An Article by Alexandru Tulai, Change Management Specialist
For many years I have watched the debate about education and educational systems unfold with great frequency and varying intensity. It seems accepted that education in the social, economic, cultural and political conditions of today is inadequate, but beyond the fact that, in the vast majority of cases, the approach to education is superficial (at best), I do not see any progress identifying the causes of the problem, and consequently designing viable solutions to it. This was, in fact, the conclusion of my “On Abilities and Competences” article. But where do we start?
The beginnings of formal education was first realised simply as oral knowledge transfer. The purpose of this activity, carried out in an organised manner, was to transmit the knowledge accumulated by previous generations, in a systematic, accessible and directly usable form, at the moment most suitable for the new generation to accumulate knowledge: during childhood and adolescence. As the currency for knowledge transfer is information, we should briefly analyse how it is created and used.
In John von Neumann’s definition of the hardware architecture of the computer he uses the terms “internal” and “external” memory to refer to the storage and retrieval of information. We will use these terms here for a simple reason: the computer is a tool created exclusively for processing information and related tasks. The representation, processing, storage, retrieval and accessing of information has changed dramatically over time in terms of the volume of information we store, our access to the storage medium, and the time it takes us to access it. I identify four stages in this process, which I call information revolutions.
The first information revolution was brought about by the appearance of an external medium of information storage: the invention of writing. This was a major milestone in the change of information processing, storage and retrieval. Thus, we moved from the management of the maximum volume of information storable by the memory of individuals, inherently small and volatile (internal memory), to a practically infinite volume of information, limited only by the production capacity of the external storage medium. According to recent research, writing would have appeared in the Akkadian empire (3rd millennium BC), as a necessity for the management of state resources in relation to the producers of added economic value (i.e. taxation). While alternative research suggests it could have been Sumer, Egypt or somewhere similar, what is pertinent here is the motivation behind the invention of writing (external memory), as this is unaffected by geographical location.
External memory storage was highly varied from the very beginning: clay tablets, carved or painted stone, painted or incised plaster, papyrus, parchment, paper, etc. Depending on the type of writing system used (whether ideographic or alphabetic), access to reading and writing was more or less restricted due to the number of graphemes in the system: from a few dozen in phonemic writing, to several hundreds or even thousands in ideographic writing.
The volume of information in this inception period was relatively small, which stimulated the emergence of exceptional thinkers, capable of structuring an encyclopaedic culture even if knowledge in certain areas was very advanced (indeed plenty of this knowledge is still valid today, after thousands of years). This became the leading model of formal education for a long time.
The second information revolution came with the invention of printing. In China and Korea it was probably invented in the 11th or 12th century, but its use was severely limited by the complexity of the respective alphabets and the difficulty training those who could apply it. Much more successful was Gutenberg (1455), the effect of his invention being the possibility of large-scale reproduction of books, which greatly facilitated access to education and culture for a much wider spectrum of society, resulting in the democratisation of access to education.
Jumping forward again,the third information revolution was the result of the invention of the computer. This had the effect of exponentially increasing both the speed of information processing, and the capacity to store and access information, internally and externally, on magnetic, electrical, and optical storage media. The limitation at this stage came from the cost of the required technology, which is why in the advanced industrial period (20th century) it was suitable for use mostly in companies and institutions, but much less so for individual or personal use.
That our own era is indeed known as the Information Age indicates just how transformative the fourth information revolution has been. It had two causes: the creation of the personal computer and the Internet. A drastic reduction in the costs of technologies has resulted in the democratisation of access to the immense computing power and storage capacity of new technologies, as well as real-time access to an enormous volume and diversity of information.
Each of these revolutions had a decisive impact on the structuring of the educational systems of the time, and a cyclicity of the process can be observed: in the first phase the resource is created, and therefore the capacity for representation-processing-storage-retrieval, while in the second phase innovation facilitates large-scale democratisation of access. In other words: in the first phase access is reserved for elites, in the second access is, essentially, available to anyone motivated enough to obtain it.
Considering that while there were over 3000 years between the first two information revolutions, then 500 between the second and third, and just 50 between the last two, the time available to communities to absorb and adapt to these major changes has been shortened drastically, by an order of magnitude in fact.
And the cyclic nature of these changes has had another effect: people have come to understand the power that the mastery of a large volume of knowledge, accompanied by the ability to apply it creatively to achieve certain goals, can confer on willing individuals in any community.
Evaluating educational performance against the encyclopaedic model has worked for a long time. Specialisation, a consequence of the great and relatively rapid progress in all fields of human activity, but especially in those based on the sciences, became particularly visible during the Scientific Revolution – coinciding with the second half of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. It produced particularly strong results throughout the two Industrial Revolutions, and thus, during these periods, the analytical programmes (curricula) for the various study subjects, grouped by specialisations, were more or less clearly outlined.
This topic is worth raising because experience tells me that part of the reason for the inadequacy of education to meet the needs of the reality of this period comes from exactly this way of thinking. In a sense it is about having an equilibrium, a balance between the desire to have as much knowledge (content) as possible, and the ability to use it creatively and pragmatically to achieve the desired individual life path (methodologies) – taking into account the specificity of the community/communities in which a course takes place. In other words, what content is necessary and sufficient for a given course, and how detailed is the explanation behind that content? (For example, do you need to know why one plus one equals two in order to use addition in everyday life?)
In addition, educators have become professionals. This is where routine and convenience come into play. Since it is very difficult to directly, immediately measure the complete result of education, it is easiest to evaluate the volume of content accumulated by the pupil/student; we find some methodologies being applied with particularly high frequency, and here comes the danger of an exaggeratedly reductive approach which can suppress creativity.
Time devoted to standard education is limited. Demands from communities increase and diversify with the deepening of the social division of labour. The need to ensure a basic level of education specifically to catalyse integration into communities at the current level of civilization (especially technological) becomes increasingly clear, along with the need to choose an educational path suitable in terms of duration and content, obtained by refining and intensifying the scheme of work in successive stages, according to the individual capacity as it moves through its formative stages.
As revealed in the article “About Context and Models”, considerable efforts go into describing, reproducing and creating the context in which a model solution is sought to be applied, or developed and applied. Hence there is a need to specialise the educational model on the criteria of aspirations (evolutionary projections) and individual capacity, in all the educational cycles to be followed.
In order to achieve social integration as easily and effectively as possible, the content should perhaps be structured on those subjects in which the degree of understanding, and potential usefulness, are high:
- native language, and universal literature
- mathematics (especially applied mathematics)
- the history of the development of civilisations (including the evolution of communities: structures, relationships, and the history of innovation – science, art and culture) and national history only within this, as it tends to be politicised to a greater or lesser extent.
- – geography – physical, economic, social, cultural, as mapped by communities
- at least one foreign language of international circulation
- physical education
Regarding their contents, methodologies and how to transfer them, I will return with another article.