In a previous article, I discussed how interactive technology can be used to move beyond the lecture-system of education that has been dominant for so long. In this article I will discuss what material should actually be taught. I think the educational syllabus in many subjects should be changed to reflect the changing nature of knowledge. In addition, the educational curriculum should be changed to teach new skills that are relevant to the information age.
People are Not Hard Drives
The development of computers and the internet has changed the way people can access information and therefore changes the nature of the material people will need to learn. When knowledge was stored in books, perhaps it made sense to require people to memorize large amounts of information. However, since knowledge is now available at the touch of a smartphone (or even through speech), people can have easy access to the information they need without having to have spent years memorizing information. This information can obviously be much vaster and more up-to-date than anything they could have memorized. This does not mean that people will not need to learn anything and can just become an instant expert in any field by Googling any issue they have. (Try fixing your car’s transmission based on an eHow guide.)
An expert will need a solid understanding of the principles of his field and practice in applying them so that he can correctly draw on database of information to solve a specific issue. This is what students will need to learn instead of memorizing thousands of little details. Perhaps a student training to become a doctor no longer needs to memorize every inch of anatomy. The curriculum of many fields still remains focused on the same material as it did a few decades ago, but it may be time to revise it in light of modern technologies.
People are not Computers
Computers can do much more than just provide access to relevant information. Any problem that can be solved with clearly-defined steps can be programmed so that a computer can solve it. This fact also needs to be taken into account when designing a syllabus of study. Many areas of education involve students learning to mechanically implement set procedures and formulas to solve problems. This is particularly true in math-related areas such as mathematics itself, the sciences and parts of business and economics. These mechanical processes can all by definition be solved by a computer, so why pretend that these technologies do not exist? Human computers were once necessary, but they have since been supplanted.
Instead of focusing on being the computer, students should learn how to do the things computers cannot. They should learn how to use the computer tools and learn how to take real-life problems and convert them into a form that computers can solve. Computers are still quite poor at solving general real-life problems unaided by humans, and this is an important skill people will need. Even as computer programs improve, there is always an area where computers cannot solve problems, and people will be needed to work on them. Instead of teaching methods that are no longer needed, the focus of education should be on the areas that are beyond the reach of computers.
This does not mean students should not learn any principles of a subject that a computer can solve. Students who are training to be an expert in a field should learn the basic principles of it so they can fully understand the material and be able to apply it in cases where a specific program does not exist. But it is not necessary for students to memorize a large number of mechanical methods for solving specific problems (without understanding them) when they will anyways just use computers to solve such problems. Plugging something into a formula or into a computer involve about the same amount of understanding, just one way is a million times faster. So perhaps it is not necessary to for high-school students to learn all those formulas and methods. Students should either understand a subject, know how to apply it, or learn what computers cannot solve, but there is no reason to treat them like mechanical computers themselves.
A New Curriculum
New technologies should cause more changes than just modifying the focus of specific subjects. The curriculum of subjects itself should be changed to meet the needs of the times. Besides learning subject-specific computer skills, students need to learn general computer-skills that will allow them to use computers effectively in many different areas. There are many computer skills that many people do not know well, from the most basic (such as typing) to the more advanced (programming). Since these skills are often extremely useful, they should take precedence in an educational curriculum over less important subjects.
A Simple Example
Typing is obviously one of the most common and useful skills of modern times. People almost never write things by hand anymore, but instead type almost everything. Yet many elementary schools still focus on teaching cursive in 4th or 5th grade! While this was never very useful, nowadays it is completely pointless since no one writes in cursive. Many people never learn how to touch-type correctly and instead use the hunt-and-peck method to type throughout their life (I’m currently using a modified pecking method myself to type this myself). This is probably one of the most basic things that kids should learn when they are younger. There are also simple related topics people should learn, such as keyboard shortcuts and the purpose of certain keys, e.g. the “home” key. (I’ll teach that right now: It lets you go to the beginning of a line without having to press the arrow key 20 times. You’re welcome.) These skills are very basic, but learning them can probably save people hundreds of thousands of hours over the course of their lifetime.
Other Computer Skills
Typing is a simple example of the most basic skills people need, but there are many other areas people need to learn, such as greater proficiency in using operating systems and common computer programs. For example, many people do not know how to perform common tasks in Word or Excel (such as managing styles or creating graphs), despite their common practical use. There are also certain higher-level skills that are very important. For example, while there is a huge amount of information easily available on the internet, it is not always easy to quickly find the information a person needs. There are skills and techniques people can learn to improve their ability to construct and filter searches, and to organize and index information they encounter. Google and other services cannot automatically find the best result for the exact thing a person is looking for, so people need to learn the skill of good searching and organizing.
Currently, high-schools force students to learn many difficult subjects in the math-logic realm, such as trigonometry and geometry, which they may never use. Yet there is a basic logic-based skill that would be of more interest and relevance to all: programming. Instead of learning so many details of math, students could learn programming, which can be used to do math and much more. While many people will not have any interest in programming full-time, most people will get some benefit form learning the basics of programming. This will enable them to do many tasks in the modern age, such as creating simple apps or websites, using macros in Excel, performing simple manipulations of text, or writing simple scripts for various scientific or business applications. Programming can be considered one of the basic skills that people should know in modern times.
Some may fear that adding these computer subjects to the curriculum may cause other subjects to be de-emphasized. In some cases, it may be possible to use more effective educational methods so students can learn both the old and the new subjects. However, people may need to choose which subjects have priority. Perhaps subjects should be empirically evaluated for what actual benefits they provide for the students. Studies have shown that most students do not actually improve their critical thinking skills over the course of the time in college. In a struggling economic climate and with extremely high prices for tuition, perhaps it may be time for the curriculum to focus on practical skills that students will actually use throughout their life.