Education of the Future Is Not About Knowledge
We are living in a post-knowledge era.
It may have snuck up on you. In 1997, Google didn’t exist; by 2007, according to Google’s own analytics, 372 billion Google searches were made each day; by 2012, the per-day average was three times that, at 1.2 trillion. Technology has given us the means to access the information we need, on demand.
Before, you would have either had to remember an esoteric fact from many years of memorization, or you would have had to go through the impractical process of locating that fact in a library. The Internet has effectively rendered the need for knowledge obsolete. Why learn and memorize facts that can be accessed instanteneously, when needed?
Which creates a problem: Today’s educational systems are designed to impart knowledge, not to help kids learn how to access it. Most of the world’s schools, and the standards that measure their success, are about filling a child’s brain up, rather than helping it reach out.
So, when schools change – and they will change, because they must – what will they become when their primary objective is no longer imparting knowledge?
What is the future of education?
When education is not aimed at learning knowledge, but at learning how to learn, education must focus on creating successful learners.
More and more research points to one key factor: non-cognitive skills. These include optimism, self-control, curiosity and grit — but especially curiosity and grit.
“Children will learn to do what they want to learn to do,” said Sugata Mitra, a leading education researcher and visionary, in a 2010 TED Talk.
In fact, children are wired to want to learn from the moment of birth, driven by something called perceptual curiosity, that is, an innate interest in new stimuli. And their brains reward them for it; research has shown that not only does the part of the brain that processes reward light up when whatever has piqued a person’s curiosity is resolved, it also lights up in anticipation of that resolution or answer. Our brains essentially high-five us for learning.
Grit is just as powerful to learning, and perhaps more elusive.
“Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals,” said psychologist Angela Duckworth, PhD, in a 2013 TED Talk. “Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality.”
Duckworth developed a theory that grit is the best predictor of success while teaching seventh grade maths, when she noticed that the students who achieved the best grades were often the students who worked the hardest, not necessarily the ones who were brightest. She eventually left the classroom and went on to study students at West Point, the US’s premier military academy; young National Spelling Bee competitors; rookie teachers in difficult environments; salespeople; high school seniors, and more. She found, when all other factors were accounted for, that it’s not the most talented people, or people with the highest IQ who succeed, but the grittiest, most resilient and persevering individuals.
Compelling research, to be sure, but one that would necessitate a pedagogical revolution to equip a system — designed to instil knowledge — to instil what has, up until now, been left up to the crapshoot of personality. Experts are starting to bet on an assumption that Nurture can and will beat Nature.
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How do we create gritty, curious people?
The short answer? No one knows for sure. But research does offer some clues about methods children might experience in the future (or, in some pioneering schools, even now).
A large and growing body of research is showing that exploration is how children learn best, and up to age 7 or 8, that takes the form of play. Play builds neural connections in a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for most of the non-cognitive traits the schools of the future will aim to instil.
But fostering non-cognitive traits isn’t just about bringing about physiological change in a mind, it’s also about mindset.
“So far the best idea I’ve heard about building grit in kids is something called ‘growth mindset’,” Duckworth said in her 2013 talk.
Growth mindset is a term coined by psychologist Carol Dweck, PhD, in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, to describe a way people perceive themselves.
“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment,” Dweck writes.
Contrast this with a ‘fixed mindset’ wherein people see broad traits like intelligence or talent as innate – something you have or you don’t. In a series of studies, Dweck found that students with fixed mindsets avoided difficulty, responded to failure by saying they would cheat rather than study more, or tended to focus on someone who performed worse.
The mechanism for instilling growth mindset, according to Dweck, is primarily praise.
“Not praising intelligence or talent. That has failed. Don’t do that anymore,” Dweck said in a 2014 Ted Talk. “But praising the process kids engage in, their effort, their strategies, their focus, their perseverance, their improvement. This ‘process praise’ creates kids who are hardy and resilient.”
What does this look like in practice?
The freedom of exploration and the encouragement of growth mindset are combined in a theory called child-driven education, promoted by Mitra. Mitra is currently a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University in the UK, but in 1999, he was a computer science teacher in New Delhi with a question: What would happen if you embedded a computer with a high-speed Internet connection in a wall in the middle of a Delhi slum?
Mitra did just that, walking away and leaving the computer. “The Hole in the Wall Experiment,” as it is now called, saw children mastering computer commands in a foreign language (English) so as to browse the Internet, then teaching each other.
Over the next two decades Mitra went on to replicate the experiment in various permutations. Perhaps the most powerful is one that took place in a South Indian village, where children only spoke Tamil. Mitra dropped off a computer loaded with advanced biotechnology material in English and gave a group of 12-year-olds the task of figuring it out.
Over several months, the children managed to go from 0 to 30% on a biotechnology test Mitra had set before and after leaving the computer with them. To get them up to a passing 50%, Mitra did just one thing: He asked a young local woman, a role model who sometimes played football with the children, to stand behind them as they studied and make admiring comments like “That’s cool! How did you do that? Can you do that again? Show me some more!”
In other words, he added the praise Dweck says encourages a growth mindset.
Based on this study and many others, Mitra is now promoting a vision for education in the future that is child-driven. It’s a model he calls a SOLE, or Self-Organized Learning Environment, wherein a small group of students are set a question or task – for instance, “What is Pythagorus and what did he do?” — and then allowed freedom to find the answer in their own time. SOLEs are currently operating in the UK, the US and India, and, in a sign of their probable influence over the future of education, won the first ever TED Prize in 2013.
What does this mean for schools?
The concept of a teacher as a “guide on the side” has been around since the early 1990s, but it’s only likely to become more true as the school of the future focuses on teaching children how to learn. In Mitra’s vision, a teacher – or even a parent or community leader – becomes a poser and refiner of questions, a praiser of effort, a guide to reliable sources of information, and a reinforcer of the non-cognitive traits important to successful learning. Instead of assigning grades and recognizing class toppers, teachers might hold up students’ displays of optimism, self-control, curiosity and tenacity as exemplary.
If children vie at all, it might be to be seen as the most collaborative or the most strategic. More likely, each child will be held up to the standard of his own previous behaviour, eliminating the concept of standardized testing, and ushering in completely new methods of evaluation. Even now, wearable tech with biometric sensors that can give children feedback in real time on their emotional states and offer suggestions on how to manage is being developed, the idea behind it being that children who are more aware of their mental and emotional states can become more strategic in how they leverage them. A child who is too stressed to absorb new information, for example, could take a break, calm down, and start afresh.
As with any new development in education – particularly one that involves such a sea change – a host of potential spectres crops up, hand-in-hand with new solutions. Is it possible to evaluate soft-skills in children? Should we even try? How do we train teachers? And if learning how to learn is the future of education, will children be able to execute, when it’s called for, or will they only be prepared to be consumers of an endless stream of information?
These questions and more will have to be answered in time – probably by people with a lot of optimism, curiosity and grit.