Shift Happens

In an attempt at a digital detox, I’ve barely touched my computer for over a month. Apart from dealing with a handful of emails that couldn’t wait until the end of the holidays, and reading a few blogs that interested me, I have hardly put finger to keyboard. This has left me feeling a lot less stressed than normal, and with an awful lot of spare time on my hands. I’ve filled this time with important holiday related matters, such as going to the beach or the pool, eating long lunches, drinking ice cold beer or warm red wine, spending time with my family and staring at the view. And I’ve also spent my time reading. I’ve read a big pile of crime novels, and a number of children’s books that I’ve wanted to read for ages – Private Peaceful, The Lie Tree and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. I’ve also just finished reading A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich. As September gets closer, I am dipping my toes back into the virtual world, but it has been refreshing to step away from it for a while. ‘Detox’ seems to me to be exactly the right word – although there are many positives about social media, there is a poison to some aspects of it, that you barely notice is hurting you, until the moment you stop taking it.

Towards the end of A Little History of the World, Gombrich describes the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the world as a whole, but more particularly on the lives of ordinary people. This was a moment when a massive sea change took place – when the existing world order was tipped into chaos for a time, as people adjusted to a new reality. Gombrich describes how “Everything was turned upside-down and hardly anything stayed where it had been … [the workers] woke up one day to discover that they weren’t needed anymore.” During my lifetime, a similar sea change has occurred; indeed, is still in the process of occurring. This time it’s a technological revolution, rather than an industrial one, but it will have a similarly profound impact on our lives. Where, twenty or thirty years ago, I had to go to a library if I wanted to look something up, these days all the knowledge in the world is at my fingertips. Where, twenty or thirty years ago, I had to use a landline to phone people I knew, and leave a voice message if they weren’t home, now I can talk to pretty much anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time of day or night. Where, twenty or thirty years ago, to share my ideas with a wider audience, I had to get them in print, these days I can make my ideas heard via social media, the moment I think them. There are major breakthroughs in the field of Artificial Intelligence as well. Technology is causing a fundamental shift in how we experience our world.

One interesting thing about the technological revolution is the way that educators have responded to it. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, we have taken to the new medium in our droves. Those of us who make a living sharing knowledge, ideas and opinions in a classroom feel completely at home doing the same thing online. The language of computing has infiltrated the vocabulary of education, so that people talk about ‘working memory’ and ‘storage’ and ‘processing’ as though the human brain is some kind of super computer. While some educators embrace technology in classrooms, many of the loudest voices in this brave new world call for a return to the past. The idea that new technologies might lead to new ways of working and thinking is scorned. (‘Twenty first century jobs? Pah!’). We cannot ‘just Google’ things, we are told, we must memorise them instead, if we are to be able to think. At a time when the Internet has opened up a vast world of knowledge, democratising where we learn, what we learn, and how we might learn it, the DfE holds fast to the idea that memorising bits of knowledge, and regurgitating them in a test, is the most important thing for children to do. In the DfE’s world children should ‘know their place’ and ‘do as they are told’, lest they do something dangerous like think for themselves.

In The Lie Tree, Faith finds herself deeply frustrated at the idea that, as a girl in Victorian times, she cannot be a natural scientist like her father. Darwin’s ideas are challenging the very basis on which religious society is built. The best Faith can hope for is to marry well, or to get a man to publish any finds she makes on her behalf. A woman’s head is smaller than a man’s, she is told; women must therefore be less intelligent than men. Women should know their place, and keep their ideas to themselves. The people who want her to stay ‘in her place’ are motivated by fear and ignorance. Little more than a century later, a fundamental change has happened in the way that women are viewed, and in the chances on offer to them. Although inequalities still persist, prospects for my daughter are better than they were for me, and I in turn had more chances than my mother. It’s scary when things change, but we cannot hold back the tide of progress. A century from now, the way that we educate our children is likely to have changed out of all recognition. The idea that schools will continue to exist in their current form seems improbable at best. We can cling on to the vestiges of the past, fearful that our role as teachers must change, but we cannot go backwards. Just as in Gombrich’s book, history moves around us, sweeping us along on its tide. Shift happens, even when we choose to step outside of it. So now that I’m well and truly detoxed, I’ll see you on Twitter next week.

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