Saturday, July 15, 2017

Convenient truths

I have written many times about the convenient half-truths and catch-phrases that we all love to use when discussing the use of technology in education. This applies equally to both sides of the discussion: those who see the benefits of digitalisation and those who prefer traditional methods. We develop an arsenal of stories and narratives whose origins and evidence become ever more misty but are used again and again in articles and conference lectures simply because of their feel-good factor. However, because they are based more on emotions than evidence they become mantras that lead to trench warfare between the two sides. The narratives of digital natives, wisdom of the crowd, multitasking and education is broken are rather worn out but are somehow still so compelling. I'm guilty of contributing to the spread of these in the past but am becoming more wary of using such sweeping generalisations no matter how rhetorically effective they may still be.

Another well-worn narrative that deserves to be deflated is the one about educating students for jobs that don't exist yet. I have often used this one to good effect to justify the increased use of technology in education but I can recommend a new article on the topic by Benjamin Doxtdator, A Field Guide to ‘jobs that don’t exist yet’. There is, of course, a certain amount of truth in the argument but it is far from new. The article points back to similar statements back in 1957 in the western panic after the Soviet Union succeeded in launching the Sputnik satellite.

While the claim is often presented as a new and alarming fact or prediction about the future, Devereux C. Josephs said much the same in 1957 during a Conference on the American High School at the University of Chicago on October 28, less than a month after the Soviets launched Sputnik.

The same could easily have been said at many points in history. Who could have predicted that the school pupils of 1900 might later become pilots, radio technicians or female members of parliament? We have never been able to predict what changes in society or what new forms of work will emerge in the future and we never will. Doxtdator suggests that this argument, like many others used by advocates of technology inspired disruption in education, is a simplification of more complex social movements.

The kind of complex thinking we deserve about education won’t come in factoids or bullet-point lists of skills of the future. In fact, that kind of complex thinking is already out there, waiting.

Read the article for the full picture but my point here is that we all need to be more cautious about spreading these convenient and attractive narratives simply because they justify our position. Relying on slogans and half-truths only provokes a similar response from our critics and soon the discussion degenerates into a pie fight.

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