I remember spending many of my formative schooling years engaged in the time-consuming research projects that were in vogue. These required the regurgitation of the relevant facts about a particular subject matter with appropriate accompanying illustrations – I remember ones on coral reefs, fireflies, Costa Rica and coffee. At the time, sourcing the relevant information was considered a valuable task by my teachers as it involved seeking information out manually in an encyclopedia in the school library and transcribing the relevant notes, summarising and writing paragraphs out with my best burgeoning, cursive handwriting.
If the same exercise were given today, all of the relevant information could be sourced on a device within a couple of minutes. If I did happen to look in a printed encyclopedia, much of the information would likely be invalid or obsolete.
In a recent article the CEO of the Association of Independent Schools of Australia (AHISA), Beth Blackwood, shared some research on the proliferation of knowledge resulting from contemporary technology. She cited analysis by IBM which showed that while in 1900 global knowledge doubled every century, this had reduced to every 25 years by 1945 and was further reduced to every 12-13 months by 1982. IBM predicts that next year global knowledge will double every 11 – 12 hours.
While the internet has driven production of new information to extraordinary rates, there is a corollary that is also very relevant in education which relates to the “half-life” of knowledge. This refers to the time in which half of the existing knowledge or facts around a particular area are found to no longer be relevant or true.
Research by Shane Parrish explores this phenomenon in relation to an engineering degree. He wrote: “While figures for the half-lives of most knowledge-based careers are hard to find, we do know the half-life of an engineering career. A century ago, it would take 35 years for half of what an engineer learned when earning their degree to be disproved or replaced. By the 1960s, that time span shrank to a mere decade … Modern estimates place the half-life of an engineering degree at between 2.5 and 5 years.”
The implications of this shift in knowledge production and relevance are profound. If current trends continue, within the next decade it will likely become almost impossible for teachers to stay abreast of fluctuations in subject-specific content. As such, it will likely become increasingly important to move on from an educational model based on content or fact recall to one that promotes broadly applicable skill acquisition and conceptual understanding. To explore this in an engineering context, we would be likely to see engineering courses focus on the particular skillsets and characteristics that allow one to succeed in the profession and on the teaching of conceptual frameworks that allow for evaluation of new technologies.
In a school setting this creates an equally compelling case for change. There is little merit in asking students to rote learn and recall content that is readily available at a touch of a screen and likely to be obsolete within a short space of time. In such an environment, however, it will be enormously important to equip students with the skills to evaluate information, to be flexible in their thinking and to be open to creative or novel approaches.
A focus on Project Based Learning (PBL) is just one avenue that reinforces such skill pathways in our school. Unlike the content-heavy projects I undertook in my schooling, these projects are meaningful collaborative tasks set around a deep and open-ended question that require genuine collaboration, innovation and application of a design cycle to succeed. In participating in PBL, our students engage with learning frameworks that are largely content-independent and broadly applicable across the curriculum.
This process represents the ‘learning to learn’ focus that needs to be the priority of contemporary schooling. Rather, than prioritising teaching which is based on knowledge as a fixed entity, we need to focus on a framework that assumes ever-changing knowledge and supports students with the skillsets to succeed in an uncertain future.