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‘Shift happens’ – or, what is real education for?

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Blog - ‘Shift happens’ – or, what is real education for?

Monday 14 October 2013

I have just watched the latest version of the ever-popular conference-opener ‘Shift Happens’ video, which can be found in many different versions on YouTube.

It is a great video, and certainly mesmerizing. I have seen it many times over the past few years. What is the subtext of choosing to show it to a conference of educators, I wonder? ‘Reflect on the relevance, or otherwise, of the school curriculum you deliver’. ‘Be mindful of the extraordinary world in which you live’, perhaps.

So now I know that China has got more English speakers than the whole English speaking world, and that there are more child geniuses in China than the whole US population, and that most jobs now were never even heard of 10 years. But how does all that change what I do as a teacher and headteacher, or rather, how does it change my vision of education?

There are several possibilities. I can either give up now, and conclude that trying to teach students skills for jobs which don’t exist is a waste of time. Or that the West is in terminal decline anyway and we in education need to copy slavishly what happens in the Far East. Or I could bury my head ostrich-like in the sand and carry on as ever.

We can’t, of course, know in detail the technological demands which will exist in the workplace in 30 years’ time, still less teach them to the younger generation. But if education were really only about teaching us the skills we need in the future, in my book it would not merit the name. It would at best be ‘training’, but certainly not education.

Neither torpor nor panic is a helpful response to the truths we are confronted with in ‘Shift Happens’. Perhaps we would be better off asking what ‘character’ we need to develop in young people to equip them for the fast changing world, alongside the core knowledge and skills needed. And in emphasizing ‘character’, I do not wish in any sense to be thought to be negating the need for knowledge and skills. Only recently there has been another OECD report which finds that our young people’s literacy and numeracy is falling behind in comparison with other advancing countries. This must continue to be a focus.

But alongside that, we also need to understand that we are educating people. People should be happy, balanced and fulfilled, because that is our birthright. Furthermore, to function in the workplace and contribute to the economy, people need to be well-adjusted and able to respond reflectively to the situations they encounter. We need to be resilient and independent, open to advice, approachable and likeable, able to work with others, creative and innovative, courteous, respectful of our traditions and others’, compassionate and empathetic. We need to be meaning-makers in an often apparently meaningless world.

These qualities and character strengths we begin to learn, ideally, in our families, and education should build on this through integrated, structured opportunities susceptible to evaluation. Whilst ensuring that knowledge is imparted and essential skills developed, we need also to hold our focus on what education is really for: enabling our young people to become fully human. That is good for them, good for society, and ultimately, as it happens, good for the future economy too.