A ‘Need To Know’ Basis?

I’m taking part, in a couple of weeks, in a conference organised by the Innovation Unit and Guardian Innovation in Education‘. The Innovation Unit are key partners in the Learning Futures project that I’m leading, so I’m confident it’ll be a good’un. There’s a great list of speakers that I’m looking forward to hearing, none more than David (Lord) Puttnam who, in my book, epitomises integrity. And he’s always challenging. This time he’ll be talking about ‘the opportunities in a future that is knowledge based and the skills required to remain competitive in the 21st century.’

I’ve written elsewhere on the challenge our economy faces from the outsourcing of  knowledge, and there’s no getting away from the fact that we’re probably never going to be able to compete with the emerging powerhouses of knowledge workers in India and China. This might be one good reason why we should place a little less emphasis upon knowing dates of famous battles, or quadratic equations – we’re never going to get to use that stuff in our working lives, besides, knowledge workers from the East are considerably cheaper to employ than having our own.

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But there’s a further, more radical, position which challenges the conventional view of knowledge acquisition in the 21st century. It goes to the heart of how we construct curricula, how we teach, and it goes like this: in 10 years time we won’t have to go and find knowledge – it’ll come and find us. The kind of powerful sophisticated search patterns that makes Google ads so effective can, potentially at least, be turned to what we need to know, when we need to know it. Roger Schank, from the Institute of Learning has some interesting – and provocative – things to say on this:

“The computers we have today are capable of understanding your needs and finding just the right (previously archived and indexed) wise man (or woman) to tell you a story, just when you need it, that will help you think something out. Some work needs to be done to make this happen of course.”<o:p></o:p>
Roger Schank, Institute for Learning Studies, 2009

But not too much work, I’d suggest. Google are well on the way to digitising most of the best of what has been thought and written, and they’ll find a way to bring it to our attention.Which begs the question, what’s most important in both what we teach and the way we teach it? Acquiring ‘knowledge’ (facts, figures and theoretical constructs) or developing skills (how to turn what is ‘known’ into useful services, products and new ideas)?

And what happens to all that knowledge we acquire in our school careers anyway? Fr Guido Sarducci has spoken eloquently about this, so I’ll leave the last word to his holiness:


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