On Education in the 21st Century: Fast Forward to the Future

by Richard Watson

There’s a scene in the classic Woody Allen movie Annie Hall where the nine-year-old Alvy Singer has been taken to see his doctor because he’s become depressed. His mother, who is at her wits end, points out it’s because of something Alvy has read in a book. Alvy explains the problem: “The universe is expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything.” “He’s stopped doing his homework” his mother adds, to which Alvy responds: “What’s the point?”

This is a more imaginative version of the dog ate my homework excuse and while it’s a little early to be getting metaphysical one might expand Alvy’s point about there being no point to enquire about the purpose of education in an age of information on-demand, kindergarten robots and artificial intelligence.

In an era dominated by the internet, mobile devices and screens why would one need to physically attend school? Surely everything you need to learn can be accessed from home? Moreover, why bother with spelling, arithmetic or even languages if Google can do all this for you? In fact why bother learning anything at all if you can access everything from anywhere at any time? What’s the point?

Fast forward to the future

I am aware of university students refusing to attend lectures, because they prefer to download their lectures and watch them at their own convenience at 1.5 times speed, rewinding anything that isn’t instantly clear or understandable. But what’s the point of even this if advanced machine learning and autonomous systems are capable of doing almost everything humans can do at a fraction of the cost? Under the current system are we not teaching the next generation to become rapidly redundant in the face of accelerating technological change?

We’ve been here before many times, of course. Machines have a long and rather repetitive history of stamping out human skills and while it may be true that the scale and the speed of change are different this time, they might not be. We would therefore do well to remember the sage piece of advice contained in Douglas Adam’s book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which is “Don’t Panic!” We repeatedly overestimate the impact of new inventions over the shorter term and while many superficial things are changing, many deeper things are not. On the other hand, the only thing we can say with absolute certainty about the distant future is that it’s uncertain. It is therefore surely our responsibility as adults and educators of future generations to ensure that our children have a decent future. We should therefore make mild preparations for a number of different outcomes, especially any that currently appear unfavourable. After all, if just about everything else is being digitally disrupted why not education? Surely education is one of the last bastions of the analogue and unless educators start to think about how to maximise the upsides of digital technologies they will rapidly fall victim to the digital downsides.

Most educational systems that exists today were shaped in the 19th Century when the economy was based upon agriculture, repetitive work and skills that generally resulted in jobs for life. These jobs weren’t necessarily interesting, but they did involve physical activity and provided identity and meaning alongside money. This system worked fairly well back then, especially when most workers didn’t have to think for themselves.

But the system arguably works less well now when individuals are increasingly paid for their ideas or their ability to manage or motivate others. The system nowadays is also one where individuals are increasingly responsible for the creation of their own lifetime employment. Thus an appreciation of how one sells oneself in an entrepreneurial context might be useful.

I’m a little reticent to suggest that education needs to be reinvented, partly because many aspects of the system work perfectly well, and also because one of the big problems that education suffers from are endless attempts to reinvent it. You’d think that after one hundred and fifty years or more we might have learned how to teach, but apparently not.


This article is an abstract from the essay “On Education in the 21st Century” commissioned by the NSW Department of Education and published on Education Future Frontiers.


About the author

Richard Watson is a lecturer and futurist, author of Digital Vs. Human (Scribe, Melbourne, 2016). He was born in England, but has lived in Australia and has children brought up under both systems.

Further learning

Digital vs Human: how we’ll live, love, and think in the future by Richard Watson

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2 Replies to “On Education in the 21st Century: Fast Forward to the Future”

  1. Finland has been experimenting with a new curriculum model that is focused on moments in time. All subjects are learned within that context: history, mathematics, science, technology, engineering, etc. On tax filing day students would learn about math necessary to calculate taxes, balance a bank statement, learn about government budgeting and revenue models, etc. If an important date is specific to a country, then the students learn its history and language. If a disease shows up in headlines then students learn about biology, research, and the scientific method. The idea is to engage the mind in ways that achieve brain plasticity. A good example of this teaching model could be applied to a book I read in school, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” In my exposure, the book was discussed as part of English Literature. In Finland, it would be taught in the context of systemic racism in its historical context. Finnish children would look at Jim Crow laws, voter registration, job, and education discrimination. They would study U.S. census data, primary historical evidence, anthropology, theory of race, genetics and the invalidity of prejudice and race. No doubt this is harder for a teacher to deliver, but more than justifies his or her roles in a classroom setting. I have written about education and the 4th Industrial Revolution, and shared Peter Diamandis’ views on the same subject in several postings at http://www.21stcentech.com. You may find these of interest as well.

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