Industrial Might to Information Bytes

As an educator, I love to learn, and I love sharing what I have learned. While conducting research on educational institutions and education pedagogies for this series of blogs, I came across a fascinating article by Peter Gray, a Research Professor of Psychology at Boston College and author of the book “Free to Learn”.

Historical Perspective

Gray’s premise is that in order to understand schools, you first need to view education in its historical perspective. The purpose and role of education has evolved over thousands of years in tandem with how societies themselves have evolved. For example, before the agricultural revolution, children educated themselves through self-directed play and exploration. Beginning during the agricultural revolution and continuing through the industrial revolution, the notion of self-education through play and exploration was suppressed as children were laboured alongside adults. However, once the industrial age reached a degree of maturity and automation, the idea that childhood should be a time for learning began to spread.

Compulsory Education as Inculcation

As this “innovative” idea diffused through the world, the universal, compulsory education system we know today emerged throughout developed and developing countries. According to Gray, the idea of universal education had many supporters, but each had their own agenda on what children should learn. To illustrate, schools in Germany and New England mandated schooling as a moral imperative and Christian duty to save children’s souls and turn them into good Puritans. National leaders on the other hand saw schooling as a means of creating good patriots and soldiers. Industry saw schooling as the means to create better workers through learning punctuality, following directions, developing a tolerance for long hours of tedious work and of course learning the 3 R’s – Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic.

Irrespective of their particular agenda, Gray’s central thesis is that all supporter groups saw schooling as a method for inculcating children. This form of cultural indoctrination and socialisation was intended to implant certain truths and ways of thinking into children’s minds. It used forced repetition and memory testing to reinforce the objectives of inculcation. These methods followed the tried and true, approaches developed and refined earlier over the centuries in fields and later factories.

Industrial Age Practices

What struck me about Gray’s argument is how much the education ecosystem is still stuck on preparing workers for the industrial rather than the information age. Forced repetition. Memory tests. Tolerance for long hours of tediousness. Following directions. Learning punctuality. The 3 R’s. And while Gray’s points were principally directed towards K-12 education, these established learning practices are also deeply embedded in vocational and higher education as well as in corporate training.

The industrial age practices of universal education can be characterised as using a teacher-centred rather than student-centred approach. In the teacher-centred classroom, teachers are the primary source for the dissemination of knowledge, an approach suited to industrial age education. Further, J Scott Armstrong from the University of Pennsylvania claims “traditional, teacher-centred education ignores or suppresses learner responsibility”, which is the anti-thesis of what Drucker argued is needed for the information age. On the other hand, “student-centred education strongly encourages active learning” which in turn boosts learner autonomy, confidence, self-directedness and personal responsibility for learning.

Teacher-centred to Student-centred

So where does this leave us? Putting aside the various religious and national agendas surrounding education, the pedagogical approach to schooling needs to shift from a teacher-centred to student-centred. Boosting productivity in the information age requires knowledge workers who can work autonomously, innovate, learn and teach continuously and focus on quality. Further, adopting a student-centred approach within the educational ecosystem goes beyond the call to re-skill the workforce for the information age previously identified by The Business Roundtable in the U.S. or the stated objective of the Australian National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) to transition the workforce to different industries.

Re-skilling and transitioning workers educated with a teacher-centric, industrial-age approach to become the knowledge workers of the information age requires the educational ecosystem itself to embrace the shift to a student-centric approach. Instead of training the future workforce through learning punctuality, following directions, developing a tolerance for long hours of tedious work and learning the 3  R’s, the educational ecosystem needs to educate students on how to take responsibility by promoting autonomy, innovation, continuous learning and teaching and a focus on quality. These are characteristic outcomes achieved by adopting a student-centric approach.

Brave New World

Moving to the brave new world of educating for the information age from training for the industrial age is a major change requiring a paradigm shift in how our educational ecosystem works. The current pandemic has provided the trigger for this overdue shift to occur.

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