For the Love of Learning
When my son was growing up, one of our favourite pastimes was to talk about Time Travel. What if you could observe Turner painting The Fighting Temeraire, listen to Socrates deliver his ‘Apology’ or watch George Best play at the 1966 European Cup quarter-finals?
Today our talks aren’t about Time Travel but simply about Time, or the lack thereof. When you’re a 15 year-old student in a good school, you learn very quickly that you don’t have enough time for anything. Not enough time to play with your friends, not enough time to talk to your parents and mostly, not enough time to learn. There are too many dates that need to be memorized, too many formulas that need to be stored and retrieved on a moment’s notice, too many facts that need to be written down, only to be forgotten after the test.
“If you want to build a ship,” said Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
Last time I checked, they don’t teach longing at our schools.
Computers and the Internet were supposed to make our lives easier, but their impact on education is yet to be fully realised. Yes, finding out information is easier than ever, but assembling it, making sense out of it is not. For as long as our children are dependent on someone else imparting information onto them, they will never learn in the true sense of the word. They absorb, but they don’t take responsibility over their own learning, which is what life in today’s world is really about.
The truth is that we don’t know today what job skills will be required in 20 years. To survive the coming decades, let alone thrive, one needs to recognise that learning is a lifetime pursuit. Gone are the days when you could learn a craft or a profession and practice it for the rest of your working life. Gone are the days where you spent 10+ years at school and a few years at university and then you were done. That world doesn’t exist any more. The world has changed and we as parents and institutions must change too.
Consider the case of Jack Andraka. When he was 13 years old, Andraka watched a close family friend die of pancreatic cancer, the same cancer that killed Steve Jobs. As cancers go, pancreatic cancer is one of the worst. Ninety-five percent of the people diagnosed with it will not be alive 5 years later. All the tests missed the cancer Andraka’s friend had, and by the time it was finally discovered, he had only 6 months to live.
This isn’t surprising given the fact that the current test for detecting Pancreatic cancer is 60 years old. It misses 30% of all cancers and at over $800 is still too expensive. So Andraka did what most teenagers would - he Googled it. But unlike most teenagers, he did something with the information he discovered.
He used Google and Wikipedia to create a new way to detect pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancer. It costs 3 cents, takes 5 minutes to run and is 100% accurate. Not bad for a guy that doesn’t even have a driver’s license. But that’s just part of of the story. Before Andraka publicized his findings he wanted a “real” scientist to vet his ideas. He contacted 200 scientists, asking them for some space in their labs where he could run his tests. 199 of them said no. Only one said yes.
My son’s generation is the first that has access to more information than its parents. In his short lifetime, information has become a commodity. Today, everything you ever wanted to know is virtually available at the end of a search query. Oh, and it’s free. Everything thing you want to know or need to know is simply available, on demand, wherever you are.
In fact how that information is used/processed is the differentiation that is the premium, the true value of information today. How you decipher that information, add value to it is what distinguishes you from the masses. How you take that Google search and do something with its results.
We can’t be content with our kids simply consuming information. They have to make it their own. Mix it, mold it, put it to work so that it inspires them to build on top of it, and then share what they’ve created with their friends - turn it into a conversation, into something that helps them tell a story, their story.
As the waves of digital disruption wash across our shores, we need to ensure that our government, our institutions and our teachers are not applying old norms and ways of thinking to new technologies, new business models and new economic realities.
“One of the strange things in Silicon Valley is that so many of these successful entrepreneurs suffer from a mild form of Asperger’s or something like that,” says Peter Thiel, the founder of Paypal and Facebook’s first investor. “And I always think of this as an incredible indictment of our society: What sort of society is it where, if you do not have Asperger’s, you will pick up on all these social cues that discourage you from pursuing creative original ideas.”
Change is scary, as anyone who was ever been in middle school can tell you. But change, as the cliché goes, is the only constant in life. Changes in how we develop products and services, how we communicate and how we connect with each other are helping us re-imagine every facet of our lives, including how we learn. These changes will require that we adapt and, in some cases, overhaul, our approach to how we do things. It might be painful at times, but not as much as the other option - stagnate and fade into irrelevance.
We need to ensure that we focus our resources not on protecting the past from the future, but protecting the future from the past. This isn’t simply about learning to code. It’s about learning new skills. New ways of thinking. New ways of learning.
Baroness Joanna Shields serves as Prime Minister David Cameron’s Digital Adviser and a conservative life peer in the House of Lords. She is a dual American-British citizen, Chair of Tech City UK and non-executive director of the London Stock Exchange Group.