Disruption and Divergence: What Change Does Mass Education Really Need?

Last Thursday I attended yet another excellent event at Campus hosted by Emerge Venture Lab in their season of #edtech events. The evening focused on pitches from the accelerator’s startup community but began with an interesting keynote from Robert Tercek, an experienced leader in the digital domain. Tercek’s talk led us through the current digital landscape with regards to the information age and how the rise of data is influencing and changing how we learn, work and live. It was a thought-provoking start to the evening and provided the audience with a good contextual foundation on which the rest of the evening could be laid.

The information age is, perhaps, an over-used term yet it does help us to frame the shift that we have experienced to a knowledge-based society and a technological economy. Tercek began to explore the impact of the digital age and reflected that:

Massive investment in technology has not yet yielded productivity gains.

As a teacher, I immediately considered this in relation to schools. Has the investment schools make in technology led to gains in children’s learning? Are leaders clear how the use of technology is impacting progress? And are these investments supporting the development of children in preparation for the world they occupy now and will occupy in the future? These, inevitably, are questions that cannot be answered simply as they require learning to be measured by more than levels and points and it is difficult to isolate one specific cause of progress. However, they are important questions to consider when purchasing technology and are useful when considering how and why technology is being used in the learning process.


Source: http://www.blogcdn.com/www.engadget.com/media/2011/06/11×06292003.jpg

The discussion moved to the extraordinary quantity of information being generated and we considered the evolution from megabyte to zettabyte, which led to an evocative comment from Tercek:

Data is the new oil – a resource that can be mined.

This reminded me of the following video, produced by Google and presented by Larry Page at a TED event, which concludes with a significant statement:

‘Information is powerful but it is how we use it that will define us.’

As educators, we must consider how we present the knowledge and information that we share with students and must empower individuals to be effective and resilient ‘information miners’ who can independently extract useful new insights from the wealth of data available to them and refine this information in order to make it useful for specific, defined purposes. Simply ‘knowing’ is perhaps not good enough.

Automation was the next focus of discussion. In the technological world we are seeing a great deal of new developments with regards to automation: from Baxter the Robot and Google Auto Drive, to newspaper articles that write themselves. Jobs are increasingly becoming automated and not just in manufacturing where robots have already been working production lines for many years. Now, professional areas such as law and finance are increasingly seeing the adoption of powerful technologies to replace people. In fact, Tercek explained that:

47% of jobs are at risk.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee (see article here) discuss the ‘great decoupling’ of productivity and employment in the world of economics and note that since the year 2000, the productivity of economic activity has continued to rise, yet employment in this area has significantly dropped. Economic growth now, compared to years ago, no longer relates to employment.

Clearly then, there could be a big employment problem in the future and as educators, we need to respond to this problem and begin preparing our students to respond to it. However, as a slight aside, perhaps it might be worth starting by thinking about what opportunities there will be in the future, rather than what opportunities there won’t be in order to approach this problem. Perhaps, as Belfiore discusses here, it may help us to realise more fully the potential of humans.


Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Industrial_Revolution

Tercek went on to consider the failures of our current system. The industrial model of schooling was designed to prepare people for the world of work.

The Industrial Revolution was not simply a matter of replacing muscle with steam; it was a matter of reshaping jobs themselves into the sort of precisely defined components that steam-driven machinery needed–cogs in a factory system.

 Source: http://www.businessinsider.com/the-future-of-jobs-the-onrushing-wave-2014-1#ixzz2zQ2fU8ca

Education reflected the need for these jobs and mass education systems, it can be seen, grew to reflect factories. Now, as this world of work becomes more automated and traditional jobs and roles become more automated shouldn’t we be looking to a new system of schooling if we are to secure successful futures for the young people of our world? Tercek forced us to question whether mass education systems reflect the world that we live in and the world that we will experience in the future and I began to wonder whether our current system is producing workers that are irreplaceable.


Through comparisons to the legacy left by Gutenberg and the printing press (above), suggestions as to how systems have changed were made and we were invited to look to entrepreneurs rather than old systems of the past (governments, schools, etc.) to rethink how education could be. At this point, I would have liked to interrupt and add the important point that there is some excellent, forward-thinking practice happening in schools around the country, led by practitioners who are dedicated to looking forwards and creating positive changes from the bottom-up. But I agree, on a wider scale we need to be looking to innovators and progressive thinkers with the resources to bring about positive change and the ability to scale these changes.

This was the lead in to the pitches from entrepreneurs of new startup companies (supported by Emerge) hoping to influence learning in positive ways and it was great to hear from people who are actively exploring new ways to challenge traditional routes of learning. A list of all products can be found here.


Emerge’s mission is a great one: to disrupt education for good. And while the products pitched over the rest of the evening offered some exciting, genuine, positive benefits for learners and schools, I can’t help but think we need a bit more disruption on a wider scale if we are to truly respond to the developing needs of future learners that were highlighted by Tercek. I’m currently reading ‘In Place of Schools’ by John Adcock, which offers a vision for the education of children and young people without schools. The story follows the life of a ‘personal tutor’, Susan, who works with a small group of children and their families providing learning experiences based on needs, interests and opportunities:

This is her professional task: sound educational ‘prescriptions’ for her clients and the acceptance of full responsibility for the efficacy of what she prescribes.

Adcock challenges and deconstructs the traditional system of mass education and replaces it with a personalised, learning-centred approach that takes into account the changes we face in this ‘information age’. Interestingly, the book was written in 1995 (pre National Curriculum!) and yet while the world has developed immensely since, particularly with regards to technology, the fundamentals of our education system have changed very little. Perhaps it is this level of disruption that we need if we are to ensure future generations are effectively prepared to succeed in an unpredictable, ever-changing digital landscape.

To close, I can’t help but wonder: are entrepreneurs really the best people to look to if we want to truly disrupt education? Are entrepreneurs looking to truly change how learning, schools and education work and to prepare young people for the future? Or, is money the driver for their changes? Does it matter if companies economic drivers lead educational change if the change is positive? I’m left with a great deal of questions after the evening at Campus and reflecting in this post but I am also very excited. Rethinking how things are motivates me to explore new ideas and imagine how things could be. Whether or not it is morally right or wrong that entrepreneurs and companies are leading change, it is important that there are actually groups of people rethinking the current state of education and learning: someone has to start somewhere.

What do you think our education system should look like? How do you think the system should change? Why does it need to change? Who is best placed to lead such change? I’d love to know your thoughts.

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