The Future Part 1: Another Argument for Dumbing-Down

April 5, 2012

Although I have spent most of last year’s blogpost discussing the aims of education, and have tried to address every possible aim that can be given as an alternative to making children smarter by passing on knowledge, I have missed one of the key arguments against knowledge. This is the argument that technological and social change will mean that knowledge will not be valuable in the future. This claim can be used alongside any other argument for dumbing-down, but it is a distinct argument in that it is independent of whichever alternative aim of education is being put forward.

The argument is commonplace in education. Examples I will be looking at include the following speech by Caroline Walters, the “director of People and Policy” at BT:

She argues:

There is no doubt that global dynamics have shifted the ground beneath our feet, we have a global economic landscape that nobody could have imagined, probably even in their worst nightmares, but technology is having a profound impact on how and where we operate. What we are beginning to see is the thing that has been talked about for a long time become a reality: the global workforce.

This leads on to an explanation of how there will be no “knowledge economy” as knowledge will not be valuable in the future.

Another example appeared recently in a blogpost by Steve Wheeler, Associate Professor of learning technology in the Faculty of Health, Education and Society, at Plymouth University. A long argument against the teaching of knowledge is concluded with:

It’s about time we all woke up and realised that the world around us is changing, and schools need to change too. After all, the school still remains the first and most important place to train and prepare young people for work. If we don’t get it right in school, we are storing up huge problems for the future. Education is not life and death. It’s much more important than that.

However, the most infamous example, one that has been thrown at teachers time and time again and  provides the “factual” basis for so many others, is one that does not explicitly condemn knowledge or draw conclusions about teaching methods. Instead it bludgeons everyone around the head with outlandish claims about the impending obsolence of everything. Inevitably, I am talking about the “Shift Happens” video. The UK version of which is below:

The view that the future will have no place for existing forms of knowledge is an implicit assumption behind many of the attacks on the English Baccalaureate for favouring GCSE s in the “dead languages” of Latin and Greek over qualifications in ICT or engineering. It is behind most attempts to label educational ideas as “21st century” which are particularly common in the form of an absurd claim that there are distinctive 21st century skills and dispositions (criticised very effectively here).  It fits comfortably into the mindset of those who believe that technology will transform education (discussed here)  and those who have a “Whig view of history” which sees humankind as making continuing moral, technological and intellectual progress from a primitive past to a glorious present and into a utopian future. I argued here  that this type of thinking as an attempt to create a secular salvation narrative that is harmful when applied to education. However, in my next few blogposts I wish to contest the content of the argument rather than its philosophical background. I intend to answer the claim that the world is changing in such a way that our knowledge is no longer suited for it. This argument that such change has occurred, or is occurring is usually based on three grounds:

No doubt all these changes are happening. What is in severe doubt is whether they are unprecedented changes that serve to outdate all or most existing knowledge. I will address each of these points in my next few blogposts.

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  1. So true. Some years ago I was told that systematic curriculum was outdated, because there is simply too much to know. I asked if there were not certain thing that a 15 year should know and was told that what was needed is skills and not knowledge in an information economy. I responded, “so what matters is how students feel about things they have no specific knowledge about.” I got no response.

  2. I bet someone will still have to clean the toilet.
    I’m pretty sure people will still get sick, babies will need their nappies changed, people will live in houses, people will wear clothes, people will eat food and drive around in cars. They might even do these things in China.
    People seem pretty happy interacting with technology. It is other people they have trouble with.

  3. Perplexed….. you clearly haven’t watched “The Matrix’

  4. Absolutely agree – new knowledge is founded on prior knowledge.

    I do wish they hadn’t favoured humanities over engineering in the EBacc though :(

    • It’s not all humanities, just history and geography.

      I’m firmly of the view that deliberately ignoring the context of time and place is actually one of the key problems in modern thought. (It certainly plagues education where ideas are continually presented as if they had never been tried before and were relevant everywhere.)

      I’m also of the view that maths and physics are the key skills needed for a future in engineering. So I’m quite happy with this.

      • Yes I would say that’s bang on the money, learn the maths and the physics and the engineering will look after itself. University teachers are always complaining that students need to be taught the maths before they can get on with the engineering. I would also recommend for potential engineers to keep up with the English and keep up with a foreign language.
        I received my engineering education through the old Post Office and very thorough it was too. I also worked for BT for a time until it became quite clear that the management and operation of BT was going to be all about money and as little to do with engineering as the top managers could get away with. So I attempted to listen to Caroline Walter’s speech to the Social Media for schools bash but had to give up after about 6 or 7 minutes because I was loosing the will to live. However what I heard only confirmed my views i.e. letting companies like B.T. and their bag carriers have a hand in education is like putting Brer Fox in charge of the chickens. She was using words like drive down costs and Chinese work ethics and global work forces. She would probably be more at home running a Victorian cotton mill.
        The British Post Office through their old research department was father to many outstanding engineering developments. The digital computer developed at Bletchley Park, fibre optic cable developed at Martlesham, laser treatment for cataracts, an off shoot of laser development for communications, to name but a few. Since BT took over they have gradually run down the R & D and sold off bits of Martlesham Heath. The latest wheeze is to build 2500 houses on the site.
        Now before anyone points out that companies must make money for their share holders a point which I fully accept and I have worked for several private enterprises other than BT, however BT strikes me as being rather badly run throwing away long term opportunities for short term gain. An example of this is when BT sold of O2. At the time described by business commentators as the biggest corporate blunder in history.

  5. Since the days of teaching the 3 Rs to child factory workers and Latin, Greek and Maths to the sons of gentlemen, has the curriculum ever been perfectly tailored to the time, place and circumstances of the children? Why do the semi-socialised dimwits in KS4 need to know anything about algebra when they’re still struggling (after 9 yrs) with 2-digit multiplication?

  6. The Shift Happens video is hysterical. Lots and lots of facts without any serious analysis or any understanding of the historical and social context within which changes take place. And that’s because analysis would require human intervention and that’s precisely the what the thinking behind the video is trying to discourage. This is akin to free-market ideology. The idea that the markets (and their allies, digital technology) operate independently of human nature – like a force of nature, like God or the weather. As a society we are expected to stand inthralled before the global economy’s new pontiffs, mired in digital superstitions.

    My favourite bit is when we are told that 84% of teenagers play computer games at least twice a week… but that 72% of school teachers have NEVER played a computer game (all accompanied by a dramatic, ominous musical score). The implication being: WHAT ARE SCHOOL TEACHERS DOING WITH THEIR TIME!

    Of course, in the past we might have pointed out that 84% of teenagers snogged behind the bike sheds at least twice a week… but 72% of teachers haven’t even been kissed. Or that kids play ‘cowboys and indians’ and with dolls but teachers tend not to. Or that kids play football in the park but their decrepit educators are incapable of physical exercise. Forgive the crudity: but Shift Happens is lot of shite!

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