Push-button schools and zap hats – The future of education

Yesterday I spent most of the day as a judge in the local Opti-Minds Challenge. Opti-Minds is a problem solving event/competition. Groups of at least 4 have to develop a 10 minute presentation/play to present a solution to an open-ended question. I volunteered for the Social Sciences challenge which was to develop a new method of education because of changes in technology and the observation that no-one wants to be a teacher anymore.

This is a subject close to my heart and I was interested in seeing what solutions groups of engaged kids would come up with. The kids were the highlight. All of them were engaged and having a great deal of fun. It looked like they all got a lot out of the challenge. It was highly enjoyable from that perspective. There was a buzz in the room as the presentations were given. The ideas they presented were also imaginative.

I wasn’t going to go any further than this but then came across this post from PaleoFuture about “The Push-Button School of Tomorrow (1958)”.

Push-button schools

Almost all of the “solutions” presented by the students were similar examples of the horseless carriage approach to technology. i.e. use technology to do exactly what we’ve always done but with technology. In the case of the students solutions some examples included:

  • Zap-hats.
    Reworking of kitchen microwaves to directly transmit thoughts from one mind to another. A little sad was the design feature where the teacher’s zap hat acted as a circuit breaker to prevent the students from engaging in peer-to-peer though transmission.
  • Drugs.
    A special drug when injected into specific foods would automatically make kids smarter. Inject the drug into an apple and the student would be intellectual. Inject it into Powerade and the student would be an uber-jock.
  • Sunglasses, teaching androids and the Schoolamatic 3000.
    Technology that would enable students to study what they needed to know. The androids were perhaps the most obvious horseless carriage application of technology.

Underpinning all of these presentations was the assumption that the current fixed curriculum was okay. There seemed to be no questioning of the existing structure of school. Just do what we’re doing with technology.

Except for one school. Which took the brave challenge to ignore the heavy prompt within the Opti-Minds challenge problem statement to consider technology. Instead they focused on the principles they thought were important in education.

It was a little sad that only one team picked up on this. Even though all teams represented the disengagement of many students and subsequent behavioural problems as one of the reasons why no-one wants to be a teacher anymore. None of the teams seemed to step back and question why.

To be fair, some of these teams were primary school age and all the teams did amazing work. It’s just a bit sad to see them not questioning the basics of the system of education more.

The future of education

It’s especially sad when the students were given free range to come up with anything. They didn’t have to work within the everyday, pragmatic constraints of the current education system. No-one expected these to be implementable

Over the last few weeks – especially around the question of the value of gamification – I’ve been increasingly thinking about the relative value of the two broad approaches to the future of education, which are:

  1. The evolutionary.
    Implement some minor changes that hopefully the current status quo of the formal education system.
  2. The revolutionary.
    Give up the current system as a bad joke and either throw it out or ignore it.

Increasingly I’ve been seeing strong signs of two camps forming about these two approaches. The two camps can get quite derogatory about the other.

Perhaps it is the pessimist in me, but I think both approaches have significant problems. The revolutionary approach is acting against the inertia of an established system, which is difficult to overcome. It also assumes that a group of people can identify the solution to the wicked problem that is education and then successfully implement it in a way that doesn’t introduce its own problems. The evolutionary approach if just as bad as it most often produces horseless-carriage innovations. Innovations that have been corrupted by the grammar of school and transformed into something that just continues doing what has always been done.

How do you move forward then? Perhaps a mixture of both. Seeking to mix the ideas of the revolutionary but by continually embedding them via evolutionary means. After all, if you see education as a complex system then the introduction of small changes can have significant repercussions. Of course, this relies upon the revolutionary ideas still being out there. You need to question the assumptions of the current approaches, without the revolutionary ideas you just get horseless carriages.

It appears I’m starting to think that the future of education will be informed by the revolutionaries, but it will be formed by evolution. Mmm, is that what I want?

3 thoughts on “Push-button schools and zap hats – The future of education

  1. Your observation of students’ lack of questioning the current system is spot on – it’s what leads to our current ‘podcast or perish’ online teaching model. The more we keep treating education as a consumer-driven market the less we will be able to change – any good business knows the key to success is knowing what the customers want before they know they want it. It’s an unfortunate trait (particularly in the HE market where customers complain more loudly) that we let the bastards grind us down – we design our learning based on what limits the number of student complaints, and it frustrates me no end. Where’s the revolutionary streak universities used to have that didn’t mind challenging people’s perceptions and pissing a few people off?

    1. In my experience, the revolutionary streak has been driven out by the increasing managerialisation of higher education. Senior executive need to meet their KPIs, which are set by other senior executive, or worse influenced by government policy. Evolution, let alone revolution, doesn’t seem to fit within those constraints.

      You’re right about the students being a barrier to innovation. But I wonder if some of that comes from the innovators forgetting about the need to “sell” customers on the product they never thought they needed, rather than just dump it upon them.

  2. Very true – if we’re going to treat education like a business then we really should try and have some decent marketing. Trying to think now about how education was ‘marketed’ to me – can’t come up with anything that wasn’t a social construct…

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