Digital education isn’t just for children, it’s for life

In a world already changing, education could well be our most powerful tool to take control of that change, and shape it in a way that is beneficial to all of humanity.

The great South African politician and leader Nelson Mandela once said that:

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

In a world already changing, education could well be our most powerful tool to take control of that change, and shape it in a way that is beneficial to all of humanity.

As Martin rightly pointed out, so much of our education system was designed for the industrial age. Of course, each country has its own education system, many of which started from different underlying principles, but none of that changes the fact they were designed in a fundamentally different age.

Educators aren’t stupid – they know change is needed, and they are trying to effect that change. But doing so is hard, because there are a number of variables at work, as this video makes plain:

Beyond those challenges, though, the moral panic that’s spreading around technology, especially mobile phones, is making life even harder. With calls growing to ban children from using mobile phones, following France’s example, how are we meant to prepare them to use today’s digital tools?

Researcher danah boyd has provided some really useful advice on productively teaching children about device use via example:

So, here’s what I recommend to parents of small people: Verbalize what you’re doing with your phone. Whenever you pick up your phone (or other technologies) in front of your kids, say what you’re doing. And involve them in the process if they’d like.

The basics of 21st century education

But we need deeper change than that. Just pasting digital technology on top of existing education clearly isn’t working. Let’s think it through. What do people need to learn?

  1. Facts
  2. Cognitive strategies
  3. Tool use

Any rethinking of our education systems needs to address these three points. And all three of them have changed dramatically in the quarter of a century since I left full-time education.


Let’s take Facts. In the industrial age of education, ownership of a library of books was a rare privilege for the wealthy. Nowadays, my five year old daughter has a device in her possession — an iPad — which gives her access to the whole of the world’s information. And so, the balance shifts, from giving the student the whole set of facts she’ll need for life, to giving her a thorough in the baseline facts — and an understanding of how to get more, as needed.

Cognitive strategies

Education has always being as much about learning ways of thinking s it has facts. Maths, writing and reading are all, in their own way, cognitive strategies. But we need new ones, to deal with the information ecosystems of the 21st century.

For example, how can our your people learn to manage information overload? The web has brought us all more infraction than we can ever consume, so how do you make sure you get the right or most useful information?

Coupled with that is the need for critical thinking: the old days of being able to vest trust into the publishing gatekeepers like book authors or newspapers are gone. Anyone has the ability to publish – so we need everyone to develop the skills to discern a trustworthy, authoritative source, from a manipulative one.

The spread of “fake news” over the last couple of years have made this ever more urgent.

Tool use

Digital devices are the core tools of the information age. We can’t let our young grow up without understanding how to use them sensibly – and that means taking a more critical look at our own use of them. As the piece from danah boyd linked above suggests:

The funny thing about verbalizing what you’re doing is that you’ll check yourself about your decisions to grab that phone. Somehow, it’s a lot less comfy saying: “Mom’s going to check work email because she can’t stop looking in case something important happens.” Once you begin saying out loud every time you look at technology, you also realize how much you’re looking at technology. And what you’re normalizing for your kids. It’s like looking at a mirror and realizing what they’re learning. So check yourself and check what you have standardized. Are you cool with the values and norms you’ve set?

We really need to separate the problematic behaviours from the tech itself:

It’s a classic example of blaming the tech for the behaviour. Let’s reverse our thinking on this. Schools are a perfect place to teach appropriate use of phone – how to use them in context. Students could use them for research tasks, but get punished for messaging when they should be listening for example, in exactly the same way they are for talking or passing notes.

The eternal student

Photo by The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash

In a sense, students need a sense of what they know but also — and just as importantly — what they don’t know. And that leads us to the underlying principle of education that must change: that it ends.

In essence, we need to break the concept that you “leave education”. Even 30 years ago, that was a reasonable idea. You learned your trade, and then you practiced your trade. Education and work as two distinct phases of life (only blurred by things like apprenticeships).

The world of work, of one company for your whole career, of one profession for the whole of your career is largely gone. Technology is reshaping our world so fast that you can’t guarantee that your job or profession will exist in any meaningful way in a decade. You can guarantee that many of the tools you’re using will be completely different in a decade’s time, especially if you;’re in information work.

Any education system can’t just teach our young, it has to teach them how to learn, because they’re going to need to do so for the rest of their lives.

Centuries ago, Plutarch wrote that:

The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.

Any fit-for-purpose education system has to fill us with the joy of learning, and of improving our own abilities throughout life.

And, of course, that means work needs to adapt, too. It needs to be a place that allows its employees to learn and develop even as they work. It needs to view its employees as appreciating assets, not fixed ones. I’ll come back to that idea next week.

Martin explored other ideas for redesigning education earlier in the week

Lead Photo by J. Kelly Brito on Unsplash