As we prepare for the whirlwind of change set to disrupt the world of education, Dr Norman Apsley of Catalyst Inc says we must decide what we want for the future of the younger generation.
Elders in society have no greater responsibility than that of preparing the young, not only for their future, but also for the future of that society. This is difficult territory.
Even my old mentor, described by many and echoed by me as one of the greatest applied physicists of his day (and not shy of voicing his opinions generally), would never give interviews on the future.
In earlier times, maybe it was easier. There was always work, skilled and unskilled, in every locale, and a relative few, academically qualified, were needed as doctors, lawyers, teachers and even clergy.
The education system that Ulsterman Robert Hart taught the Chinese leaders in the 19th century, to his personal acclaim and to that country’s great effect, satisfied these needs very well. We then copied it back again, coming to know it as the grammar, technical and secondary system, which served well enough for its day. There were drawbacks even 50 years ago, but today there are cracks showing up in measurements like the skills barometer.
Meanwhile, what we know about how the human mind develops has also changed profoundly. The complex interaction between early stimuli and how neural connections are made; conditions such as dyslexia and autism; and just the whole process of learning are all very different from 50 years ago.
Outside forces have also changed our situation. Technology has resulted in a highly connected world, a near-common realisation of its finiteness and the need to conserve resources. It has empowered nearly every human with a connecting device that makes much of the knowledge that humans have gleaned instantly available. It spreads news, true and false, to practically every continent at the speed of light. This progress is not stopping any time soon – witness our recent debate concerning the impact of automation and robotics.
Taking all these into account means, in my view, that we cannot continue to duck the debate.
We are all aware of the challenges education currently faces, including budgeting, student numbers and the widespread acceptance of league tables. We must, however, ensure 21st-century skills are central to the curriculum, easily assessed and, most importantly, measured. 65pc of today’s primary school children will go on to jobs that don’t currently exist. We have to look closely at the skills that support employment in this age of technology, such as complex problem-solving, fluency of ideas, critical thinking and resilience.
A few years ago, I chaired a group of experienced educationalists, representative of all sectors. They were unanimous: “You get what you measure, hence we must measure what we value!”
At Catalyst Inc, we find our community positive and optimistic. They reckon that if creativity is encouraged together with the longstanding educational values for which our society is justly proud, and we move to bring all of our young people with us, we in Northern Ireland can be highly successful as individuals and as a society in the game of 21st-century life.
We are debating these issues, and on 10 April it was the topic for one of our 4IRC debates, but the views and actions of a few are not enough. Education must be for all. We have the basis of an excellent system for lifelong education, but all must decide on what they want for the future of our children and of our society.
By Dr Norman Apsley, CEO of Catalyst Inc
A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch