Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

Why we need to change schools

So I was struck by an interesting analogy today after reading part of a post about flipping curriculum.  The problem with current education, the post claims, is that we are focusing on cramming content into courses, rather than working fundamentally on critical thinking skills.  I thought, Yes, I totally agree, and then it came into focus, the reason WHY I agree.

Here’s the argument that ran through my head.

First, the amount of information that is available to be learned in our world is increasing at an exponential rate (Actually it might be increasing at an exponential TO an exponential rate, but that’s another story).  We are currently attempting to decide on which of this new information is most important to be taught to students, but unfortunately we can only operate at a linear rate, which is really a fancy way of saying that each of us can only do so much work.  

The process is, some experienced teachers decide on what needs to be taught during curriculum reviews which take place on the order of a few years, then this information is included in the prescribed learning outcomes for our particular part of the world.  Every 5 or 6 years the curriculum gets updated.  The problem becomes abundantly clear if you look at the following graph.

The blue line indicates the amount of knowledge we are able to process over the years as educators building curriculum (assuming the number of educators remains roughly constant, which in industrialized countries is approximately true) and the red line indicates the growth of knowledge over time.  You may notice a huge problem is looming, very soon we will have no possible way of forcing the content based curriculum we are building match what is actually known as a species.

An analogy to this that occurred to me as a response to a Twitter post by Joe Bower, a great educator living in Alberta.  He said, "How do people function properly when they follow hundreds or thousands of people on Twitter? Am I missing something?"  I thought of a quick response and decided that there really isn’t a quick response and decided to write this post.

The answer is of course that you can’t possibly follow all of the information, it’s too much, so you have to rely on your ability to analyze information quickly and set limits on how long you are going to try and process information.  Anyone who has followed more than a few hundred people has some trick they use to filter through the information.  Some people create lists to keep track of specific users, others listen to the Twitter stream for 20 minutes at a time and rely on the fact that really useful and important information will be reTweeted.  Essentially all of these people are using some sort of critical analysis of their stream to make the flow of information more manageable.

This is the critical skill we need to teach our students.  It will not be possible for an individual stuck in a linear mode to be able to muster the required processing to engage meaningfully with the exponential increase of information available.  Therefore in the future, everyone who wants to be successful will need to have the ability to filter information, choose reliable and useful sources of information, and build networks of people to distribute the processing of information over their personal learning network.  Each person acts as a node processing part of the information, and collectively we have a chance of being able to select the most valuable information from our incredibly messy information streams.