Reflections on Lord Jim Knight’s keynote (video)

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Lord Jim Knight’s Keynote at this year’s Firefly Learning Conference, Education for Centurions, touched on a number of crucial points that demand the attention of all who have a stake in education.

In his survey of Britain’s education system since the Industrial Revolution, Lord Jim Knight reminds us that traditionally our education system has invariably arranged itself to meet economic ends. In the early 20th Century it met the labour needs of a rapidly industrialising economy, by the mid 20th Century it had shifted to increase the supply of white-collar service sector workers like public servants and accountants.

Now, in the early years of the 21st Century, Knight argues education must grapple with the advent of what others have called the “post-industrial” economy. That is, an economy where human capital, once vital for services and manufacturing, is becoming increasingly redundant due to automation. At the same time, we are witnessing the rise of the “Centurions” a generation where living to 100 is the norm.

Becoming Human

Rush hour

How then does education adapt to confront a society wherein we will live longer lives but with rapidly advancing technology snapping at our heels threatening to replace us?

Jim provides a range of thoughts on this but perhaps the most important one that he touches on is that education must now help us to become “more human” because this is our distinct and enduring competitive advantage over automation. Jim rightly and happily points out that we are moving into an age whereby what matters is not what we know but who we are and education should serve this end.

However, this raises an enormous question: what does it mean to be human? And then, if we ever answer that question – doubtful considering thousands of years of philosophical and scientific inquiry have so far failed to reach a unified answer – how do we explicitly teach students to “be a human”?

Learning without Teaching

Little girl swimming crawl. Shot from underwater. The girl is reaching towards the camera and taking a breath.

Jim suggests that this can be done through teaching soft-skills (the usual roster of critical thinking and creativity etc.) while enhancing individualisation through technology.

In my experience, I have found that teachers and schools already do a remarkable job of engendering pupils with “soft skills” and they do so, paradoxically, when not actually explicitly teaching these things. How? Through questioning and dialogue, enthusiasm for knowledge and learning, humour, the ability to admit uncertainty or insecurity about content and skills and work collaboratively as a classroom community all serve to build resilience, creative thinking, critical reasoning and so on and they do so without ever mentioning a soft-skill by name.

In fact, I believe that what we teach is less important than how we teach and I would also hypothesise that most teachers throughout Britain and beyond already teach with enthusiasm, with compassion, with honesty and with humour even as many are sadly and understandably being buckled by the downwards pressure from exam boards, arbitrary inspections and the like.

That is to say, despite all of the pressures and uncertainty, educators, students and families – those who really constitute the backbone of the education system – all continue to cope.

Indeed, to return to Jim Knight’s contention that education must now create humans rather than human-capital, I would argue that it is the process of coping, that quiet and dignified part of the human condition, that best defines us as humans.

In turn, it is the ability to cope –  something that is inevitably learned whether or not it is taught – which will prove, as it has proven endlessly already, to be our greatest asset in transcending the challenges of living as centurions in the 21st Century.

Night’s talk is thought-provoking in nature and comprehensive in scope and its core theme deserves our attention.

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