Ms Alison Dare, Director of Humanities
It’s that time of year when Year 10 students must choose their Senior School subjects. The task of considering what a life beyond school might look like can seem very challenging. In a media-saturated environment where the anxiety of missing the latest screen bites keeps many in a state of perpetual ‘presentness’ and mitigates against deep reflection. Rapid change will define their world and traversing such an environment will require a breadth of experience, as well as an openness of mind and heart; narrow specialisation will have a limited shelf life. From an educator’s perspective, we are often told that our task is to prepare students for careers that don’t yet exist. Beyond this, there is an implicit understanding that we will provide them with the aptitudes and dispositions to help them lead fulfilling lives and make a meaningful contribution to their world; or as the esteemed naturalist Jane Goodall asserts, ‘what you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what sort of a difference you will make’.
How can an individual student be best prepared for a life beyond school? It is tempting to consider this question simply in utilitarian terms, to see subject choices as nothing more than conduits to specific tertiary courses. In such a scheme, all that would be required of students would be mastery of a set of skills and acquisition of a defined body of knowledge to enable them to pass a test. Such an approach however would not prepare students to negotiate an increasingly complex world, one which may be described as a post information and post skill one. We are living in a conceptual age. Yesterday’s rubrics will not suffice to prepare our young people for the exciting challenges associated with the fluidity of change that lies before them. Futurist and Brisbane Girls Grammar School’s Scholar in Residence for 2010, Professor Erica McWilliam, provides an insight into the kind of future that students will need to negotiate as they move beyond school. She asserts that:
In this century, work culture is less willing or able to reward craftsmanship — that is, to reward an individual’s talent for doing one thing extremely well. It follows that hard-earned skills have an increasingly brief shelf life, particularly in fields closely related to technology, sciences and advanced forms of manufacturing. As long-term, stable employment recedes, and fast-paced work transitions become the norm, we now find ourselves paying closer attention to managing short-term relationships while migrating from place to place, job to job and task to task, re-developing new talents as economic and skilling demands shift (McWilliam, 2014).
Educational institutions, once the gatekeepers of knowledge, have also had to adapt to the reality of a new paradigm, one in which the acquisition of information is not in itself enough to guarantee success beyond their walls. In the 19th and 20th centuries schools were an offshoot of the Industrial juggernaut in Britain and as such, tended to privilege competencies and ways of understanding the world which suited the needs of the modern society. An educated populace was crucial to the maintenance of a highly developed economy and education tended to organise knowledge and skills into clear classifications aligning with the specific imperatives of that industrialised workforce. Within this environment, the more ‘ephemeral’, philosophical and creative knowledge areas remained in the hands of the privileged few who had time and money to pursue knowledge for its own sake. Things have changed. Professor Arthur Costa asserts that the old ways of classifying knowledge, a legacy of Cartesian thinking, is now an obsolete rubric. He suggests that ‘the organisation of curriculum into these static compartments, while a helpful classification system for allocating time, hiring and training teachers, managing testing, purchasing textbooks or organising university departments, has probably produced more problems than benefits’ (2010, p.3).
Like McWilliam, the author and social commentator Daniel Pink (2005) suggests that we have entered a new cultural paradigm, one which is predominantly conceptual rather than mechanistic. While the conceptual era is the product of the success of earlier times, it differs fundamentally from the Industrial Revolution and Information Age which preceded it in its reliance on a different set of skills and cognitive dispositions. Pink suggests that a whole new mind, that of creators and empathisers, pattern recognisers and meaning makers, is required in order to succeed in this age (2005). In some respects, Pink’s ideas can be seen to echo the predictions of writer and futurist Alvin Toffler in his 1990 work Powershift: Knowledge, Wealth and Violence at the Edge of the 21st Century where he envisaged the dawn of a new era, one in which knowledge would be networked, intuition would come to the fore and context would take precedence over atomised information. In a globalised economy, the very skills and aptitudes which caused our society to flourish in the Information Age can now be outsourced to less developed countries (Pink, 2005, p.37). Conversely, the competencies which tended to be marginalised in the Industrial and post-Industrial Ages have become most prized since they cannot be programmed, packaged or outsourced (Pink, 2005). So what are these qualities? According to McWilliam, of all the attributes needed to engage in this new future workforce, ‘the most important is agility of movement, the ability to move at speed across disparate geographical, virtual, disciplinary and socio-cultural landscapes is now a key capacity of the global workforce’ (2014, p2). This notion of agility can be seen to align with Pink’s six senses (design, story, symphony, empathy, play and meaning). Of particular interest is his notion of symphony, ‘what’s in greatest demand today isn’t analysis but synthesis — seeing the big picture and crossing boundaries, being able to combine disparate pieces into an interesting new whole’ (2005, pp. 65-66).
It is interesting to note that Pink describes these qualities as senses because in doing so he creates a middle space between the cognitive and the emotional, a split which is also a product of modern Enlightenment thinking. These senses, which place us at the heart of a broad-based liberal (and more specifically Humanities) education not only provide the necessary skills to deal with the kind of changed workforce that McWilliam describes, but beyond this pave the way for a judicious, engagement with the world. In educational terms, we return to the idea of what it means to be an educated person and what the goal of schooling and subject choices is or should ultimately be about. Change in tandem with the 21st century’s obsession with the volume of information over quality of knowledge, only reinforces the importance of a broad-based liberal education. In such an environment, the breadth of subject choice associated with learning for learning’s sake needs rediscovery and further exploration. Creativity of thought and reflective discernment will be essential dispositions in a world dominated by exponential change. The Ancient Greeks mused much about education. We could learn much from them, after all, ‘it is the mark of an educated man to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it’ (Aristotle).
Pink, D. (2005). A Whole New Mind. Moving From the Information Age to the Conceptual Age. Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin
Arthur L. Costa (18-19th November, 2010).Re-thinking for the 21st Century: Five Mindshifts. Mind and Its Potential. Sydney. 51-55
McWilliam, E. (2014, July, 02). Education 2020. http://www.ericamcwilliam.com.au/education-2020/
Published 25 July 2014