The endless rise of the "think different" climate in education

Another email arrives, and yet another post encouraging us all to "think differently" in order to solve the 'problem' of education. A careful explanation is set-up as to how the modern world is all different now, technology moving so quickly, new challenges that we've never faced before - and the only way we're going to solve these new challenges is to change how we think, work together in different ways which we've never done before. Does any of this sound familiar?

Maybe it's just me, but at first there just seemed to be a few of these types of posts a month. They weren't that common - and occasionally even added something to the conversation. But lately they seem to be almost continuous; every other pundit has something to share on how we need to change our ways of thinking in order to move forward, Whether it's 21st century thinking, how to embed creativity, or the new importance of innovation, nothing we've been doing so far is good enough. But is there really any truth in all this? I've been reading all the stores, but I'm really struggling to see the evidence.

Is it true? Take technology ...

How true is all this? Let's take that "technology is moving so quickly" line, for example, and see if it really is moving that fast.

Let me take a wild stab at the word processing package you use on a daily basis. Wouldn't be Microsoft Word by any chance, would it? That software package is now 34 years old. And do you know what? The basic functionality hasn't changed in those 34 years. I was teaching someone in their eighties last week how to use some functionality, and it occurred to me just how basic most use actually is. Writing sentences, paragraphs, punctuation, bold, italic, perhaps the odd picture.

How about Twitter, you might ask. The 'new kid on the block' will be 12 years old this month - it's practically a teenager. Facebook is 14 years old, Wikipedia is now 17, and the venerable Blogger has reached maturity - had it's 18th birthday last August. It's the same across the board, most technologies aren't changing very fast at all, they've been around for some time, and new ones invariably only offer an interesting tweak on existing practices.

The bottom line is that the technologies you use on a day to day basis have probably not changed much in the last decade. Believe me, the evidence is clear - technology is not moving half as quick as people make out.

How about the challenges?

Another line that is taken is that the challenges we face in education are different. Let's break that down a little, and first question what it means to educate.

What is the purpose of education? Some would have you believe that the purpose of education is only about work, about raising children to be productive members of society - as if life is solely about contributing to GDP! I would argue the purpose of education is actually about enculturating the young, i.e. it's about introducing new generations to all that has been discovered so far about life on our world, in a way in which they can integrate all that hard-won knowledge into their own perspective on how the world works, the value of others within it, and what place they wish to take as part of it. Productivity is an element of that, perhaps, but the purpose of education is so much more than that.

The truth is the way people connect to the world around them hasn't changed much in hundreds of years. True some of the architecture of the world has shifted, the pyramids are a bit smaller, and it's a hell of a lot quicker to get from one place to another, but I am very happy to argue that the basic processes by which we experience and understand objects encountered in the world - including other people - have not changed in thousands of years. The fact of the matter is that evolution (if you believe that, of course) is an incredibly slow process, hence I would argue we are pretty much the same now from a cognitive perspective as the people who built Stonehenge. What made them successful, what gave them the power to overcome such immense challenges in building that wonderful stone monument are precisely the same "21st Century" skills that we're now told are lacking.

Here's one list of these so-called "21st Century" skills from one prominent website, but they pretty much concur with the general rhetoric. Apparently, we need:

  • Collaboration and teamwork
  • Creativity and imagination
  • Critical thinking
  • Problem-solving

Now, do we really think the builders of Stonehenge didn't have those characteristics? They didn't need to work together, be creative, think critically and solve problems? Fat chance.

Again, the bottom line is that the challenges we face today are pretty much the same challenges we've always faced. How to make sense of disparate voices, and make a choice that will work for all. How we can tell what works and what doesn't work in a world of such complex physical and mental relationships. How we can balance conflicting opinions, and ensure mutual respect at the same time and making progress together.

Less empty rhetoric, more evidence!

These "think different" posts are so tempting, but I think we get lured into believing in them partly because it's easier to think all we have to do to progress is to change something, rather than keep working better at what we're already doing. Truth is it's hard to keep plugging away at challenges, incrementally moving things forward, but the reality is that is what actually happens in practice - that's how good things happen.

And the books and articles I've read on this topic agree; Darwin took years to come up with his theory of natural selection, and it was based on masses of evidence gathered from all over the world, and endless conversations between himself and trusted colleagues. Einstein achieved great things not because he thought about life so differently from all around him, but because he was tenacious, collaborated with others to explore different perspectives, and refused to accept what was apparently impossible. Edison was well known for his ideas factory, he knew full well that the best way of making innovative products was to get lots of clever people in one place and give them time, space and money. They didn't need to think differently, they just needed to think (and, critically, think with each other). Thomas Kuhn, in his famous book which coined the term paradigm shift, argued that any such powerful change in society comes about incrementally and as a result of thousands of conversations amongst the communities of practice involved. Brian Arthur, in his book "The Nature of Technology", showed how technology has simply evolved from one to another, with many so-called revolutions in tech simply being incremental progress.

Personally, I feel the "think differently" rhetoric is responsible for sucking up time and money, distracting from the voices who have real challenges to solve, and feeding the empty speeches from those leading education within politics. It's no longer a useful concept. Instead, we need to go back to the evidence about what works in education, for example, the strategies from the cognitive sciences, and work together to dream up new ways to apply them. Not so much "think differently" as "think together". Now the evidence for that is pretty clear - by getting the right minds together, we can achieve amazing things!


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