Education Opinion

Preparing Children for ‘A Lifetime of Change’

By Alfred B. Bortz — May 07, 1986 10 min read

When the American Association for the Advancement of Science asked me to be a “resource person” for its Project 2061 panel on technology, I was faced with a challenge worthy of the television program “Mission Impossible": “Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to recommend technological topics to include in an educational program that will prepare today’s children for the technology of their lifetimes--from now through the next appearance of Halley’s Comet in 2061.”

Like the television heroes, I accepted the challenge. It didn’t take me long to realize what I had let myself in for. I began to ask myself questions with no answers: How can I help prepare children for a lifetime of change, when it is perilous to predict technological developments even five years in advance? How can I anticipate revolutionary developments comparable to the transistor, the laser, or gene splicing? How can I judge what will be possible, both technologically and economically, well into the next century?

But Halley’s Comet proved to be a powerful metaphor, providing the answers by leading me to more answerable questions. Viewed up close and subjected to the sun’s intense radiation and the buffeting of the solar wind, the comet is a complex, dynamic, turbulent system. But viewed from the standpoint of history, its appearance, though remarkable and spectacular at each transit, was much the same for the ancient Chinese, for William the Conquerer at the Battle of Hastings, for Edmund Halley, for Mark Twain’s parents, and for the sellers of Comet Pills in 1910. ‘

From that perspective, I realized that I should note the rapid technological and social changes of the past 76 years, but not focus on them. I concluded that I should seek an underlying regularity--the “natural laws” and concepts that form a basis for describing and understanding the apparent turbulence. Just as Halley viewed the written record of the spectacular appearances of the comet as additional data to buttress his calculations of its periodic visitations, so I should view the remarkable technological developments of this century as data, and seek a principle that they suggest. Without a principle, data have importance in themselves, and instructors can expect students to learn them. But once a principle is known, the principle, not the data, becomes the primary object of the lesson.

But what is the principle here? The data show remarkable parallels between the increasing rate of social and historical change and the increasing rate of technological change over the past two Halley periods. A scientist, observing variables that change together, seeks a principle that defines or quantifies the relationship between those variables, making it possible to predict the changes in one that accompany changes in another. Is there a cause-and- effect relationship between technological and social change? If so, which is the cause and which the effect?

I take the position that technological change is the cause of historical and social change. From stone tools and fire to integrated circuits and nuclear fusion, our technology has shaped our interactions with our environment, with other species, and with other humans. Our success as a species--and as individuals and groups within the species--depends on technology. Individuals need not understand the inner workings of the technology around them, but they must be aware of how to use that technology (or be dependent on those who are) in order to benefit from it. Technological awareness was a survival kill in the Stone Age. It is a survival skill today. It will be a survival skill in 2061.

What are the implications of this view for education?

Scientific, technological, and mathematical capability must be an object of science and mathematics education for a segment of society, but technological awareness must be an objective of education for all. From this point of view, the key question in “phase I” of Project 2061, “What ought to I constitute the science, mathematics, and technology ‘content’ of courses for all children passing through our elementary and secondary schools?” can be restated, “How can we provide our students with the educational basis necessary to acquire and maintain technological awareness?”

School boards, without realizing it, have been grappling with that question already. Unfortunately, their solution typically has been to develop programs designed to address their own uncertainties about a particular technology: “computer literacy” program’. That is precisely the wrong approach, for three reasons. First, using a computer is becoming more and more a matter of using a keyboard and following instructions; a person who is literate is already computer-literate. Second, computer literacy programs, in emphasizing the use of computers, generally neglect considerations of the effects of computers and the information explosion on society. Finally, other equally significant technologies (genetic engineering, for example) are given far less emphasis. The emphasis on computers seriously distorts students’ sense of technological priority.

The development of computer-literacy programs should raise a caution flag for those who respond to this essay by saying, “What we need is a technological-awareness program!” Technology is too pervasive to segregate it from the rest of learning. It must pervade the educational process as it pervades our lives. In the study of world history, how can one forget the thread of scientific and technological development? Technology affects exploration, warfare, health, and industrial growth. Scientific ideas, like Darwin’s theory of evolution and Copernicus’ heliocentric model of planetary motion, have dramatically changed our view of our species’ and our planet’s station in the universe.

My conclusion, then, is that our curricula must identify those basic scientific skills and concepts that enhance precollege education in general and technological awareness in particular, while still providing a substantive background for those students who will study science and mathematics with careers in mind. Those skills and concepts are, as I see it, information, observation, measurement, and invention.

• Information. Student’! must develop early the ability to acquire, organize, and use new information. The process begins with learning to read and write; learning to use libraries and reference books soon follows. Future curricula will, no doubt, include the use of electronic databases as a matter of course. In this process, science courses can contribute a valuable concept: the scientific notion of information and the technology of acquiring it, encoding it, storing it, communicating it, and analyzing it. Information is more than bits and bytes or a sequence of nucleotides on a molecule of DNA; it is the tangible representation of knowledge, ideas, and biological inheritance.

• Observation. Observation is a valuable skill in any profession, but it is especially important in science. The content of science courses should include discussions of observation, followed by laboratory work designed to develop observation skills. In terms of information, observation includes acquisition and analysis, but it goes far beyond that. A good observer uses background knowledge to put the observations into context and to draw conclusions from them.

The context is often a model. The ability to use models as aids in critical thinking is a valuable skill in any intellectual activity. Science courses, by teaching about and providing experiences in observation, can train high-school graduate to use models in their thinking. College-bound students should learn that a good model reveals the essential characteristics of that which is being observed, and provides the framework into which new knowledge can be incorporated. They should also learn that when an observation challenges the model, the observer must scrutinize both model and observation to resolve the conflict between them, usually by refining the model or the observation technique.

• Measurement. Many discoveries result from qualitative observation, but others require quantitative observation-measurement. Because technology relies on measurement, technological awareness requires an understanding of that concept. Furthermore, many students will eventually be employed as technicians or in other positions requiring skill in measurement. To become truly skilled, these students will need an education that gives them a full appreciation of measurement.

Most people regard all measurements as exact, but, in fact, the idea of precision is becoming more muddled. For example, students as young as elementary-school age have digital stopwatches that measure intervals to the nearest 0.01 second, despite the students’ 0.25-second reaction time. Computer displays show long strings of digits following decimal points, and people impute meaning to every digit. It is now more essential than ever to involve students in measurement activities throughout their study of science and to tress constantly the limits on precision. It is also necessary, in the upper grades, to convey the message that these limits on measurement impose limits on the capabilities of machines. Without that message, students will develop unrealistic expectations for technology-- a dangerous situation for a world of expensive technological weapons with a frightening capability for destruction.

• Invention. Human creativity and imagination are highly valued. Yet, the inevitable need for structure in education tends to stifle them. This tension between structure and creativity is greatest in science and mathematics. With the exception of grammar, those are the most inherently structured subjects of all. But the history of science and mathematics is filled with remarkably creative intellectual breakthroughs, and the application of science in technology demands a particular kind of creativity and imaginative thinking, which we call invention.

How can we resolve the apparent paradox of structure and creativity? How can science education promote an understanding of invention? The first step is to recognize that there are two kinds of structure in education, one that encourages creativity and one that stifles it. The creativity-stifling kind we call “organization.” Organization forces people to think in terms of an established set of categories; it is a very necessary evil in many forms of human activity, including education.

In contrast, the kind of structure we call a “framework” liberates creativity. Poems and musical compositions have definite forms. A creative writer can violate the grammatical framework only with the utmost care. Scientific ideas and inventions are built on the framework of previous knowledge and concepts. As Newton put it, he stood “on the shoulders of giants.”

Science courses can teach about invention by drawing the distinction between organization and framework, by showing how new ideas and inventions arise from a framework. All students need to know how inventions arise; they need to understand how to deal with the inventions that will occur in their lifetimes. Those students who are gifted with creativity will learn more than “about inventions"; they will learn how to make the most of their inventiveness. I offer this challenge to inventive curriculum developers: Find a way for students to experience the exhilaration of discovery and invention for themselves. Surround them with a framework of knowledge and concepts, put them in a setting where new observations may lead to discovery, and point out to them that their discovery was once new to all of humankind.

What I see as the unifying theme of this essay is that educators should view the structure of education as a framework, not an organization. Disciplines, although different in their goals and databases, are interdependent, often in surprising ways. Educators should strengthen that framework by establishing links to other disciplines, providing students with a strong foundation for intellectual growth and technological awareness--survival skills necessary for lives that will extend through the next Halley period.

Building that framework will require educators in all disciplines to take a long-term view of those disciplines and their interrelationships, to recognize that ''hot topics” may be short-term spectacles that can be used to advantage as data to illustrate important principles. Those of us concerned with teaching science and mathematics should view the passage of Halley’s Comet from that perspective. For an individual, observing its transit is a once-in-a-lifetime event; but for humanity, it occurs again and again, providing us with markers against which to view changes and, more important, to discover what is constant.

A version of this article appeared in the May 07, 1986 edition of Education Week