Sunday, March 18, 2012

Will the Physical Classroom still be around in 2030?

I attended a think-tank this weekend on the future of education.  My involvement included particpating in a debate.  The propostion was: "The Physical classroom will no longer exist in 2030".  I argued against, and here is my speech.

Wade Davis informed us that among the 670 dialects native to Australia, not one had words to differentiate between the past, present and future.  Instead, the Aboriginal people lived in a never changing dreamtime.  But when it comes to predicting the state of education nearly twenty years hence, I wonder, who exactly is dreaming?

We have a present that is present and we call it now; we had a present that once was but no longer is, and we call it the past; we have a hypothetical present that has yet to be and we call it the future – only this last has never been experienced and is consequently entirely uncertain. 

I have a great deal of certainty about the present that is now.  For instance I know that I am typing these words and I am hoping that you will enjoy and agree with them.  I know this because I am experiencing it and this gives me subjective certainty.  I have some certainty about the present that is past.  For instance I know with some certainty that I attended the musical “Annie” last night.  In this case, my knowledge is based on experience and memory.  But of the future I have no certainty at all. Because it has yet to be, because it has never yet existed and has never been experienced, my knowledge of this hypothetical realm cannot be more than expectations, hopes and wishes.  Indeed often our predictions of the future are the consequence of little more than wish fulfillment.  And yet, we have people who will tell us with certainty that the physical classroom will no longer exist in 2030.

Such hubris reminds me of a book I picked up just yesterday, The Japanese Century by Thomas R. Zengage and C. Tait Ratcliffe. The authors, experienced members of the corporate world with MBAs, predicted in 1988 that the 21st century would belong to Japan.  The following year Japan’s economy began its long slip into recession.  No one is making that prediction anymore.  Zengage and Ratcliffe’s predictions look embarrassing, though they had good company at the time.

The fact is, we don’t know very much, even about the present, and especially not about the future.  Certainly there are trends.  But that’s the problem – there’s more than one – there are thousands of trends, and which will last, and which is the one, or the combination of 101 to watch – it’s impossible to say. But far worse than our ignorance is that, rather than acknowledging our limitations, we deceive ourselves into thinking that we know a lot with a great deal of certainty, and we end up fooling ourselves and others.

I’m reminded of a remark that was made by KlausWellershoff, the former Chief Economist at the UBS, at an economics conference I attended a couple of years ago.  Describing some of the factors that led to the financial crisis of 2007, he admitted: “We lacked the courage and  modesty to say ‘I don’t know’. This led our audience to believe that we did know and created false confidence. To deal with uncertainty is the fundamental fear in a management culture that demands certainty.”  He concluded: “We need to be more humble”.  I recommend that those who are confident that they can see the future of education eighteen years hence should practice some humility.

The idea that the classroom will no longer exist by 2030 is based upon the view, (or wish fulfillment) that education will be delivered by machines and online teachers. It is a commonly held belief of neophiliacs – those who suffer from an unhealthy obsession with the new.  They find the work of Mark Zuckerberg more interesting than that of Leo Tolstoy. Working with short bursts of attention, continually checking their online reputations, they are likely to use their newest obsession, like Wi-Fi technology, and as baseline and predict an over-technologized future that is heavily populated with their newest electronic pets.  In other words, the future is what is new in the present, just a lot more of it. But, while a characteristic of the old is that it will endure for a long time more, a characteristic of the new, is that most new things disappear rather quickly.  Remember the Sony Mini-Disc?  They were all the rage in Japan during the 1990s.  I have a collection of Miles Davis on Mini-Discs that I purchased in 1993 but never play anymore.  But last year Sony announced they will no longer ship Mini-Discs.  Twenty years from now the Mini-Disc will be just a memory, but we’ll still be listening to Kind of Blue.
As Nassim Nicholas Taleb has written: “To understand the future, you do not need the techno-autistic jargon OR obsession with killer apps or the sort.  You just need the following: some respect for the past, some curiosity about the historical record, a hunger for the wisdom of the elders – in other words, you will be forced to give weight to things that have been around, things that have survived”.  And lo and behold, the classroom has survived.  The physical classroom has been around a long time.  Indeed, with its invention in ancient Babylonia, the classroom is as old as the Egyptian pyramids.  In 3100 BC one grateful student in an Egyptian classroom wrote. “Thou didst beat me and knowledge entered my head”.  The classroom has survived, the methods have changed.

The neophiliacs often use the term “the factory classroom” or “the industrial model” when slamming current education and calling for radical change – a straw man if ever there was one (they are also fond of referring to teachers as being “conservative”, though that doesn't stop them from voting for the Republican or Conservative Party). But what “industrial model” are they referring to - that of Pestalozzi, or Frobel, Montessori, Harkness, Dalton, or Dewey? And what has this “Industrial model”, which apparently was invented in order to feed obedient workers into the factory system, has ever given us?  Well, 100% literacy for the first and only time in human history, for a start.  Indeed, the only countries that have successively achieved this feat, have done so by implementing some variation of the so called “industrial model”. 
But what else has it achieved (as if that is not enough).  Well, the modern classroom has been the place of education for many of the minds that have given us the technology of today, like Daguerre and the photograph; the Lumiere brothers and the motion picture; Roentgen and the X-ray; Edison and the phonograph; Fleming and the telephone.  And if that isn’t enough, East Lancing Public High School was the place where Larry Page, of Google fame,  was educated. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was educated at Philips Exeter Academy.  Founded in 1781 this high school uses the Harkness plan – teaching takes place seminar style, with the teacher having a conversation with a small group of students.  Zuckerberg learned the sciences, but also French, ancient Hebrew, Latin and ancient Greek.  Which reminds me, if the “industrial model” trained the mindless workers for the factory, why did so many of them insist on teaching Latin and ancient Greek?  Were these the languages spoken in the 19th century factories of Europe?

There was no one “industrial model” indoctrinating obedient factory workers.  Such a view is a one dimensional simplification of the past, an instrument used by those who want us to focus on 21st century skills – the skills that (it is perceived) will be needed in the corporate world.  The  real authoritarianism in education today is the view that we must provide 21st century skills in order to feed the modern day techno-serfs into an economic system based on corporate greed, where the one and only moral imperative is to maximize the profit of the share-holder.  That, with all of its techinical skills, is the true factory model.

On 17 May, 1993, Richard Gott, Professor of Astrophysics at Princeton, published an article in Nature magazine in which he claimed he could predict with 95% confidence how long 44 Broadway and off-Broadway plays would run.  With no information except how long each play had been running, his prediction turned out to be over 95% accurate.  His calculation, which involves simple math, is based on the principal that what is old will outlast what is new (except, of course, for the life expectancy of plants and animals, including humans).  He had earlier predicted that the Pyramids will outlast the Berlin Wall which, he claimed, will fall before 1993. (It fell in 1989).

I might be wrong, but I suspect that Twitter, Facebook and perhaps even the mighty Google will be gone, but the physical classroom will still be around.


  1. Even if it were possible for a student to gain EVERY PIECE of academic learning that he ever needed via machines and online teachers, it would not be enough. Ditto text books - they have all the academic facts, but that isn't enough.

    What students learn in the classroom starts with:
    -social skills with peers
    -negotiation skills with teachers
    -a passion for art, music, literature
    -sporting skills
    -sharing lunches
    -admiration for other cultures
    -cleanliness (etc etc.. add more yourself)

    I wonder what proportion of true learning can be found in machines and online teachers.

    1. I forgot to say. If the structured, socialised exchange of ideas that takes place in the classroom is necessary for true learning, a child home schooled by his/her mum is going to be seriously disadvantaged.

    2. Good point. Though many parents who choose for homeschooling do organise structured time for socialised exchange of ideas by means of day trips, museum and library visits, weekly get togethers etc with other homeschoolers.

  2. I couldn't agree more Hels. Online learning delivers information. Knowledge is created during the structured, socialized exchange of ideas that takes place in the classroom.

  3. Brilliantly said. Much is made of the awful industrial model for teaching which has, as you point out, its roots millennia ago. And, as you also argue, it's a pretty good system.

    For a long while, the powers that be where I taught had a "vision" of banks of standard curricula that could be delivered by poorly paid talking heads who knew nothing of the subject they were delivering. So far, it hasn't worked.

    As much of this boils down to "follow the money" as it does to neophilia.