stress the formative and creative aspect of education, while not excluding instruction; it is simply a matter of tackling both variables. Most distance, digital or online education systems seek uniformity of content and method, and disregard, or even eliminate entirely, the part which can be played by students in the education process. The student becomes merely a receiver of more or less systematized information; the student is isolated in his or her vertical relationship with the teaching material, on which he or she are entirely dependent. Comprehensive learning calls for participation as human’s natural birthright, stemming from their ability to transform and create anew. According to Paulo Freire, dialogue, which is fundamental to participation, does not consist in the student retracing all the past stages of scientific progress, but in challenging knowledge in its relation to, and effect on, current reality, in an attempt to understand, explain and transform it. The significance of scientific discoveries should be discussed, as should the historical and future dimensions of knowledge, its place in time, and its application. In other words, the best physics student is not the one with the best memory for formulae, but the one who understands their rationale. The best philosophy student is not the one who can expound the works of Plato, Aristotle, Russell or Hegel, but the one who approaches them all from a critical point of view and dares to think.
Participation, or two-way education, was typical of the individualized teaching of the past. There is nothing new in it: Plato proved its worth in his Dialogues. Today, sheer numbers mean that dialogue remains at the intentional stage. This is the challenge for distance education: converting mass education into two-way qualitative formative education with which it will be possible to think about Utopias and to change the course of history.
The quantitative and qualitative challenge to education is increased when we consider that formal education, which takes up a few years of one’s life, is no guarantee of the preservation or improvement of the human condition, an ideal which implies the continuing perfectibility of mankind. It is not possible to adopt the ‘realistic’ plan of making education last eight or even twenty years. What is needed is a continuing educational process in which the ‘educational community’ –in other words the whole of society– adopts a learning attitude throughout life, and can adapt to the future without forever destroying structures and values on which the survival of humankind and their culture depends. Quoting Robert E. Lee, “The education of a human being is never completed until he or she dies.”
By contrast with the present limited span of education, continuing education, both formal and informal, is one of the goals of Utopian planning. It confers on school and university a much higher role than the mere transmission of knowledge: that of teaching people how to learn, and how to go on learning even after leaving the formal education system; of granting a certificate or diploma in recognition of the completion of only one stage in education; and of changing the structures by which society awards qualifications.
Learning in this twenty-first century, assuming that the world is spared Armageddon, will require greater participation by the education system in its own future. Thanks to technology, methods for acquiring information will be increasingly simple, accessible and accurate. The working day will be much shorter, allowing greater time for creative leisure and making education ever less hierarchical and more ongoing throughout people’s lives. The education system will rediscover its true role, which is that of serving the individual, helping to train the person in mastering cognitive skills and the ability to think, in developing a critical awareness of reality and in co-operating with others around him or her. Information will no longer take pride of place in this system, since it can be acquired through other institutionalized or informal methods. Information and training will go hand in hand, neither one at the expense of the other.
We shall no longer live in a world of specialists, but of men and women who blend expertise with general knowledge, and who are capable of viewing organic education as designed to create equilibrium without retarding growth, and promote growth without jeopardizing equilibrium. Lewis Mumford wrote in the past century: We have created an industrial order that is closely linked to automatism, in which mental debility, congenital or acquired, is necessary for docile factory production, and in which widespread neurosis is the final gift of an ultimately insipid life. Our lives are governed by specialists who know too little about what happens outside their field to have a sufficient understanding of what happens within it; unbalanced creatures, not with method in their madness but madness in their method. Our life, like medicine, has suffered from the ousting of the general practitioner, who is capable of careful diagnosis and treatment relating to both individual and community health.
Has not the time come to ask ourselves what really constitutes a human being, and what changes are required in our outlook in order to create this human being? This is one of major tasks that we have for today and beyond tomorrow. We are at the very early stage of a major learning revolution and we are responsible for giving future generations a much better world of what we have today.
©2017 Miguel Angel Escotet. All rights reserved. Permission to reprint with appropriate citing.