Reshaping Education Models

By Naveen Menon

I learned today from Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, that the brain consumes 20 percent of an adult’s energy. Preschool children are “gas guzzlers” in comparison, with 66 percent of their energy spent on brain activity. This was the opening of an interesting set of discussions today at Davos around reshaping education for both K-12 schools and universities around the world.

The education industry is in the midst of a major transformation, arguably the biggest since the introduction of the printing press. New digital technologies are disrupting education, and educators, policy makers, academics, technology firms, students, and parents are all struggling to cope with the scale of change. Will universities go out of business? What will the future school look like? Is formal education even relevant today?

Despite the unknowns, there are a few things that are certainly true. One is that adopting digital can be a force for good, allowing us to revolutionize the learning process and achieve better outcomes. Another is that education’s fundamental common denominator—the special relationship between teacher and student—will be either unchanged or improved.

The world is now experimenting with new education delivery mechanisms, ranging from going fully digital to rejecting digital technologies entirely. Most institutions favor a blended learning approach in which digital technology is embedded as part of the curriculum. Experimentation can produce results quickly and demonstrate that a school is “keeping up with recent trends.” The downside is that failed experiments are possible—and would come at the expense of students.

To reshape education, we may need to better understand how children learn when the rate of learning is at its peak. There is a reason why preschoolers’ brains are so active—they’re busy learning in two distinct ways:

  1. Through exploration and play
  2. Through apprenticeship

One suggestion I heard today was to reintroduce these two learning approaches into higher education—in other words, bringing play and apprenticeship back into universities. It was argued that Cambridge and Oxford have been doing this for more than 900 years, through the tutorial system (in Cambridge this is called “supervisions”). Perhaps our oldest educational institutions really do have the answers for education’s future.

Formal education will never be irrelevant. These ancient institutions teach students how to think, which is, in my humble opinion, something that can never be replicated by technology alone.

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