Comment: The new core curriculumSeptember 16, 2017, 7:55 am GMT
There exists a rather boring consensus on what a curriculum should look like. One assumes in the first place that a curriculum prepares one for life, predominantly in the workplace. There are better aims that curriculums might have: to help one to live a virtuous life; to enlighten, but we seem to be stuck with the idea that a good curriculum is one that is assumed to be the most economically useful to the recipient and her society.
In England, the EBacc looks at how pupils do in English, Mathematics, History or Geography, the sciences and a language. And it follows that what is measured is what is valued and what is not measured is not valued. So the artistic, creative subjects: music, art, drama, design are marginalised. The drop off in those subjects subsequent to the introduction of the EBacc is alarming, upsetting and marked.
Along with the assumption of the current economic value of some subjects goes the assumption that they will continue to be relevant long into the future. What if this is wrong too?
If we are wrong, at least we are consistently wrong; this consensus on a core curriculum holds true at St Joseph's in Hong Kong, Tanglin Trust School in Singapore, Christ's College in New Zealand, and Magdalen College School in England. Even when freed by independent status of the tethers of centralised, government-imposed curricula, we run to the same core subjects all over the world. I would not question that we all need to be able to communicate, manipulate numbers, understand the principles of the sciences, but what level of maths is needed? The practical use of maths daily for most people is likely to be of a very low order. Would it be very wrong to set the baseline at – say – what maths the average professional uses day to day now? Arithmetic, ratios, percentages…
It is assumed by EBacc and the global hierarchical curriculum, that the human creative factor is an optional extra. It is enriching emotionally, but not economically. Do we really all agree and not need to question that all everyone needs is to be taught how to express ideas, manipulate numbers, and understand science? Is the human creative factor a 'nice to have,' but not vital? I would argue that without creativity, we have nothing to say, nothing to calculate, make or build or communicate to other nations. And certainly nothing that cannot, will not be taken from our hands by computers in the next global technical revolution. It is happening now.
The agricultural revolution shaped human existence and behaviour like no previous human shift since, perhaps, the cognitive revolution 70,000 years ago. Today, most agricultural roles have shifted from many workers with a few simple tools to a few workers with a few very complex tools.
The industrial revolution brought massive migration to and the creation of cities. Those jobs too, are disappearing, as robots work tirelessly and more accurately than humans. Economies based on cheap labour and politicians who claim they will bring manufacturing jobs 'back' from wherever they went are looking in the wrong direction, as robots not only build cars, but build the robots that build cars. We only need a few very skilled engineers to babysit factories full of robots, or design robot-building robots. And yet we cling to a hierarchy of academic subjects that was designed at the time when public education systems were first developed, a time when the industrial revolution was flourishing. In 2016, the UK government calculated that the creative industries contributed GBP84.1 billion to the UK economy annually, and yet we have an educational system that is the mirror image of what we will need.
And the services will be next. The algorithms where computers have replaced us so far have been mechanical. The ability of computers to out-perform us in algorithms that replicate or simulate or replace human thinking is about to tip. As Richard and Daniel Susskind argue in The Future of the Professions, 'our professions will slowly be dismantled'. Expertise is no longer a human preserve. What employment corner are we being squeezed into? As Yuval Noah Harari argues in Homo Deus, 'The crucial problem isn't creating new jobs. The crucial problem is creating new jobs that humans perform better than algorithms'. A few years ago in education we marvelled at the idea that we were preparing pupils to do jobs that, at the time, did not exist. Now we may have to prepare our pupils to be in a position to fight for any job. The argument abounds that many humans will never be needed as contributors to the global economy, that we will simply need to pay and occupy huge parts of the global population, taxing the real workers – the robots – to pay for the new welfare state.
Computers cannot think like humans. The human-brain-as-computer analogy is so far off the mark it is not even wrong. Computers follow algorithms, they spot patterns, they follow rules in ways humans cannot. The only reason we do not yet have computers doing medial differential diagnosis, is that the patterns are very complex and convoluted. Yet each month there are more visits to the WebMD website in the USA than there are doctors working in that country. Computers already do many of the tests to detect diseases, and doing more of them all the time. The moment will come when a computer does the role of the GP, sorting and categorising, resolving the familiar and referring the obscure.
David Cope, musicology professor at the University of California in Santa Cruz, took seven years to create EMI – Experiments in Musical Intelligence – a computer able to compose in the style of Bach, Beethoven, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky. Its compositions fooled a hall full of musical experts, including Professor Steve Larson of the University of Oregon who had challenged Cope to create a blind test. Furthermore, when told the compositions are originals by Bach, experts praise their soulfulness and emotional resonance. The same response is not achieved, however, without humans playing the pieces. Playing all the right notes in the right order still does not cut it for the human ear. The creativity of the interpretation is still a solely human quality. Few are arguing that this will not remain so. The human creative factor seems vital still and its role safe.
Susskind and Susskind argue that our niche will be, 'the exercise of some kind of cognitive capabilities that are not routinisable,' that is to say, not algorithmic. Our capabilities to think creatively, to make mental leaps and connections – the 'Lobster Telephone' effect – will remain our niche. Empathy, and ethics may also remain a human preserve, as these are also beyond the scope of an electronic system. Perhaps though, I simply lack the imagination to reduce them to the algorithms they may be or resemble.
So we need to grasp and hold the shrinking patch of ground that is still ours and likely to remain so in the future. We must teach the exercise of emotions through music and drama, explore what we mean by a good life in a changing world, help pupils to explore the road less travelled and make links and leaps of thought and imagination that only we can through the study of the arts; we must help them to explore the sublime, generate taste and discrimination and understand what truth is or whether it can be said to even exist.
We are losing, and have lost, battles that we did not know were even being fought; the internet has no 'off' switch and it has evolved, unchecked without an ethical or moral hand. I doubt we can afford, in any sense, to allow all or our future revolutions to be so callous; the designers of the future need to do that which is beautiful, heroic, for that which is merely functional or in any way algorithmic will be done for us, to us even. We must embrace the idea that there is no one right answer; use drama to show children that an idea can be communicated in myriad ways, that risk is a vital component and mistakes can shape new outcomes, develop what Tom Middlehurst of SSAT (The Schools Network) calls 'an appetite for adventure and a tolerance for error'. Sir Ken Robinson, Professor Emeritus in Education at the University of Warwick agrees: 'If you're not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original.'
We need music education to remind us that there are other, metaphorical ways of communicating ideas for which there are no words, to encourage curiosity and see a construct that never, not for a moment, stands still or stagnates. We are so rigid in our definition of success that we throw generations of children on the educational scrap heap, but the arts are inherently based on the individual and her own potential and aspirations. The arts demand human interaction. Dr Arik Sigman mapped the moment, almost a decade ago, when pupils started to spend more time looking at a screen each day than at a human face.
There are very few paradigms so embedded as our awful global curriculum hierarchy, and rooting it out has proved impossible so far. Perhaps, paradoxically, the current scientific revolution will finally teach us to embrace creativity.
Author: Joss Williams, deputy head, Jumeirah English Speaking School, Arabian Ranches
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