Schools are expected to deliver two services: the first, to transmit fundamental culture, knowledge and skills acknowledged by society, and the second, an expectation that has been more distinct since the turn of the 20th century, to prepare future adults for a changing world.
As far as the transmission of culture, knowledge and skills, the components involved are straightforward (reading, writing, counting, the study of language and languages and various other subjects that have developed over time). But it’s suffering from an inflation likely to force us into making ideological, political and philosophical decisions about what we consider as the fundamentals, lest we accept the very real risk of knowledge falling victim to fragmentation, being pulverized beyond all sense. There are limits to the number of learning hours students can endure, limits to the number of subjects taught if we wish to uphold a curriculum that is sufficiently in-depth to truly and genuinely shape the minds and personalities of our students. Overstepping a certain number of subjects and disciplines results in superficiality with, to no one’s surprise, Her Majesty Approximation and His Royal Highness Student-Boredom.
Now the second expectation we have of education, preparing students for a changing world. Besides constantly stumbling over complications from the first weighing down the educational ship, when even the thought of lightening the load gives the shivers to all involved (how reach an agreement on what’s to keep and what’s not? There’s no Marie Kondo of education), this expectation obligates schools to reverse their perspective: leave behind the logic of transmitting what we know (what the institution has always managed, what our teachers master, what they were trained for) and become more forward-thinking, more inventive, more visionary.
In other words, schools should transmit the unchanging, as per tradition, and augur new knowledge ahead-of-its-time together with the fitting teaching methods.
The possibilities for fights breaking out between the two poles are countless and provide both sides — those who feel it’s “not the role of school” to follow trends/prepare students for new developments/for the professional world/shape them into the docile labour force of blind capitalism, and those who condemn the backward-lookingness of a school that hasn’t been modernized since its creation (unlike hospitals, factories and prisons) — with enough fuel to squabble until they’re blue in the face. If you lend an ear to those nostalgic of former boarding schools, and to the vilified educationalists, you will realize that, from where we stand now, there can be no end.
The rise of technology, the galloping digitization of our societies and the ensuing epistemological and societal reversal further upset the delicate balance between teaching fundamental knowledge and opening students to a contemporary world the educational institution has (somehow) managed to preserve over the years. So we have those reminiscent of a more humanistic education who would shout themselves hoarse insisting it’s not the role of the school the teach technologies in class (kids already spend most of their free time on screens anyway), while those in favour of a school that would prepare for the world of tomorrow deplore the now hard-to-make-up-for time lost by students for mastering the fundamentals of the digital era — skills that are undeniably indispensable in the world we live in.
How should schools account for the digital age? Breaking it down into components: What elements of (computer) sciences should be taught? Which of the wide array of available tools are likely to challenge our teachings? What will be the extent of this paradigm shift (to use an overused expression unabusively, for once!) on how we live, think, plan and act? What place should be given to this technology triad in our schools?
The advent of weaving looms and steam engines disrupted production methods and marked the beginning of industrialization. Electricity sped up our lives. The digital age has enriched the reality we were once used to (augmented reality), is shaking up scientific logic (correlations from big data are in the process of dethroning hallowed cause and effect relationship), and advances in machine capabilities are being made by the machines themselves (deep learning). IT has slivered its way into each and every discipline, blurring their borders and challenging the legitimacy of disciplinary silos.
However, what stands out of most debates on what schools should be doing about IT is that the TV guests jump from one IT aspect (science, the array of tools, epistemic change) to another out of the blue, which clouds the debate: saying the evolution of society requires students to learn technologies doesn’t, in itself, legitimize the purchase of thousands of digital tablets any more than the defence of the humanities, ancient languages and the culture they hold inextricably implies that schools must exclude all screens. Positions and arguments are slippery, shifting, changing within the same debate, often seeming to defer sine die any possibility of shared reasoning without which no debate is possible.
Reflecting on how to introduce IT (and which parts of it) into schools, means reflecting on what school should be, what it’s essence truly is.
IT is transforming society as a whole and in all its latitudes. Thus, what we cannot ignore, what must be done as soon as possible, should consist in finally establishing a community of science and education that would make it possible to reflect and exchange ideas around the following questions: How is IT approached in England? At what age in Sweden? Is technology taught through all subjects in Korea? Does all teaching staff receive basic training in Japan? Is everyone aware of the possibilities for computer sciences in their subjects? In Finland, is it considered pedagogical to maintain the teach-by-subject model? Where does Belgium currently stand on all these issues? The fact that the gymnasium in Broye has been quoted as the reference in its field in our region for the past ten years certainly leaves you wondering…
We need to set up interdisciplinary, interdepartmentary and interinstitutionary think tanks to start sorting through essential issues: Should algorithms be introduced at an early age? Should young children be given tablets? Then why older ones? How can digital tools make it easier to learn a foreign language? To what extent does it make sense to read on a screen? Is there a maximum age for being able to learn certain fundamentals? Has a new epistemology grown from the emergence of computer technologies? Can digital humanities offer more than the digitization of ancient texts? Could there be a revival of human and social sciences thanks to IT? Why do the parents of Silicon Valley schoolchildren advocate total absence of screens in young classes? How can we guide our youth toward responsible use of computer technologies and teach them to enrich generally entertainment-oriented and sometimes mind-numbing IT habits? How does technology make us more independent? Does it still make sense to aim for only 24 students per class if the teacher is essentially lecturing, when oratory skills could be taught through online classes to reach more than just a select few? How can we use the consultation channels between the cantons and the Confederation for pedagogical and democratic back-and-forths and help us move forward without sacrificing the essentials.
Another area where a surprising number of instances have stayed silent is teacher training. Are we seriously pretending not to realize that, above all other things, the teaching faculty makes the school system? IT has an undeniable impact on all fields as well as the workings of society. So why keep viewing it as a subject of its own only teachable by specialists (computers teachers recruited among mathematicians and scholars in the sciences)? If the first step in our efforts is not to address this very question, we’re putting the cart before the horse and losing decades doing it. Universities, where future educators learn their subject material and prepare to teach the school curriculum, should be providing answers, taking responsibility and getting this job done. In the ongoing circle of teachers and teaches, there is only one place we can set to work on it, and that’s with the teachers.
Then we will know whether or not to buy tablets for young classes and how many, we will be able to fight for the number of teaching hours truly necessary in upper-secondary, and really delve into structuring programs we hope to be more than just one more science subject taught in schools.