I am a 23 year old English graduate who has spent the last two years of his working life arsing around in different countries and trying to write, but if I have to pick a career that defines me, right now, I would call myself a ‘teacher’. I’ve been a teacher in Spain, Oman and – the even more exotic and exciting – Leeds.
And even though these positions have never been permanent, ranging from a week to a year, and even though I’ve never had the kind of true autonomy that a fully-qualified PGCE-waving teacher has, I have taught, in several environments and several ways, and as a result I do have an opinion on the future of education.
I have spent the last few weeks watching John Green’s ‘Crash Course: World History’ on Youtube. There was no classroom, no homework, and as much as Mr. Green’s mirthful but also profound telling of history is no replacement for an actual, physical teacher, I did still learn. This, I would argue, is something like the future of education.
I know it sounds like jumping on the bandwagon ten years late here; the internet has been around for a while. And I also know that the ability to learn things, booky things, outside of school is not unique to the internet; you can always learn booky things in, you know, books. But what is remarkable is that we are now living among a generation of pupils, teenagers, who have known nothing but the internet.
As a teacher, you’re not meant to have favourite classes, or favourite students, but, quite frankly, I did. And my favourite class was the Omani class of Grade 7A: a wonderful group of 11 – 13 year olds who thought that I was the coolest person in the world purely because I was a teacher who, very occasionally, used naughty words.
These kids, however, were all born in the 21st Century. To them, the world before the internet was a historical one. And so these children have the potential to learn everything I could possibly teach them, five times over, from their mobile phones. They have the potential and, while not every child is Albert Einstein, some of them actually have the desire.
Teaching a class about the Greek Gods I was corrected, several times, by an eager (albeit bloody annoying) boy called Dean. He had done some Googling and pointed out that the book was wrong. Dionysus wasn’t just the God of the harvest; he was also the God of sex, alcohol, drugs and ecstasy. However, the book, and its version of history, was different, and it was the book on which they would be tested. And so, in front of that classroom, I started to wonder about what education even means in a world where knowledge can be constantly contested due to an ever-increasing abundance and availability of information. Dean, of course, was not thinking this. He was just happy that he got to talk about sex in class and make the teacher look like a dick in one fell swoop.
This entire generation is an experiment. Children today have more information available to them from the window of their smartphone than someone living pre-internet (regardless of how rich, powerful or intelligent they were) would have available to them in their entire lives. The internet has been able to stockpile, and is continuing to stockpile, almost every piece of information possible. The downside, of course, is that while this information is available, it doesn’t mean that it’s being accessed in the right way. And this, more than ever, is why we need teachers and teaching.
As many people have argued, including this guy, the abundance of information that the internet generation are exposed to has led to shorter attention spans. Intuitively, this makes sense. Why would Dean bother remembering anything I’ve told him in class if he can Google it whenever he wants? The answer to this question raises both positive and negative thoughts for the future of education. The internet generation have the potential to become either much more, or much less, intelligent than the one before it. The information is there, and it’s easy to access. The job of the teacher is not, and has never been, to provide a child with information. Rather, now more than ever, the job of a teacher is to stress which information is important, which information is relevant and which information will help them to become better human beings in an increasingly complicated world.