Developing a vision for the future of institutionalised education

The following text is based on discussions in one of the working groups (education) at the Swiss Academy for Science and Technology (SATW) two-day meeting in Gwatt, Switzerland in February 2003. The aim of the meeting in Gwatt was to take advantage of the preparation for the forthcoming world summit about the information society (WSIS) to bring together some sixty key actors from the areas of education, health and government to explore ideas and make recommendations about the future of the information society. The texts in italics come from the report on the education working group’s activities. The subsequent text expresses my own personal ideas on the subject. Particular thanks go to Raymond Morel who organised the Gwatt meeting and to Ton van Weert who chaired the education working group.

1. The introduction of ICTs is causing considerable tension between systems like those of education, health and democracy and what is happening outside those systems.

One of the major challenges of the Information Society is institutional change. Institutions are the building blocks of society and, as such, the future of society depends on our ability to adapt and/or develop institutions that structure and give sense to our lives. Metaphors based on living organisms and recent theories of self-organising systems help understand the functioning of our institutions in a more satisfactory way than earlier models based on machines and computers. However, much thinking about institutional change is still based on what Edward de Bono called “rock logic”, that is to say the discrete nature of parts of the system that are seen as capable of being moved around and manipulated without affecting the rest of the system.

2. Much important learning takes place outside the educational systems. This situation fundamentally challenges the pertinence of institutional based learning.

Studies have shown that much learning using ICTs takes place outside schools. Educational institutions have considerable difficulties reconsidering their relationship with learning taking place outside their own limits. The question challenges one of the unspoken central tenets of school: school is the privileged place for learning. Correctly speaking, school is the privileged place of teaching, but not necessarily of learning. Learning and teaching are not at all synonymous. In their difficulty to recognise the challenge that comes from increasing non-formal learning, schools run the risk of being seen as marginal by society and loosing their essential role in helping to structure our understanding of what learning is about.

3. Educational goals need to be redefined to take this into account. Redefining goals needs to be related to defining competencies, integration into education and forms of evaluation.

In redefining the goals of education because of the challenges of the current situation and innovating in the structuring of learning, changes need to be directly related to competencies and how the acquisition of these competencies can be integrated into the curriculum and the evaluation system. This area represents one of the major axes of work for the future: defining goals, devising new structures, identifying competences, elaborating ways of developing these competencies, creating suitable forms of evaluation.

4. People need to ask fundamental questions – this is the main purpose of education.

This thought reflects the shift away from the image of education as the “mechanical” transmission of knowledge towards a more constructivist approach to learning in which individuals need to construct their own understanding. Such a position inevitably challenges the idea that knowledge can be handed readily from one person to another. The constructivist approach introduces the idea that exchange and processes are the keys to learning. It also challenges the validity of the sytem whereby experts develop knowledge in lieu of others and then “transfer” this knowledge to those who need it.

A second thread of thought can be seen in this statement: learning has to do with asking questions more than providing answers. Much institutional learning is rooted in providing answers. Providing answers is reassuring. Being able to provide convincing answers has become an essential part of the identity of many people and many institutions. The “half-life” of ready-made answers is getting progressively shorter as our understanding of society becomes more and more complex and change accelerates. This phenomenon reduces the value and the usefulness of such answers and threatens individuals and groups in their perceived identity.

Assumptions are extremely convenient and absolutely necessary if we are to function in a complex world. Very many things have to be taken for granted. If fundamental choices were continually challenged, nothing would ever get done. Yet, at the same time, when change accelerates, foregone conclusion and the self-evident can lead to serious mistakes of judgement in a fast changing world.

There is an art to asking questions that has something akin to childlike wonder and naivety. So we need to cultivate a certain “enraptured detachment” that marvels in seeing the self-evident as something new and strange.

5. Answers to such questions are sometimes available elsewhere but are not always accessible.

The reference here is to the barriers between areas of activity when it comes to the flow of information. This is particularly the case between research and teaching practice. The dynamics of the research context are often such that there is little incentive to communicate results to anyone other than fellow researchers. This situation is unacceptably wasteful. We need a more “ecological” approach to knowledge and its development.

There are often fundamental differences in perspective between researchers and those working in the field, like teachers, requiring a considerable effort to establish exchange of knowledge and experience between these actors. A possible answer might lie in some form of “co-learning”.

6. All projects should be based on the idea of action research : Integrating programming, content, research and use.

Following on from the conclusion of the European eWatch project, it is argued that all activities in education should be organised around “research communities” involving software developers, content developers, teachers, supporting staff and research workers. From the research perspective this would be called “action research”.

7. The first step to shaping the modern world is developing a shared vision based on a clear idea of what is happening.

The idea of developing a “vision” was put forward in Gwatt as the first step towards launching appropriate activities in the so-called “Information Society”, in particular as far as the digital divide is concerned. Note that there is not one “digital divide”, but many. For example North/South, East/West, poor/rich, men/women, young/old, town/countryside, trained/untrained, … The word “vision” – whose impact has become somewhat blunted through overuse and abuse – refers here to the need to address the underlying values and goals that shape action. The question of ethics was discussed in a separate group in Gwatt. It would seem that that discussion was more centred on the meaning of “ethics” than the role of clarifying values in change processes.

The aim of having a “shared” vision is above all to promote the transparent discussion of values and goals in a world where much of the driving motivation behind action goes unchallenged and undiscussed. A “clear idea of what is happening” proves necessary as many claims to truth turn out to be based on beliefs or wishes rather than “hard” facts. Science was put forward as a paradigm of objective truth, but unfortunately science is not always as objective or as truthful as scientists would wish and this for reasons that are themselves quite scientific.

Practically speaking, developing such a shared vision requires the promotion a culture of open, transparent exchange about values and goals. It requires cultivating a “naïve” approach that challenges foregone conclusions and the self-evident in a drive to understand the values and goals that underlie our action.

8. A core group of universities be set up who agree to evolve such a global vision and implement it in institutional strategy and practice.

To give body to these ideas and to translate them into concrete actions, a couple of suggestions were put forward. One, from Francis Moret, concerned the North-South twinning of schools using ICTs with a view to developing a relationship that seeks to avoid “neo-colonialism”. That is to say, the setting up of two-way exchange of ideas and knowledge that not only respects diversity but considers it as an immense source of richness. It would be interesting to explore what concrete effects such a value system would have on learning and on teaching institutions.

Another action, put forward by Tom van Weert, concerned mobilising universities to implement the propositions given here. Universities were singled out because they represent a key step in providing skills and knowledge for professional activities and are relatively close to the professional world. One could argue that the whole education system should be concerned, but universities have greater freedom than schools or colleges in determining their policies and obtaining additional funding and as such are more able to implement the necessary changes. The major question is going to be to what extent existing academic culture and the related ways of working can be modified through a process designed to elaborate a shared vision.

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