Information Age Education
   Issue Number 28
October, 2009   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and produced by Ken Loge. For more information, see the end of this newsletter.

Che sarà, sarà
Whatever will be will be
The futures not ours to see
Che sarà, sarà

It’s a great song. However, many people disagree with the message. For example, Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee’s book “On Intelligence” provides a nice description of how a human brain functions by continually making forecasts of the future. Moreover, there are a number of quite respectable university programs in future studies.

Every day you make a number of decisions that involve taking actions based on the decisions. You make a prediction that the decision and action will produce the results you want them to produce. Of course, there is a difference between making such predictions and having the predictions turn out to be good ones.

In addition, there is substantial difference between the challenges of making relatively accurate short term forecasts and experiencing a reasonable level of success in making longer term forecasts.


Education and the Future

A kindergarten or first grade student begins school. Our overall educational system has made a decision that this child’s future will benefit by learning reading, writing, and arithmetic. Such forecasts typically include statements about how this education will benefit the country, the economy, and so on. People argue the merits of our educational system in terms of preparing children for responsible, productive adulthood. In summary, education is for the future.

However, we must also think about how education shapes the future. Here is a 1971 widely used quote from Alan Kay, a pioneer in the development of laptop computers and a major contributor to other aspects of computer science and the field of computers in education:

"Don't worry about what anybody else is going to do… The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” See http://iae-pedia.org/Alan_Kay.

Thus, as we work to improve our educational system we are faced by a double challenge:
  1. Forecasting what the future will be like, so that we can design our educational system to appropriately prepare children for life in this future world that they and others are “inventing.”
  2. Understanding that our educational system—including how it is designed and implemented—contributes to changing the future.
An important aspect of this is that our educational system tends to be very slow to change. In many ways, it is a backward-looking system, rooted in the past. Our current educational system has many of the characteristics of the factory model of education developed to serve the needs of industrial age students and countries of a hundred or more years ago.

Our current educational system is challenged by current and predicted future national and world problems such as disease, hunger, homelessness, pollution, population growth, poverty, sustainability, terrorism, war, and so on. As we educate our children to become responsible, productive, caring adult citizens of our country and of the world, we need to think about whether our current educational system is appropriate to the task.

Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, and Problem Solving

One way to think about reading, writing, and arithmetic is their roles in representing and solving problems. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are powerful aids to the accumulation of information and to making use of accumulated information to help represent and solve problems in all disciplines.

There are two very important ideas here:

  1. The steadily improving aids to the storage, processing, communication of, and communication with the steadily increasing collection of accumulated information.
  2. Education and tools for making effective use of the information to help in representing and solving problems. See http://i-a-e.org/downloads/doc_download/7-introduction-to-problem-solving-in-the-information-age.html.

Think about the first of these two items. The Internet and other communication systems are bringing steadily improving connectivity to the world. You are familiar with the Web as being a dynamic, virtual library that is by far the largest library in the world and that continues to grow very rapidly. The Web is a component of the Internet, and the Internet provides lots of different powerful aids to communication between people, between people and machines and between machines.

In designing a modern education system, it is reasonable to forecast continued steady improvement in something akin to the Internet and the Web, and in various aids to accessing , making use of, and contributing to the Web.

Thus, we need to look at our current K-12 educational system and analyze it in terms of how well it is preparing students for a responsible and productive adult life in which adults can readily communicate with each other, with machines, and with virtual libraries that are steadily growing “smarter.”

The last sentence brings us to item 2 in the above list. We now live in a world in which information is processed (problems are solved) both by human brains and by computer “brains.” See http://iae-pedia.org/Two_Brains_Are_Better_Than_One. How well is our education system doing in preparing students for responsible and productive adulthood in a world in which many of the problems and tasks they will face are best addressed by making appropriate use of a combination of human and computer brains? What constitutes a good math education in light of the ready availability of calculators, computers, and computerized tools? This is a very challenging question.

Some Relevant Forecasts of Information Processing Technology

Essentially every week brings new announcements of significant progress and/or forecasted progress in Information and Communicating Technology. See http://iae-pedia.org/What_the_Future_is_Bringing_Us. Computers are getting faster. Storage systems of greater capacity are being developed. Communication systems are getting faster and reaching more people. Information retrieval systems and computer systems are getting smarter.

One way to think about this increase in overall capability and smartness is the improving ability of artificially intelligent systems to directly answer questions and solve problems that people pose. For example, think about the question, “How do I get from where I am now to the nearest pizza eatery?” GPS and related technology on a handheld cell phone can deal with this type of question. Wolfram Alpha has received a lot of publicity for its question answering capabilities, and we can expect that it and other competing systems will steadily improve over time. See http://www.wolframalpha.com/.

Thus, a good modern education includes a focus on understanding the capabilities and limitations of question-answering computer systems, and how to pose answerable questions.


Final Remarks

The previous issue of this Information Age Education Newsletter addressed some aspects of National Standards in education. To a large extent, such proposed National Standards, along with our current focus on state and national testing, are not paying enough attention to the future. In essence, they focus on doing better what we have been doing in the past. The world is changing much more rapidly than its educational systems.


About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. IAE is a project of the Science Factory, a 501(c)(3) science and technology museum located in Eugene, Oregon. Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address http://IAE-pedia.org, a Website containing free books and articles at http://I-A-E.org, and the free newsletter you are now reading.

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