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'Skeptical, critical, wise': preparing students for the digital world

'Skeptical, critical, wise': preparing students for the digital world

Originally posted by Mark Scott @ smh.com.au

In his book, On Us, Mark Scott, the secretary of the NSW Education Department, reflects on how we rushed to embrace technology without understanding its cost. In this extract, he considers how schools can help future generations avoid this mistake.

Given our dismal performance predicting how all this would play out, what chance do we have of preparing all those young people to live in a digital world that will change even more quickly and dramatically?

As we have constantly seen, progress is hardly predictable and linear. And these technologies: it is how they layer on each other and reinforce each other that has made them truly remarkable. Mobile technology and social distribution. Location tracking and algorithmic targeting. Another dozen years for Moore’s Law to make everything ever more smaller, faster and cheaper. None of us has any idea of the world of the early 2030s, when those who start school this year will finish year 12.

We have few answers for them, but we can have a better go at helping them find the right questions to ask. Maybe this is not so new. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, this is what great education has been all about. Asking the right questions. Challenging the assumptions. Seeking insights and understanding. Searching for the why. All the things so many of us failed to do over the past decade when confronted by new toys, tools and, apparently free, abundant gifts.

It doesn’t necessarily require a revolution in the classroom. It is what good teachers always already do. Demand a hypothesis. Challenge the assumptions, using the data and the evidence. Press for greater insight and understanding. The uncertainty of the future workplace means the only guarantee is insistent change and the need to learn and relearn; with the resilience that is demanded by constantly taking on the new. We need to think carefully about how the current curriculum is shaped and structured to help prepare young people for all they will face: the extent of change, the speed of change and its inevitable unpredictability.

For a long time, shorthand for how we prepare young people for the digital world was teaching them to code computers. Now we understand that the machines themselves will code. While some people will need to create and invent and code, everyone will need to engage with the technology. Given what we have seen, it would be good if all of us understood how it worked. What we can see from the Facebook experience is that there are many ethical choices behind the technology.

There have been countless examples of how biases shape the programming that impacts the outcomes we take for granted. For decades in schools, English classes would explore how language could be deployed to manipulate meaning. Film studies showed examples of propaganda and image manipulation. Now we must help young people understand how we can be shaped by the barrage of images, text, sounds, algorithms and new experiences. We must help them to be sceptical, to be critical, to be wise. It is more important than ever. To help them find false news and to be alert to it. To seek out facts and to know that you are not entitled to your own. To understand there is something wonderful about being different, rather than the same.

On Us by Mark Scott (MUP, $14.99/ebook $9.99) is in bookshops now.

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