The Future of Learning

What is the purpose of school & the role of EdTech?

I was recently invited to give a keynote talk at Windays 16, a Microsoft sponsored event hosted on a beautiful island near Poreč, Croatia. The event brought together representatives from the business, education and government communities in Croatia to consider the future of work, the Croatian economy and the role of education.

After my talk I was invited to give the following interview which is 9 minutes long where I discuss my thoughts on the future of learning, schools, the misuse of EdTech and the need to reimagine assessment and testing. A full transcript follows the video:


I was really asking the audience to think about the purpose of school, why do we send our kids to school? In any country we have to ask the question what the purpose of our schooling is, because for hundreds of years we’ve sent our kids to school and don’t really ask that question. I think if you’re thinking about the future of Croatia, for example, you need to have an idea what that’s going to be, and therefore what the purpose of your school is. At the moment it appears that the purpose of school seems to be content transmission and testing, and that probably isn’t going to output the kind of innovators that Croatia needs.

There’s a constant tension within the education system. This is a tension that isn’t a new one. It’s been going on hundreds of years in fact. John Dewey in 1902 wrote a book called The Child and The Curriculum that had the same tension, the same argument about whether education about subject knowledge and content knowledge or is it about self-realisation of the child, learning for the fun of learning and opposed to learning because you had to get through some tests? That’s been a constant tension, as it is today, and more so in a way because we’re beginning to use technology in a way that reinforces the format, the idea that education is about mastery of content, of subject knowledge, and then regurgitating it at an examination.

We need both. We need to have some content knowledge, subject knowledge to do things. What we’re really interested in is competencies, so here we’re having an interview. The competence that we want of the person operating the camera is that they can operate a camera, not that they have a certificate in it or they’ve read the most books.

The winner of the Nobel Prize isn’t the person who has read the most books, it’s about their competencies. My point to you is rather than having an education system which has been industrialised around content and testing, why not have one that’s based around solving problems, working together, collaborating?

We talk about the future and the skills needed as creativity and collaboration and critical thinking, but nothing in our school systems or examination systems work toward that goal, so we have to decide which one that we value.

To put it another way, when I’ve hired software engineers, and I’ve hired a lot of them, I’m more interested in their ability to code than whether they’ve got a PhD from a big university.

For my research work I travel extensively; from rural India to refugee camps in active conflict zones, active crisis zones like mountains in China after an earthquake, but also into some schools in San Diego, for example, in Lebanon, and so forth, but what I found in actually all of the schools that I visited, because it was a selective, it was not quantitative research, it was qualitative research, was that the environment was important. The engagement between the teacher and the student was important.

When I come back to the environment, the environment based around collaboration, and at the moment a lot of classrooms look very much as they did a hundred or more years ago, kids in rows and so forth, that don’t really actively promote preparation for the environment, which is super important. That was also reflected in the teacher engagement. We’re beginning to see to see in Silicon Valley organisations and so forth is the belief that teaching is just merely a content delivery system. “I deliver the content to the student and then I test the student, so we could get rid of the teacher or de-skill the teacher”. But nothing could be further from the truth of course, because teaching isn’t simply about providing content. It’s about understanding the individual. We’re nurturing human beings.

I’ve seen great practice pretty much everywhere that I’ve been when I created the book. The problem, the challenge for all of these great schools, regardless of where they were, was they come up against the nineteenth century examination system, which really tests things that are less valuable. As a result, we teach maths, for example, like it’s a dead language. In fact, maths is really fun. I only discovered after I left school that maths is really fun because maths is about discovery. It’s not the way we teach it at school because of the way that we measure. There’s lots of good practice.

I don’t think you can scale good practice in the sense of if you’ve got a great school you can measure it and then roll it out like a piece of software, because that’s not how it works. It’s a bit like your favourite restaurant that you go to. If there was an attempt to scale that restaurant, it would become McDonald’s, and who wants their children to have the McDonald’s of education? It’s maybe not as bad as some other forms of education, but still the point remains the same.

I think the practice that I have seen, which is more project based and de-siloed, so rather than having subjects, maths, physics, Spanish, et cetera, removing those silos and increasing the number of common areas and the way that students work together across age groups rather than being streamed by the year of manufacture, which just strikes me as bizarre. That doesn’t happen anywhere else in any other part of the world, but in school you’re only with kids that the only thing you’ve got in common with them is they’re born in the same year. This is crazy.

I think the technology debate in education has become very confused. Certainly thirty years ago, when I first started getting involved in educational technology, I was almost of a Messianic belief in it’s ability to transform learning, making it much more interesting, more engaging, and dissolve those silos between subjects. But what’s happened in the intervening years, and certainly most recently we’re seeing a phenomenal investment going into educational technology right now, some real big investments, but these investments are in using technology to maintain and industrialise nineteenth century practices. It’s as if we agreed that the purpose of education was simply content distribution and testing, and therefore we don’t really need skilled teachers. We could actually offload that to technology.

In my opinion, that’s wrong. I think there’s much more to teaching and learning than that and I think we should allow much more freedom in the way that technology is used in the classroom and we should be able to use technology to amplify our ability to learn and our ability to teach rather than effectively imprison us. For example, in testing, in examinations, in 2016 why are students not allowed to take their computer connected to the internet into the examination room? Why are they not allowed to share their answers with their colleagues? Why are they not allowed to phone their mother or phone a subject specialist? Why do we suddenly pretend that the twenty-first century never happened when a child enters an examination room?

I’m still optimistic that technology can have a profound impact, a positive impact, on the way that we teach, the way that we learn, the way that we solve problems. We’re just not doing that at the moment. We’re doing the reverse.

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An entertaining & thought provoking slayer of sacred cows, Graham Brown-Martin works globally with senior leadership teams to help organisations adapt in the face of rapid change & innovation. By challenging entrenched thinking he liberates teams to think in new ways to solve complex challenges. His book Learning {Re}imagined is published by Bloomsbury and he is represented for speaking engagements via Wendy Morris at the London Speakers Bureau.