How to Teach for the Future
When we barely understand the present
By MARTIN REZNY
Much has been said about how obsolete standard education becomes by the time it’s concluded, but I haven’t really seen any specific suggestions for a reform, aside from vague mentions of supposed cure-all methods with a very narrow scope, or broadly alternative proclamations of general principle. Nothing that I as an educational methodologist could call a methodology.
I have personally spent almost 20 years educating myself in the conventional sense, and as I and my classmates suspected for most of that time, it has been about as useless in regard to the world of today as we have expected it to be. I remember having heated debates with my math teacher about the uselessness of high school math for my future life, and now I know I was right to doubt it.
A hollow victory, as you might imagine. But I’m not writing this to sulk in despair, I believe I do have a methodology to offer that can help. I was not the first or the only one to come up with it, I imagine there are many people like me that simply apply it to themselves individually, but I haven’t seen it consciously implemented on a large scale, not yet at least. First, the theory.
Many Futures of Man
The key difficulty with creating a curriculum that would prepare a student for the future is obvious, we don’t know what the future will hold. Since we only know what we already know, any curriculum typically contains established facts to be passed on and instructs in skills currently valued on the job market. Invariably though, established facts evolve and skills become obsolete.
On first glance, this may seem like a problem that cannot be solved, but if that were so, I wonder how the humanity could have survived for this long. We have always been the prisoners of the present, but that has never stopped us from innovating our way out of problems or foreseeing trouble looming on the horizon. We have progressed from a cave into space. How did we do it?
The key element, I believe, is imagination. Not just the general capacity, but specific methods of exploring the possible beyond what’s currently known or done. There are well established ways in which we can simulate and speculate, play and pretend, that can be trained and mastered regardless of any actual content, applicable in regard to any conventional subject.
To my knowledge, the first person to put more of these together in an educational framework was late professor Alfred Snider from the University of Vermont. Quite ahead of his time, he formulated the basic idea of the futuristic imaginative approach to education already in the year 1982 in his work Gaming as a Paradigm for Academic Debate. As he cites Dick Duke:
Man must learn to control his destiny. To do so he must manage both uncertainty and complexity.
Paraphrasing Duke’s prior work strictly about gaming, Gaming: The Future’s Language, Snider goes on to explain why academic debate can and should be understood as a form of gaming, thus making the connection between seemingly disparate disciplines, formulating a new educational paradigm. The main idea of how it both works in the educational sense is as follows:
Gaming is a device well suited for presenting dynamic models which are abstractions of complex realities. (…) They can represent future possibilities, or more properly, “alternative futures.” In planning these alternative futures, we need to manipulate various portions of these complex systems and ask “what if…” questions about man’s future. (…) Man has not one future but many futures to choose from, but the choice is predicated on his ability to articulate the various possibilities before they occur.
Speak, Play, and Dream
The funny thing about it for me was that before I have read this wonderful work, arguably the single best academic paper about debating ever written, I have written my own thesis proposing the combination of debate, gaming, and storytelling as an alternative educational trifecta to innovate the teaching of the field that I was studying. I didn’t really know why I chose those three.
That, coincidentally, was the main criticism against my paper during its defense, and fair enough. I expected it, but knew that I had to write about what I know and do, and that I know and do those things for a reason, even if it eluded me at the moment. Turns out that my intuition wasn’t unfounded at all, even if I wasn’t able to fully articulate it on a theoretical level. My mind has always gravitated to futurism.
Just like professor Snider, I too am a science fiction fan in addition to being a debater with an academic interest in gaming. I never liked being taught what was already figured out or prepare for any job that already existed. I always looked for what was the next logical step and wanted to learn how to do that, even if it meant having to invent and discover new things by myself.
If we’re serious about fixing our educational system so that it teaches for the future, here’s how it can be done. Step one, start debating issues instead of pushing facts onto students. Imagination should supplant memorization, and interaction must be required in place of obedient passive reception. Positions have to be voluntarily chosen, not determined by authority or only assumed.
In almost any common debating format, the first speaker has the freedom to choose how to frame the limits of the discussion as well as select any position within those limits, while the next speaker can always challenge the framing if it is in any way unreasonable. The course of a debate can never be fully predicted, nor should it be, and this pushes mental flexibility to the extreme.
Of course, debating can devolve into the worst kind of manipulative partisan drivel, which is why its competitive element should be kept in check. To prepare for the real world, the learning mind needs to be given the possibility of keeping enough distance from it. Rewarding only victory has a pathological effect on the truth seeking aspect of this method, and current politics show it.
Gaming has gotten a lot of bad rap in regard to the raising and education of youth in the recent years, but it is important to note that not every computer game is automatically a good game for the purposes of education in the sense of preparation for the future. There’s no need for an educational game to be violent, but it is important to note there’s no need for it to be boring either.
Games produced in the “real world” of business as usual are likely to be flawed as educational tools if they’re only made to maximize profit. Games designed to make money are bound to use mechanics to enslave a mind rather than free it, since the more addictive a game gets, the more time one spends playing it, and the more money it can make to the producers and developers.
A game exploring possible futures would most likely be found in the genres of simulation, strategy, puzzle, or some sort of sandbox exploration or construction vehicle. It doesn’t have to be a “serious” ultra-realistic game, but it has to be substantially non-linear, open, or in some other way making the player stop and re-evaluate future courses of action and set one’s own goals.
Finally, storytelling. This is by itself a complex field, requiring not only the coming up with stories, but also the reading and reflection of existing stories. This seems like something that current system is already attempting, however there are many important caveats. First, there’s the bias against listening to stories or watching them as opposed to reading, which is quite anachronistic.
The most progressive communication technologies are audiovisual, meaning that a new renaissance of oral culture, wrongly assumed to be automatically inferior, is upon us. Second, even being exposed to stories needs to be an interactive process. The students should be guided, but also allowed to choose which stories they want to expose themselves to, not just be dictated taste.
Another classical bias is towards “realistic” literature, but that’s also exactly wrong. All fiction is in a very concrete sense unrealistic, realism most of all, because it tries to trick us to accept it as reality. Speculative genres of literature are much better at stimulating imagination in a sense of preparing one’s mind for alternative futures or unconventional interpretations of today.
What About STEM and Jobs and Money?
Some of you probably read the suggestions above and don’t see anything useful in them, the useful things being scientific facts or skills for particular jobs. Leaving aside that trying to force children through a cookie-cutter education system to become workers is indoctrination and a form of intellectual violence, this kind of focus is self-defeating as well as cruel.
Even if you only care about turning children into workers, the same problem stated at the beginning of this article remains. As technology and society rapidly evolve, the current method of teaching is not conveying skills that will remain useful years down the line. In addition to it having miserable information retention rate, caused by lack of motivation or interaction.
If done properly, debating, gaming, and storytelling require extensive research into actual facts of the world, as well as both require and teach skills useful in real world jobs. The benefit is that along with the same facts and skills, there’s superior interaction and motivation, allowing students to learn and master both, and crucially, the mental faculties for adapting to change.
For too long have we taught our children to sit down, obey, and shut up, stifling their dreams and forcing them to serve the past they had nothing to do with. Unless we wish to make them suffer through the same nonsense that we have hated, simply out of spite, we have no justification at all for continuing a system that has been proven not to work. Let them control their own destiny.