Saturday, January 03, 2009

Education Will Change Everything?

What will change everything? What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live and see?

So begins John Brockman's interesting way to get us thinking in 2009. There are many interesting answers offered by scientists and writers across numerous fields, but I found these observations about education the most interesting.

Chris Anderson, A Web-Empowered Revolution in Education and Haim Harari, At Last Technology Will Change Education begin by offering us the hope that education will truly be transformed by technology. Anderson suggests

"the means of spreading both knowledge and inspiration have never been greater. Five years ago, an amazing teacher or professor with the ability to truly catalyze the lives of his or her students could realistically hope to impact maybe 100 people each year. Today that same teacher can have their words spread on video to millions of eager students. There are already numerous examples of powerful talks that have spread virally to massive Internet audiences."

Both Anderson and Harari identify a number of the technological developments that will transform education. They note that "the physical cost of distributing a recorded talk or lecture anywhere in the world via the internet has fallen effectively to zero," "the speed and price of data transmission, the advances in software systems, the feasibility of remote video interactions, the price reduction of computers, fancy screens and other gadgets, finally begin to lead to the realization that special tailor-made devices for schools and education are worth designing and producing." Harari notes "the generation that grew up with a computer at home is reaching the teacher ranks. The main obstacle of most education reforms has always been the training of the teachers. This should be much easier now.

Harari though warns us about the dangers if we fail to expand education, "a technology-driven globalization is forcing us to see, to recognize and to fear the enormous knowledge gaps between different parts of the world and between segments of society within our countries. It is a major threat to everything that the world has achieved in the last 100 years, including democracy itself."

Roger Schank, in an article titled, Wisdom Reborn, has a more narrow, but still compelling way in which technology will change us. He suggests the

"days of just in time storytelling will return. The storyteller will be your computer. The computers we have today are capable of understanding your needs and finding just the right (previously archived and indexed) wise man (or woman) to tell you a story, just when you need it, that will help you think something out. Some work needs to be done to make this happen of course. No more looking for information. No more libraries. No more key words. No more search engines.

Information will find you, and just in the nick of time. And this will "change everything."

Alison Gopnik, Never Ending Childhood, suggests that developing a knowledge-based economy will depend on us continuing to learn through our lifetimes and she suggests that this will require us to foster "child-like learning" for longer periods of time. She writes,

"The world is transforming from an agricultural and manufacturing economy to an information economy. This means that people will have to learn more and more. The best way to make it happen is to extend the period when we learn the most — childhood. Our new scientific understanding of neural plasticity and gene regulation, along with the global spread of schooling, will make that increasingly possible. We may remain children forever — or at least for much longer.

Humans already have a longer period of protected immaturity — a longer childhood — than any other species. Across species, a long childhood is correlated with an evolutionary strategy that depends on flexibility, intelligence and learning. There is a developmental division of labor. Children get to learn freely about their particular environment without worrying about their own survival — caregivers look after that. Adults use what they learn as children to mate, predate, and generally succeed as grown-ups in that environment. Children are the R & D department of the human species....

These changes reflect brain changes. Young brains are more connected, more flexible and more plastic, but less efficient. As we get older, and experience more, our brains prune out the less-used connections and strengthen the connections that work. Recent developments in neuroscience show that this early plasticity can be maintained and even reopened in adulthood. And, we've already invented the most unheralded but most powerful brain-altering technology in history — school."

Stephon Alexander, On Basketball and Science Camps

Maybe the most powerful idea is suggested by Stephon Alexander who reminds us that we spend much more time nurturing and coaching athletic skills than science skills. He relates his own life-changing experience of spending a summer at science camp rather than basketball camp and the transformative results. He asks,
"What if there were a global organization of scientists and educators dedicated to identifying (or scouting) the potential Michael Jordans of science, regardless of what part of the world they are from and regardless of socioeconomic background? ...What if these students were provided the resources to reach their full potential and naturally forge a global community of scientific peers and friends? What we would have is, among many benefits, an orchestrated global effort to address the most pressing scientific problems that current and future generations must confront: the energy crisis, global warming, HIV, diplomacy to name a few. I think an initiative that markets the virtues of science on every corner of the planet, with the same urgency as the basketball scouts on corners of street ball courts, would change the world. Such a reality has long been my vision..."
Mine too!

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