“Nobody has a clue – despite all the expertise that’s been on parade for the past four days – what the world will look like in five years’ time. And yet we’re meant to be educating them for it. So the unpredictability, I think, is extraordinary.”
This quote comes from the most watched TED talk of all time with thirty million views at current count. (That is eight million views more than the next most watched TED Talk.) There is one sense in which it is fair to say that this statement is self-evident or universally true. That is, we never know what the future is going to look like and one of the biggest mistakes we could make is to assume that we do. This normal accumulation and progression of knowledge is not what I believe Robinson is talking about. The key to understanding this statement could come in another quote from the same talk, “the whole world is engulfed in a revolution.” This revolution one could equate to a paradigms shift in Thomas Kuhn’s sense of the term. In brief, prior to Kuhn’s narrative or theory of scientific progress the prevailing view of scientific progress was one where knowledge accumulated, mistakes would be identified and corrected and knowledge would continually grow. There will be changes and corrections in the future but things will continue to progress along rather predictable lines. In Kuhn’s model, as scientific knowledge accumulates eventually there comes a time when new knowledge cannot be fit in with the preceding body of knowledge. The preceding body of knowledge and the new knowledge become ‘incomprehensible’ to each other and a revolution of thought, understanding, narrative and practice happens.
Kuhn’s prime example is found in his book The Copernican Revolution where he argues, that the discovery that the Earth orbits the Sun fundamentally contradicted the Medieval narrative that the Earth was the centre of the universe and this fact was believed to reflect the fact that humans were the prime focus of God’s attention, having been made in his image and all. There was the whole Ptolemaic astronomy to explain how this picture of the universe worked. When the discoveries of Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo and others accumulated, the picture of the universe drawn from their findings led to a view that was fundamental incomprehensible with the medieval view. This triggered a revolution of the Enlightenment.
That is, I would argue, the sense of “revolution” that Sir Ken Robinson refers to and is the reason why “nobody has a clue… what the world will look like in five years’ time.” The emerging narrative will be incomprehensible with the past. I think he is still overstating it when he uses the time frame five years, for effect I am sure, because we do have an idea – for one thing computers will get smaller and more easily integrated into daily classroom practice. (In fact, Robinson made this statement nine years ago in 2006, four years before the release of the I Pad.)
I have been holding onto this lesson all year because it works best when the students stumble upon it. Last week as we were talking about the distribution of resources and the causes of conflict, they stumbled upon it and I got to teach it.
I introduced the idea of 80 20. That is, 80% of the worlds population has 20% of the world’s resources and 20% of the world’s population has 80% of the world’s resources. (A crude distinction if for no other reason as what counts as a resource can be debated. None the less it is an often quoted statistic and one that can fuel thought.)
To demonstrate this I chose ten students and asked them to stand in a line in front of the class. I then divided them into a group of eight and a group of two. I then gave the group of eight two books, the group of two eight books and promptly told them it was time for silent reading. The two students with eight books happily sat down and started flipping through books, not exactly reading but browsing, trying to decide which book they felt like reading. The eight students with two books stood there almost dazed wondering if it was a joke. I just kept insisting it was time for silent reading and they should read.
It took about twenty seconds before students from the group of eight started making their way towards the two students with the eight books and eying the books and making subtle indications that they wanted some. This is the second time I have taught this lesson and both times I have been amazed at how quickly the two students assume an air of entitlement. They placed themselves between the books and the group of eight and continued to browse.
It only took about another thirty seconds until leaders began to emerge out of the eight and we started hearing calls of “this isn’t fair!” One student in particular was becoming viscerally incensed by the injustice. He was calling out to the teachers for help and when this came to no avail he started rallying the other seven. Two girls among the seven quietly got hold of one of the two books that were given to the eight and slipped to the back and started reading while the others were getting worked up in their call for justice. The boy who was increasingly leading the charge began reaching for books. Another boy among the eight began encouraging him on and then moved to position himself on the other side of the two students with the eight books and while they became increasingly distracted by the attempts to grab books, the other boy reached around, took a book at a time and passed them to other members of the eight.
There came the moment where I said “OK, lets stop… if you have ever wondered about how wars start, maybe this is part of your answer.”
This is a very rare moment in my class where I have created conflict. Perhaps to teach, to really teach and not preach, about the causes of war we have to allow these rare exceptions where we allow conflict.