Part I How much is too much – to Study

Ask me that when I was at school, I would have whooped with joy at hearing of the 50% cut in proposed by the current senior minister in charge of education in India. Who does not like the thought of one’s deliverables being reduced by half, especially if the only thing expected of you is rote learning that feels quite meaningless to you at that time.

I can respect that child’s desire, I can also understand parents’ support. After all, if the rote is halved, how much more can you perfect the rote in the time that is saved? A better chance for perfection is it not? Not. There is no point in perfecting what is inherently useless, neither is there any point to halving what is essential foundation for life and work. The discussion only makes sense in the context of a debate on the relevance of the current curriculum to the civic and professional skills that the student is expected to require in order to lead a good life. This discussion has not happened, nor have we had the essential conversation about moving away from assessment led learning.

Specific to India, we also need a discussion about teaching and learning for meaning – very little of the material in the higher classes at school actually offers more than a mechanical or technical understanding of tools and clearly does not enable students to build with it, nor does it foster any analytical or innovative thinking or drive application. This, as a new goal has been announced, and we have begun to celebrate students who are able to demonstrate basic independent thinking, but this is still clearly misaligned with the mainstream. The projects that get marks are often built by shops, the projects that get awards are often at the cost of marks in the main examinations. Unless facilitated by a great teacher, the material remains largely inaccessible to anyone seeking more than a rote learning exercise, as is both efficient and traditional. Normal, it is called. An ad hoc reduction of curriculum merely engages the shallow populist space, while what we need is a conversation about what learning is an essential foundation to building constructive futures for our students.

This conversation about rationalising the curriculum in line with a new understanding of student needs is not just current in India. Across countries comes the realisation that the students of today face an unknown future which cannot be prepared for with the tools of the past. The acknowledgement that we cannot teach for the future is special not because it is true, but because it comes from a rare honest humility amongst educators. The future has always been unknown, and for the past few centuries, the pace of change has clearly accelerated making old pedagogy and curriculum irrelevant to the students of their age. The shift to digital has brought with it a rare acknowledgement of that fact. The future is not only digital, but we expect it to be both pervasive and ubiquitous. And it is in this rare crack between the old world of accessing information and in the new world of being driven by information that we find ourselves, as educators, ready to embrace a new paradigm.

There are a few new truths that we acknowledge: First, that access to knowledge is not going to remain a differentiator. So those who know more things are not necessarily smarter, or more useful in the future workplace. We already google most things we do not know, and often learn much of what we need on the internet without having to access traditional certification systems. This is (almost) equally accessible to everybody, so in this day and age rote learning of facts, dates and formulae make little sense. They say it is early days yet, but already machines have learnt to diagnose faster than doctors, to do the work of lawyers, consultants and investment bankers with equal or more efficiency, and to run our factories and farms with more accountability than ever before. Into this utopia, or its very opposite, what is the worth of traditional learning?

One has to agree, that the names of kings and dates of battles become less relevant, but what remains relevant is an understanding of causes and consequences. Teach that, if you can, without evidencing it through history. While reciting poems, or knowing the names of great writers and their styles may be redundant, how can one deny the capacities of the brain that are fostered through such learning. The human condition will change, as we choose to cede ground to machines, as will its relationships within, but could that mean that we deny the arts, beyond the basics? For if we do, then do we also deny the next generation the comfort of aesthetic alignment, the wisdom of community or the secret pleasures of delving into other selves. Or it could be the case that we study just these, since it is community that will sustain us in work and in health, and drop some sciences and mathematics.

The question is not what, but the question today, and for this decade is, how much. How much of the physical sciences, the social sciences, applied sciences and the creative arts should form part of essential learning. Take the case of mathematics – beyond arithmetic we study geometry, algebra, trigonometry and calculus at school, among other things. These are a stress and a burden to students today, and are often irrelevant to their lives going forward. It is true, that most people in the first world in ordinary jobs can survive the world without needing to know the relationship between the three sides of a triangle, or even knowing that the rate of change is a first derivative function, and it’s rate of change is a second derivative. Sure, one can let them off the hook, and in doing so, let us also let them off the chance to swing up to the fast track to greater mobility. Let us say that it is enough for them to know that when you press the pedal the car moves faster, why do they need to bother their heads with understanding acceleration and its increase when they will probably live in a world of self driving cars that are designed and built by robots anyway. Let us train them to consume, not create. It takes less work, and the world will still go round.

Maybe the idea of entering a more sophisticated world is to create a more simple living experience for our students. Going forward, they will not need to know the travails of running out of milk since their machines would have looked after all of that, many will not even need to know the relationship of milk and cattle. Nor would they need to know any more than the box or bottle of orange juice, since it will be part of the process. So why should every student learn about different climes, and soils, and flora and fauna, or even the process of the germination of a seed since they do not need it for work. It is possible that in one of our possible futures our students may not even need to work. They can receive a basic income and continue to exist. This is a real and valid argument that must be acknowledged.

The future is fuzzy for all of us, and we cannot do more than forecast its contours. We have worked to figure out a set of skills essential to surviving the next century, and we are building it into our education systems. Our next generation is therefore likely to communicate better than we do, to be more creative, to collaborate better and so forth. We see that the jobs of the present, not just the future are nothing like the jobs we were prepared for, and we do see that many of these jobs truly do not require any trigonometry, or physics. Or so it would seem.

There are a few things that we do know about the near future, that is the next few decades that will be the working life span of current students. While much of the work that we consider mainstream will be automated, there will be jobs of managing and calibrating that automation. Even if burgers and fries are cooked and served by machines, much of the task of maintaining and fixing these machines will still be managed by human teams. As will the tasks of building brands, and operations strategies, and indeed, negotiating with the automata makers. Humans move up the value chain in an automated future. But how can they do so by being educated less? There is a case for being educated differently, in ways that extracts greater value from the sum of human knowledge, but this cannot be done by chunking and chucking away such knowledge. The information age will be led by those humans who have access to more than what machines know. If machines are becoming learning organisms fed by more and better information, then humans, our students must be educated in supra information, which we have traditionally called knowledge and wisdom. This is, simultaneously, and separately, a case for redefining knowledge, and for building knowledge hierarchies for the information age, and the industrial age 4.0 and beyond.

We also know that human societies have not been equal so far, and what we have seen of this nascent AI driven world does not encourage us to believe that the future is being designed to be egalitarian. This means that the burden of social and economic mobility remains with education systems. It cannot be wrong to say that those who leapfrog their hurdles would continue to be better, smarter, faster and more than their peers. One cannot be more by learning less. If we cut back on what students are offered as learning opportunities, we are also cutting back on their ability to excel beyond their peers. Those with the abilities should be able to choose a track that enables them to use all their potential. By offering them less, we do not give them a chance to demonstrate all their potential – and thus hold them back in their social and economic class. To create a more equitable world, we have to offer students more than ever before – and we have to offer them the choice of building their own track.

All students do not need to engage with calculus, but those who can must be able to access it in the ordinary way. We are now privileged to live in a world where this is possible without prohibitive costs for schools and systems. Those who are able to know more, do more, deliver more and create more value will continue to be those on the fast track to professional success, others can continue on the path to their personal success. The key to this is not cutting back on content, but is to offer low stakes engagement with traditional and new ‘difficult’ curricula material with great upside and limited downside. This is akin to what we used to do in financial engineering when we created basic derivatives – we are now in the land of education engineering where we create options for each student and cohort.

We also know that students would not be able to choose what they do not know and understand, which means that for students to have a fair chance and choice of career, they need to be able to arrive at a certain basic level of experience, and competence in different areas. This was normally included in the curriculum at the post – 16 level to allow students to chose their best talents. But in order to deliver sensible information to the teen student, there needed to be a foundation that would enable this talent and competence to be discovered, so there was a basic foundation built in most curricula at the under 16 level, across the world. This did clearly put the burden on students aged 13-16, since they were expected to build a foundation in areas that they may not pursue in life at all. The dilemma here is that unless they engage with the material to a reasonable degree of depth, they may not discover their affinity for it at all, and if they do not engage with the content, they will miss out on opportunities. It is a fair choice only if it is an informed choice, so cutting back on the content of the syllabus only reduces the fairness of the choice. If it is made easy and accessible to all, then those who have distinct talents would only be enabled at the general level and may not ever rise to their talents.

For the sake of a chance, choice was lost. Students need to have a go at it, or they will never know if they are any good. It is like driving a car, the first time you have a go, you may be okay at it, but it is only once you have mastered the basics and then had a chance to understand the engine, it’s working and its capacities that you can actually figure out whether you have it in you to be a racing car driver or not. It was only when the gear engagement mechanism was explained to me that I realised the futility of pressing on the clutch when the vehicle was speeding downhill. Of course, we’ve already acknowledged that these students will be in self driving cars, but someone will be designing the anti collision designs for these cars – how will they know if they are any good at it unless they have a proper go at it.

Now again, we must concede that putting this content in the syllabus is not the only option, nor is school the only place to have a go. There is a case to be made to make school simpler and to bring more choice to this element of preparing to make informed choices. If this learning for careers is to be experiential, and both competency and skill driven, then there is every reason to create learning structures that meet these needs outside of school too. The challenge is going to be to create equal access to these and to create enough motivation for students to engage past the initial hurdles and discover the joy of that domain if it matches their talent, interest and potential. Creating equal access surprisingly becomes a smaller problem in richer countries than the latter issue of creating motivation to take a chance. Building these structures becomes a challenge that is on us, educators.

Finally, after the small certainties, there is a reason based on uncertainty. We may cut back on what we traditionally considered the basics of high school learning thinking that they do not really need this information or knowledge. But how do we know for sure that they will not need it in the future just because they have not needed it in the past? If the future is more complex, as it will be for those who design the future, then they will need to know more rather than less. Those who do not engage with higher expectations and knowledge will be left in the grey zone, where they may not lead satisfying lives – thus defeating the purpose of education itself. Those who are taught and able to reach greater levels of complexity will continue to design the world, and make the rules that enable them to win. Those who are taught only what is essential to survive, will do just that, survive and no more. It is our choice of syllabus and curricula that begins to decide this divide.

For example, one does not need advanced physics to live one’s life, not does one need to memorise and apply speed, and velocity equations in life. But then, take the case of the football world cup that is incredibly popular and a multi billion dollar industry globally. For this example one could include all major ball games. The play of a ball – it’s force, velocity, speed, direction, aim and vectors are all elements of pure physics. The changing shape of the ball was an exercise in science, and those who could master it, won. Not just players but also commentator and indeed passionate fans of the sport need to know their high school physics to be able to create that moment of achievement and magic that is the very essence of sports. The very same students who complain about high school workloads find their opportunities in sports fashion, or entertainment amongst many others because they have been offered the launchpad of a fine foundation in high school. Again, it is nobody’s case that high school students should continue to remain burdened with things that they are clearly not going to pursue – but can a high school footballer truly say today that they are not in need of some semi advanced physics and chemistry, and indeed math to improve their game and body, both? Survival of the fittest is no longer a game of chance, it is a science, and those who rise to it will survive the future.

The professions of the future are going to be myriad, and will involve combining knowledge from what we still call disciplines. For example a space chef will need to know vector physics as well as molecular gastronomy, body chemistry and so much more. Now these professions do not get designated – they evolve. So, it does not start with a certified course and a curriculum where they learn all that they need to know for a specific job title. Indeed, the very era of job titles and specific certifications may already be past. What these students need is competencies, and the ability to connect the dots. Either we provide them with enhanced basics that prepare them to learn more, or we resign ourselves to the fact that these jobs of the future will go to the self motivated elite who went beyond reduced syllabi to learn, adapt and prepare for a world that has room for human endeavour only at the higher order of the value chain.

What we have here is a clear case for curriculum reform, but not with the simple objective of reducing the course load for teenagers but with the more complex goal of realigning for success in the future both personally and professionally. We need to redesign for teenagers who truly do need to sleep longer in the mornings and do not deserve to be tested in their hormonal years, who are confused about the very need and relevance of their species in the din of the conversations about an imminent singularity, who are faced with the very stark reality of automation and AI taking over their jobs – and thus a need to educate and skill themselves to a higher level than previous expectations. This is a process of evolution that we educators must recognise and engineer a new type of education – layered, substantive, relevant and comprehensive, on call.

Meeta Sengupta

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