Author profile picture

“You don’t understand” was what the school principal had said. “This is not the time to experiment, we have to stick to dealing with the current situation as much as possible.”

In recent weeks, the traditional education system had come to a grinding and screeching halt, and the professor was delighted. “Education is dead, long live education!” he had shouted.

The professor and the principal had known each other for a long time. Usually, they could really talk to each other, and sometimes they agreed to meet up in order to ‘keep their minds sharp.’ Now they sat on a bench by a meadow, a meter and a half apart from one another. They had both sunk deep into their own thoughts as their discussion had gotten slightly out of hand.

It all started when the professor had said that the present educational system is largely successful in suppressing the power of the imagination. That, of course, was a bit of a glib oversimplification. What’s more, it seemed more like a conclusion rather than an opening to a debate. A bit like telling a joke by starting with the punch line. It derailed any further discussion.

The importance of imagination

The professor had thought long and hard about new forms of education and had come to the conclusion that traditional education is based on the premise of reproduction. On the reproduction of knowledge. And why? Because that used to be very important once upon a time. Anyone who knew a lot about a certain subject could become a teacher at a school or a professor at a university. And through this role, knowledge was handed down to students who were supposed to sit still and absorb any such knowledge. The teacher then proceeded to test which student could best repeat that knowledge with an exam. Those who were good at repeating stuff got high marks.

Since the reproduction of knowledge can easily be measured, a standard was established that’s based on uniformity. Students who are good at reproducing knowledge get admitted to higher education. Those who can’t do that very well are labeled ‘poor students’ and eventually venture on to vocational education. Or enter the workforce. This is a fundamentally flawed way of thinking that has crept into education.

“There’s a belief that intelligence is based on knowledge,” the professor said, “but this underestimates the importance of imagination. Knowledge does not lead to progress … and reproduction of it does not invariably lead to art, architecture, medicine, or science.”

“Recently you said that ‘artificial intelligence’ is a confusing term because it has little to do with intelligence but everything to do with reproduction,” the principal responded.

“And that is precisely why modern education should focus on qualities such as imagination, curiosity and wonder’ the professor rejoined, “because that is what distinguishes human intelligence from artificial intelligence.”

MOOCs and maths

It was quiet for a moment and then the principal said: “I spoke to a parent yesterday who said her son understood the maths material because he had watched the same math video clip five times.” There was a note of disappointment in his voice. “She asked me why the teacher couldn’t explain it as well as the video could.” The principal chuckled, but it sounded more like a sigh.

“Young people no longer depend on a teacher to learn anything,” the professor replied. “They can learn languages via an app, mathematics via videos, and Data Science via MOOCs (massive open online courses, ed.) – even at the prestigious MIT. They can even take acting lessons from Helen Mirren and tennis lessons from Serena Williams. The best teachers in the world are at their disposal.”

“But that doesn’t prepare them for a professional career,” the principal argued.

“No, not at all!” The professor chimed in. “And that’s where the turnaround in education should come in. You learn at home and do your homework at school.” He went on to argue that educational institutions should be set up as studios and workspaces. And as laboratories and training and practice spaces. As places where students can experiment and learn from each other. They should be places where brows furrow and sparks fly, and, above all, where things can go wrong. “Could go very, very wrong,” he added.

“But there’s also such a thing as a mandatory amount of class hours,” the principal stated.

“Get rid of it!” the professor shouted. “Students must regain responsibility for their own development. And teachers should teach them that development goes hand in hand with doubt, uncertainty, and setbacks. Teachers have to help instill a sense of self-confidence in their students.”

Education is dead, long live education!

And that would probably have been the moment when he had shouted – albeit perhaps somewhat too vehemently: “Education is dead, long live education!”

The school principal had stared at him angrily. He replied that he didn’t understand anything and that this was not the time to experiment. It wasn’t the first time the professor had been told that he didn’t understand anything …

… It had been a very long time ago. His teacher had walked through the classroom handing out exam results to everyone. “You don’t understand anything!” he had told him. Written in red letters at the top of the exam paper was: “Don’t experiment, stick to what you learn in class.” Next to that was the mark 2.8 out of 10. He was deemed a poor student.

This was when the professor finally realized that he hadn’t really understood anything all those years.

About this column

In a weekly column, alternately written by Hans Helsloot, Eveline van Zeeland, Jan Wouters, Katleen Gabriels, Mary Fiers, Peter de Kock, Tessie Hartjes and Auke Hoekstra, Innovation Origins tries to find out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally supplemented with guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions for the problems of our time. So tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous episodes.