The End of Education


It’s a public holiday in Canterbury today, so I’ve had an opportunity to browse and ponder a few articles that have come via my RSS feeds. Linked to my musing about the advice I should give my daughter in a recent post, I was interested to read about a recent report from the US titled “Are They Really Ready To Work? Employers??? Perspectives on the Basic Knowledge and Applied Skills of New Entrants to the 21st. Century U.S. Workforce” (PDF file). TechLearning uses the heading Workforce Readiness Crisis for their commentary on this report, while the Partnership for 21st century Skills group (who commissioned the report) lead with Most Young People Entering the U.S. Workforce Lack Critical Skills Essential For Success.

Or what about this one; Are College Students Techno Idiots? – from Inside Higher Ed reporting on a recent report released by the Educational Testing Service (US) which finds that students lack many basic skills in information literacy, which ETS defines as the ability to use technology to solve information problems.

“Crisis”, “lack critical skills”, “idiots?”, – these are powerful and emotive words. The picture painted here is grim, and focuses our attention again on what Neil Postman refers to as The End of Education in his book subtitled, “redefining the value of school.”

Predictably, each of the articles tells just one side of the story – but the beauty of the web is that you can also read the reviews and comments that people have left to help get a better understanding and, perhaps, more balanced perspective. But the challenge remains the same – just how seriously are we taking this “crisis” – and how many cohorts of students will we graduate before we come close to sorting things out (I’ve got three more children to come through the system yet!).

Yesterday I spoke with a teacher who is helping coordinate a group of local secondary schools to form a cluster for the purposes of participating in an ICT professional development programme. The enthusiasm was evident, as was the extent of preparation etc. But the major concern revolves around the priorities as seen by the principals and senior management of the participating schools – whether to invest time and effort in the ICT PD programme, or in the other, competing priority they’ve identified – behaviour management. (MMmmm he muses, let me see – choice between preparing these young people for their future, or learning how to control them in class??)

Now I don’t want to demean the situation – let’s face it, the issue of disruptive students and inappropriate behaviour is not insignificant in our secondary schools, and is has a major impact not only on those who are mis-behaving, but everyone else as well who has to wait while the problems are sorted etc. But all of this serves to illustrate how the tyranny of the urgent so often becomes an excuse for not addressing the more important, long term issues we must find solutions to.

The problem seems to me to be one of relevance – we keep coming back to the fact that we operate a school system designed to meet the needs of the past, barely the present, and certainly not the future. Technology is certainly has a major part to play in this, and as Postman says in “The End Of Education”;

“Technolgoical change is not additive, it is ecological. A new technology doesn’t change something, it changes everything!”

Obviously this isn’t fully understood yet in our education system, judging by the advice I read today for principals and teachers regarding their options for online professional development. The focus here is on an additive attitude to the acquisition of ICT skills, based on a transmissive approach with a measure of rewards and incentives thrown in.

I’ll end this little rant with a quote passed on to me by my friend and mentor, Tony Mander, from a recent book by John Lienhard:

So with Menocchio in mind, let us look about us once more at over a billion computers that have been thrown into the world during a scant two decades. Like Sebastian Brant, we tell one another, ???Gee whiz, look at all the information our children can now access???. The real changes that the computer is bringing about ??? changes in the way we see reality ??? remain invisible.

We hardly yet have an adult generation that has known the personal computer from birth. At this writing, you and I still see the computer against the backdrop of the not-computer. We typed before we word-processed. We learned the algorithms of arithmetic before we used hand calculators. We memorised facts, algorithms, and spellings.

All of us see the personal computer against the backdrop of a world without it. What we cannot see at all is how a mind will work when it has never known anything else. What did they say about books in 1501? In the end, whatever was said was irrelevant because it was ??? ipso facto ??? useless commentary. For everyone looking at the new books in 1501, the future was as hopelessly unpredictable as it remains today.

Lienhard, John H. How Invention Begins: Echoes of Old Voices in the Rise of New Machines. Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 171

3 thoughts on “The End of Education

  1. Hi Derek,

    I came across your blog searching for information about Adil Lalani, the guy who sold for lots and lots of money. I have just sent the following to my course tutor – I’m doing a European online course called Net Trainers. This is what I said:

    “…It seems to me that some people are beginning to by-pass the traditional education system, not necessarily intentionally, and not necessarily from any philosophical antipathy towards that system, but because new technologies simply render it redundant. People may not even notice this by-passing, but its implications, if it continues, are profound indeed. For example, what if there is resistance within the traditional educational communities to young people calling the shots in regards to technology and learning, because the older generation is afraid of such active involvement on the part of the young? What will the young do? Will there be massive sit-ins etc until the traditional system is turned on its head? Will kids just walk away from school? Will the ‘law’ have to force school attendance (openly, as opposed to subtly), and punish parents who are with their kids philosophically? Interesting times might be around the corner!”

    That’s where I’m coming from, and to share a little bit of the pool of knowledge, may I suggest you and your readers look at the work of John Taylor Gatto. I don’t know if you know of this guy (I searched your blog, and nothing came up) but he was NY City teacher of the year three times ’89, ’90 and ’91) but jacked it all in at his last acceptance speech, citing the fact that from his point of view, he taught primarily taught kids six lessons in school, none of them to do with education. Here they are, and a link for I think, the speech itself.

    “The first lesson I teach is: “Stay in the class where you belong.”…

    The second lesson I teach kids is to turn on and off like a light switch…

    The third lesson I teach you is to surrender your will to a predestined chain of command…

    The fourth lesson I teach is that only I determine what curriculum you will study. (Rather, I enforce decisions transmitted by the people who pay me)…

    In lesson five I teach that your self-respect should depend on an observer’s measure of your worth…

    In lesson six I teach children that they are being watched…”

    Here’s the link:

    I’m posting this because I think this guy has pin-pointed the problems of traditional schooling, which is a good thing to know because knowledge will be very useful in the battles that will inevitably follow over education in the years to come.

    Gatto’s book ‘The Underground History of American Education’, is available online for free, here:

    Happy reading,


  2. Dave
    thanks for this – I’m not familiar with the work of Gatto – but will certainly follow the links you’ve sent me with interest. Good luck with your assignment!

  3. And of course from my perspective which has included working with the kids who have been such severe discipline problems they are no longer in the system it seems the two questions are simply the flip sides on one question – as well as being the answer to work force preparedness.
    Personalised, learner centred learning which engages kids! Too many of the “behaviour problems” are bored, disenchanted students and even when it is more than that – the most effective control is peer pressure which an engaged, interested group will apply!
    And if we have kids exploring and working on rich investigative learning tasks in groups where they have to critique and analyize and explain aren’t they the kind of skills our employers want?
    So I guess my answer to the principal’s is happy productive engaged kids are rarely a behaviour problem and until we start using today’s tools effectively with today’s kids we are going to find it harder and harder to acheive that. How many of us would have the patience to go back to writing with a letter with a typewriter? And while I think a handwritten letter is wonderful my Christmas letter this year will be written on the computer, and web published and e-mailed as well as printed and posted.

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