There are many huge differences between the educational model the world had in the past (and still has today), and the model of education for the future in which our kids will live. One of the starkest is this:
In the past, intellectual development came through the interaction of individual minds in the same room, ideally in conversation. Education was fundamentally local.
Now in the new, digital age, intellectual development comes through the interaction of minds that are not only extended by technology, but networked and working together. Education is now essentially global.
The need to educate in this global, connected sense is almost entirely new in our educational world (although grown-up intellectuals in the past knew about its importance and exchanged voluminous letters.) We have not, as a global society, figured out yet how to do it — much less do it well and for everyone. It is a big reason we are all struggling so much — as students, as teachers, as administrators, and as parents.
Today, the only ones really doing it well are some of the kids. They are, on their own, reaching out, connecting, teaching and learning from each other, and becoming the people they want to be. Our job as educators is to figure out how best to help them.
The “New Core”
The overall, most fundamental skills that all people — young or old — need in order to succeed are the ability to think effectively, act effectively, relate effectively and accomplish effectively. (Our “new core” subjects, as I see them, should be Effective Thinking, Effective Action, Effective Relationships and Effective Accomplishment.) For millennia, we have artificially separated these: School focused on the process of Intellectual development, i.e. becoming an effective thinker. Effective Action was the province of apprenticeship, formal or informal. Relating effectively was the province of the family and extended family. Accomplishment came in adulthood. I believe this artificial distinction will dramatically change in third millennium education (see my past and future posts).
For the moment, let’s focus on what school has traditionally been doing — intellectual development i.e. Effective Thinking.
The Old Education Model: Local Interaction
In the past, the intellectual development that happened in school came through the meeting of individual minds in the same room (ideally) in conversation. This model, which includes both the groupings of students with teachers (going back to Socrates in Athens) and the combination of students and personal tutors for those who could afford it, became the modern classroom-based and, occasionally, tutor-assisted education of today.
At this model’s best, individuals practice thinking together within a small, limited group (the class), while extending their minds, to the extent they can, through the technology of reading. Exchanging of ideas is typically limited to the group (wider networking, say through technologies like “pen pals,” has never really taken off in most places). School remained, through the 20th century, and up until today, extremely local.
Still — particularly with a great teacher (e.g. Socrates) — this was, in those times, a useful way to become a person who thought effectively — in what was, essentially, a mostly local world. And, with a one-on-one tutor (for those with access), this intellectual development could be quite personalized.
That is the model for intellectual learning that most of the world’s schools still have today. We develop kids’ thinking locally, in classrooms, through the interaction with teachers (and when possible, with individual tutors). Peer-to-peer intellectual development, although sometimes acknowledged, is not given a great deal of emphasis or importance in most places.
The New Education Model: Extended Brains, Networked Globally
But that is not how things are beginning to happen in the new world. Now, in the digital age, we are seeing the emergence of a model of intellectual development that is very different — a model that we are just beginning to comprehend and understand how to use effectively. That new model is one of extended minds, all networked together.
By extended minds, I mean minds enhanced by all of the technologies that allow people not just to take in information (as they could with reading) but to combine, analyze, and manipulate the information in new ways via technology. Using technology, students can now combine and analyze world databases (e.g. through Wolfram Alpha, one of whose interfaces is Siri). They can simulate trillions of trials of things and populations. They can extend their reach through robotics and artificial intelligence. And so much more that is new. (See my book Brain Gain.)
And, most importantly, they can do this work together, on a global basis. Because of the Internet, school projects can be global, combining students efforts to understand brain architecture (Eyewire), explore the universe (Galaxy Zoo), discover new drugs (Fold-it), and so many other things — while the kids are still in primary and secondary school.
We do not as yet have an educational model for this. But we can watch our best individual young people educate themselves. More and more who are dropping out of the existing educational system are doing this. They know they can do it better.
And, in our new digital, networked and global age, we also need new models for teaching, promoting and encouraging Effective Action, Effective Relationships and Effective Accomplishment in all our students.
We have a lot of work to do.
As always, your comments are welcome.
The opinions expressed in Prensky’s Provocative Ed-Tech Thinking are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.