Education in the Digital Age
Human beings are custom tailored for learning, inventing and exploring. It's just part of our biology. We've been excelling at perfecting these innate skills as long as we've been humans. And by the rate of our technological growth, we are speeding up.
The innate method of learning is based on children learning via observation and participation in family activities—in ancient times a son would learn to hunt by going on hunting excursions; children would learn what berries to pick by watching their parents. In many ways, humans learn naturally simply by participating in the activities of their social group; at the fundamental level, that social group has always been the family.
The nature of education has evolved, though. It has been extracted and formalized into a wider construct; societies, as time has moved forward, have tended to move the nexus of education away from the family unit and more to an institution. It seems that the value of the institutional over the organic educational method has not been questioned much. In our age, there is a strong assumption that institutional education is the epitome of education.
That there are values to institutional education in society are not disputed in this essay; many core assumptions about the institutions, however, are questioned.
The Inorganic Classroom
One of the stark differences from an organic environment (small family clusters) and the institutional classroom is the ratio of children to adults. In an organic environment, the odds are that there are far more adults per child. Because of the strong social nature of humans (and impressionability of children in particular), this has an implication on the character development of the children. The organic environment is going to, of necessity, impose a stronger pressure to follow the accepted norms of the adult culture.
In comparison, the inorganic environment (institution) has progressively increased the number of children in one place; as such, the social pressures become those that are important to juveniles.
This is not to say that juveniles are incapable of wisdom nor that all adults are wise; but presuming that on average there is more wisdom among adults than among children, there are certainly implications to increasing the concentration of children in one place. Teaching children to have respect for higher things (morals, philosophical outlooks, scientific thinking) may be undermined by placing them in environments where most of their peers are likely to be immature (and focused on trivial aspects of juvenile life such as fashion, cliques, etc).
Now, in the environment where the topics are imposed in a generally un-interesting manner, students minds naturally wander to those things that are immediately more interesting—the social interaction with the other students around them.
The whole point of society to enact institutional education is to further the prosperity of society. And in many ways the success is obvious in that technology continues to advance and general levels of knowledge continue to increase each generation. There are many cases where common individuals know things, as a matter of course, that only scholars of previous ages knew. Just a small and arbitrary list includes knowledge of the transmission of disease via germs, that life on earth shares a common genetic ancestry, the Earth revolves around the Sun, etc. So there is a degree of success in modern education. But is it as efficient as it could be (or as effective as it should be)?
One of the ironies to institutional education is that it's a process for imposing information onto humans in a way that is not generally consistent with how we naturally learn. In the cases of new knowledge, the progress is almost entirely a passionate drive among individuals to figure something out either to fulfill a want or need; in the case of science, it is the curiosity of the scientist that spurs discoveries.
Curiosity is the organic way of learning. And it's probably the only authentic way for discovery.
The classic institutional classroom is anathema to curiosity. Instead, the information is imposed rather than discovered. That students assimilate information efficiently from this is a debate for testing; but the real thing to question is how this imposition affects the emotional curiosity of the student. Does this inspire the student? Does it inhibit inspiration? Perhaps the result is dependent on the student's incoming disposition.
Alongside curiosity is native interest. If a topic has organic or native interest in a student, curiosity is generally a good enough drive to learn the topic. For example, in a traditional situation where the love of good food makes hunting an organic element of living, the innate reward of meat and praise from the family makes learning the art of hunting a seamless and natural activity. In the modern era you only need to watch children learn how to play complex video games with ease to see the same general activity. And of course there is language--we naturally learn to communicate with one another simply from social interactions. Learning is built into these activities because they have innate value that is intimately interesting to the life of the student.
This is not how the modern institution of education works. Instead, the curriculum is determined externally (often based on assumptions of what people need to know) and then imposed on students; in many executions of curriculum, there is a strong antagonism towards the need to make education interesting and relevant to the students. When a student (rightly) questions why he or she needs to learn about something, the answer is too often, “Because you have to.”
The problem is that humans do not easily learn things that they are not interested in and that do not seem relevant. Because we do not efficiently learn uninteresting things, it is curious how there is rarely a mandate in formal education to be interesting and relevant.
Democracy and Education
Since the dawn of the United States, the fate of democracy has been tied to the education of the population. Securing this was the impetus for those such as Thomas Jefferson to enact public education. But although the need for education itself is self-obvious, the methods for it are not obvious—they are simply accepted as obvious and have remained relatively static for many generations.
There have been ongoing debates about how to educate the public. There are always perennial debates that cyclically go back and forth between “progressive” and “reactionary” thinking. But as debates on proper institutional methods, they very rarely question the tenant of institutional education itself.
One of the ironies of modern education is that it largely ignores the type of education that is most important to democracy itself: skepticism and logical thinking. Fostering a population that asks “Why?” is perhaps the most important thing schools could do to promote democracy; it's ironic that small children instinctively ask “Why?”; is it a product of institutional education that people stop asking this as much by adulthood?
Without skepticism, the population is vulnerable to being too easily manipulated by commercialism and unsavory political movements. Is this not exacerbated by institutional education that discourages asking why?
Technology and Education
The technology of spreading information has been transforming for thousands of years. From word of mouth to papyrus to printing presses to radio to television to the World Wide Web, the power to spread information has progressively gotten more efficient. We now live in an age where there really isn't any barrier to learning anything you want; smart phones are ubiquitous, and many people can get facts about almost any topic from any location—standing in the grocery line, at the restaurant, sitting on the couch, from practically anywhere.
The availability of instant information has changed the human landscape. But the assumptions about education have not adapted. At some point, society will need to reflect on the role of education in the light of modern technology.
Is it really necessary to force kids to go to a classroom for hours a day for over a decade to be forced to learn facts about things they generally don't care about and generally don't remember after the tests? Or is it time to change how we view education—to realize that traditional institutional education is largely inefficient? Would it not be better to use our efforts to inspire children to explore and discover the world out there with the tools they have?
But that may be easier said than done. Just as schools create a concentration of juvenile pressures, the Internet creates a virtual concentration of the same problems. Teenagers are going to spend their time on the Internet focused on the same things that make schools a social (character-building) quagmire.
And the only way to counteract that is with the concerted effort of the family. Instilling a respect for the creative and educational side of the Internet and computers, and casting a skeptical eye on pop culture and commercialism, are important aspects of education that are missing in the modern student's life—though the lessons are more important than ever because the pressures of social medias become ever more present.
The other side of modern technology that education needs to address relates to democracy and the virtual mobs of our age. Social networks accommodate a huge percentage of modern lifestyles. A public that has not integrated a strong sense of skepticism is prone to increase the spread of misinformation because of the speed at which information spreads now! Democracy's health will progressively be tied to how adapted people are to using technology wisely. Teaching skepticism based on scientific methods and logic are necessary in order to safeguard against viral ignorance and blind nationalism.
The Organic Education
There is probably no such thing as a universal prescription for a perfect education. There are many folks in the world with widely varying arrays of interests and capabilities. This is one of the problems of institutional education, because it treats all students as robotic recipients of information without much regard for who they are and where they want to go.
Probably the change in philosophy that will advance education the most in the coming ages is understanding that people learn easily those things that are interesting and relevant. Fostering interests is more important than teaching facts. If I can get you interested in something, your interest will lead you to new facts; but if I just feed you facts, you probably won't care much and will just forget the facts in a few weeks (or days).
I think that the role of family in education is far more important than any other factor. A family that encourages learning about nature and philosophy and science is the best school anyone will ever have. Exposing children to experiences that generate organic opportunities to develop interest in new things is important. A single inspiring activity can likely teach more, long term, than years sitting at a classroom desk. Participation in activities is the most organic and natural way to learn anything. You want to learn something? Just do it. And if you can't figure it out, find someone who can and do it together.