/ 11 October 2019

Technology not the elixir of education

(John McCann/ M&G)
(John McCann/ M&G)




All around the world, including in South Africa, one hears people talking about the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). Some talk with enthusiasm, others with anxiety. But what does this mean for young teachers embarking on employment? What are the implications for their preparation as teachers, as society looks at them to adapt their teaching methods to new technologies, and to prepare their learners for the future?

Education as a field has always been known to be slow to change. In some instances, this might be justified, in that there are some enduring values that pertain to the goals of education. So, in the context of the fundamental societal changes suggested by the fourth industrial revolution, and in particular on World Teachers’ Day (October 5), we need to ask: What must and should teaching hold on to, and what must and should teaching do differently?

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A helpful framework for how we understand teaching is provided by the curriculum framework developed by colleagues at the Centre for Curriculum Redesign in Boston in the United States. They highlight four core dimensions of what needs to be taught, whatever the historical or geographical contexts. These dimensions are:

  • Knowledge (what we know and understand);
  • Skills (how we use knowledge);
  • Character (how we behave and interact with the world); and
  • Meta-learning (how we reflect and adapt).

These are enduring features of education, but how should we consider these in the context of the fourth industrial revolution?

At the most obvious level of the need to adapt is the challenge of new subject content. Almost overnight we are hearing about coding and robotics being introduced into the school curriculum. To quote President Cyril Ramaphosa at the inaugural Digital Economy Summit on July 5: “As I undertook in the State of the Nation address, we are introducing subjects such as coding and data analytics at a primary school level to prepare our young people for the jobs of the future.”

How many professors of education today can tell one in any detail what coding and robotics means, let alone teach about this? This is a humbling experience for those who have been in education for many years.

The notion of new jobs being created and old jobs changing creates huge challenges for those who will prepare others for gainful employment. If one reads about the kinds of skills, competencies and attitudes, let alone knowledge, that are being expected, it is quite overwhelming. To list a few of these: innovation, information literacy, being curious, critical, analytic, working in interdisciplinary ways, teamwork and cognitive flexibility. These skills and competencies cross human and technological domains and in themselves require particular forms of pedagogy.

The digital age (or the third industrial revolution) has already created new vistas for young teachers, as landscapes open through the World Wide Web, collaboration is promoted through social networks, and new forms of literacy emerge. This in itself, even before we reach fourth industrial revolution, is leaving many teachers and teacher educators behind.

What challenges will this bring for teachers or teacher educators who may themselves not be ready to impart the relevant knowledge and skills? It seems that there will need to be a huge upskilling of educators, something that requires substantial human, technical and financial resources. Careful organisation and planning for the context is also crucial, so that one does not hear stories about tablets being donated to schools and not being used, or teachers being asked to bring their smartphones to workshops, when they don’t have smartphones.

One also needs to remember that the bells, whistles and keyboards of technology do not always make for an effective learning environment. So this is where teacher education might — and rightfully so — be accused of still being conservative. Yes, young teachers must be prepared for a new technological world, but they also need to be excellent educators in the traditional sense of the word — able to organise learning in systematic ways, and to motivate young people for ongoing learning towards improving their own futures as well as the futures of others. If education can sustain its work towards this one core goal, we may be able to hold our own in this fast changing and somewhat threatening world.

As always, there are a few cautionary comments.

Will technologically able young teachers be in a position to contribute to the systemic problems of our country, whether this be youth unemployment, climate change or any other of the challenges we face? Will the fourth industrial revolution help this situation or make it worse? One must guard against seeing technology as the panacea for our problems, and remember that it may — and sometimes does — create new problems.

In many countries, as in South Africa, many children do not have access to the basic infrastructure of classrooms, toilets, libraries and science laboratories. Many teachers work in poor conditions. Let us hope that politicians and technocrats do not leapfrog into a 4IR world before addressing the improvement of these working conditions. Let’s ensure that the hype around the fourth industrial revolution does not sideline other important debates about education, linked to topics that promote social justice, ethical agency, democracy and the like.

So, what does this mean for young teachers? Exciting times indeed, for there is not only the immediate and personal prospect of finding fulfilling employment, but also the broader and long-term responsibility to provide leadership in this complex conversation.

Maureen Robinson is a professor in the department of curriculum studies at Stellenbosch University. An earlier version of this article was presented as a response to the keynote address by Professor Sarah Gravett, Toward Reimagining Teacher Education for an Increasingly Complex and Fast-changing World, at the conference of the International Council on Education for Teaching, July 2019