1 – Looking Anew at Education (*)

Many animals instinctively rear their children – but only humans educate them in a conscious, deliberate, intentional way.

Looking anew at education could mean simply looking once more at it, but in the same manner, as something that has always been with us. But it can also mean looking again at it, but this time, in a fresh and innovative manner. That is the sense in which the expression “looking anew” is intended in this article.

Education does not take place in a vacuum. It always takes place in a specific context: a given place, a given time, for given reasons and with given resources. When this context changes drastically, we must look again at education in a fresh and innovative manner: as a matter of fact, we need a paradigm shift.

There is no doubt that the in the last seventy years (from 1945 up to now) the context in which education takes place underwent profound changes. The emergence of digital information and communication technologies (digital ICT) radically transformed this context. Until World War II the context was one in which information, communication, and therefore knowledge were scarce, and access to them was difficult. Now the context is one in which information, communication, and therefore knowledge (knowledge that and knowledge how) are abundant, and access to them is easy, at our fingertips, anywhere, anytime – often instantaneously.

Given this radical change of context (and only one aspect of it was focused), education cannot, and will not, remain unaffected today. We need to change how we conceive it and how we implement it.

1) Understanding Education

Any person or institution interested in education must have, if not a precise definition of what it is, at least a clear and definite understanding of the concept.

Education, in the recent past, basically meant transmission or delivery of information and knowledge. Education, in this context, was generally organized (in the form of schools involving teachers, curricula, methodology, evaluation, etc.) to implement this understanding.

This understanding of education made sense in a context where information and knowledge were scarce and access to them was difficult. That context no longer exists. Thus we must look for a different understanding of education. We could try to invent, out of nothing, a totally new concept. Or we could recapture insights that, in bits and pieces, have already been with us, sometimes for a long time, but never found real resonance and never were brought together in a unified and coherent concept. That is what will be done here.

Take, for instance, this quote from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile (published in 1762), that is, perhaps, the most important essay on education written in the 18th century, before industrial civilization became widespread:

“All that we lack at birth, and need when grown up, is given us by education”.

This statement feels refreshing today because it emphasizes an important thing, often neglected in our times: everything (“all”) that we need in order to live our life, and that is not innate to us (“that we lack at birth”), must be acquired through education.

Translated into more contemporary language, this means that education has to do, not with the transmission and delivery of information and knowledge, but with the very process of human development.

Development is not the same thing as growth. Development is the product of learning. Someone can grow and not develop as a human being. Mowgli, the boy in Rudyard Kipling’s jungle stories, grew up, but did not develop as a human being. If we can speak of development in his case, it is more in terms of wolf development than of human development.

Rousseau reminds us that education is not limited to our intellectual development. Education involves also other dimensions of human life: psychomotor, social (interpersonal), affective (emotional), aesthetic (sensible), ethical and perhaps even spiritual. This is what is meant today by the expression “human development”. To add “full “or “integral” to this expression is almost pleonastic.

Even though Rousseau does not say it in this passage, the things that are innate to us (whatever they may be) can be exercised, extended, improved, perfected through education — in all of the dimensions specified.

This means that we considerably impoverish education if we conceive it only (or even primarily) as intellectual development, even if we add the mastery of skills and competencies to the absorption and assimilation of information and knowledge.

Education is still more impoverished if we see it primarily as preparation for the job market in the digital economy or for effective citizenship in a democratic society, even though education as human development may include both of these things. But it includes much more, such as, for instance, the development of characteristics that culminate in one’s self-realization — what the Greeks called eudaimonia. Achieving eudaimonia implies defining, choosing and actualizing one’s life project.

2) Formal, Non-formal and Ubiquitous Education

Human development, thus conceived, begins, it goes without saying, at birth – and ends, most likely, only at death.

In an important article written in 2010, Ecuadorean educator Rosa Maria Torres welcomes UNESCO’s recognition that education (that she correctly considers synonymous with learning, not with teaching) is a lifelong process that begins at birth and ends only at death (“Lifelong Learning: Moving Beyond Education for All”, International Forum on Lifelong Education, Shanghai, China, May 19-21, 2010).

Her text shows that, by changing the theme from “Education for All” (that really meant schooling for all) to “Lifelong Education”, UNESCO changed the challenge that government educational policy and private educational programs around the world must face. In this case, the distinction between formal and non-formal education loses importance, since education is no longer synonymous with schooling and teaching, and learning takes place both in formal (school-like) and non-formal contexts. Concern with education must begin much earlier than regular schooling and involve the whole life of the person in its multiple dimensions. Education becomes an “anytime, anywhere endeavor” that lasts throughout one’s life. In other words, education becomes ubiquitous. Something ubiquitous is everywhere at the same time, i.e., is anywhere, anytime.

3) Society as the Learning Environment

Discussing the concept of education among the ancient Greeks and Romans, James L. Jarrett states, in his magnificent The Humanities and Humanistic Education (p.11):

“Indeed, neither Greek nor Roman was in the least likely to share the modern confusion that identifies education with schooling. We are shaped and formed by the totality of our environment: it follows that we cannot afford to be careless about any aspect of that environment — architectural, legal, ceremonial, erotic, whatever“.

If education has to do with human development in all of its dimensions, and if it takes place throughout the life of the individual, it cannot be accommodated within the confines of a single (and often one-dimensional) institution, namely, the school, without losing its essential ubiquitousness.

Thus, when UNESCO tries, if not to obliterate the distinction between formal and non-formal education, at least to reduce its present importance, it is taking us back to a view already espoused by the ancient Greeks and Romans.

But the point of view defended by the ancient Greeks and Romans went beyond giving equal attention to formal and non-formal educational initiatives. They did not favor the schooling of society: they favored making society as a whole the environment in which we learn and thus educate ourselves. According to this view, to be concerned with education is not equivalent to creating and maintaining a good school system (public or private, makes no difference), much less to extending the time people remain in school (freely or under compulsion). Instead of proposing that the school should become a totalitarian institution in society, the ancient Greeks and Romans proposed that all the institutions and activities of society have an educational focus — that is, that society should become a truly educational (i.e., learning-centered) environment.

The richness of this  idea is mind-boggling. The ancient Greeks and Romans were not contemplating the educational role of only a few institutions of society, such as the family, the church, the local community, the communication means, industrial and commercial enterprises, cultural and leisure-focused organizations — not even of the school. They meant that every institution and every activity of society, from the way cities are planned and built, passing through how they are organized and governed (including, necessarily, their laws) and through how they are maintained by means of free economic activities, and arriving at how leisure is promoted and organized, that all of this be learning-focused – that is, be educational.

Rather than proposing a totalitarian schooling of society, they proposed the total deschooling of society (à la Ivan Illich), because learning should become society’s overall focus and concern. If the ancient Greeks and Romans had known the present digital information and communication technologies, they would probably have emphasized their point much more strongly and realistically.

4) How Learning and Education Take Place

Paulo Freire, Brazil’s best known educator, said in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed the following (here in a somehow free translation that joins ideas found in more than one place):

“Nobody educates anybody, but nobody educates himself either. We educate each other through a continuous dialogue, mediated by the world, in which we use resources that, in traditional education, are owned only by the teacher. Education therefore is a mutual, world-mediated process in which unfinished beings, conscious of their incompletion, attempt to be more fully human”.

5) Our Role in Education

What do these reflections, that mix the thought of the ancient Greeks and Romans with the thought of a leading Enlightenment figure and of a 20th-century Brazilian educator, have to say to us, who live in the 21st-century? What does it have to say  to governments, private companies, non-governmental organizations, etc., in fine, to anyone concerned with making a contribution to education, and thus to the betterment, of society?

First, we would do well to set our view, in education, way beyond traditional targets such as digitalizing present curricular content so it can be delivered through digital channels, or preparing present teachers to use digital tools to better deliver content that is in digital format. If we confine ourselves within these traditional limits, we deny ourselves the alternative of following the suggestion of the ancient Greeks and Romans that the whole of society be educational – the learning environment par excellance in which human development takes place.

Second, we would do well to stop viewing our target audience as being only either students or teachers (that is, school-bound people). Our target audience clearly includes present students and teachers, as long as they exist as such, but also, as a matter of fact, everyone engaged in the educational task of, through dialogue, overcoming their unfinished, incomplete condition and becoming more fully human. And we ought to become fully aware that educational work is done in the world, not necessarily in schools.

Third, Bill Gates, in one of his books, underlined an important contribution technology companies can make to the digital economy. However, in line with what I just said, he might as well be underlining the main contribution technology companies can make to education, conceived along the lines here described. Here is what he said:

“Digital tools magnify the abilities that make us unique in the world: the ability to think, the ability to articulate our thoughts, the ability to work together to act on those thoughts.  I strongly believe that if companies empower their employees to solve problems and give them potent tools to do this with, they will always be amazed at how much creativity and initiative will blossom forth” (Bill Gates, with Collins Hemingway, Business @ the Speed of Thought – Using a Digital Nervous System, 1999, p. 415, last paragraph of the book).

If we apply this reasoning to education, we will stop thinking only of companies and their employees and start thinking of society and everyone that inhabits it…  “Digital tools magnify the abilities that make us unique in the world: the ability to think, the ability to articulate our thoughts, the ability to work together to act on those thoughts”. If society empowers its members to solve problems and gives them potent tools to do this with, we will all be amazed at how much creativity, initiative and genuine learning will blossom forth.

If the analysis here made makes sense, then it makes no sense to think of technology companies as entities that do not need (or even ought not) to have a stand on substantive educational issues, since they (as some have argued) cannot get involved with the “pedagogical black box” with which only professional educators would be authorized to deal. In what is here proposed, technology companies become a very important part of the overall educational environment that is our society, and, even if we do not take into account their philanthropic and/or corporate social responsibility activities, their products and services still are part of the educational (i.e., learning-centered) environment which society makes available to its members.

It is clear, therefore, that technology companies would be contributing their due share to our society as its corporate citizens even if they only (as if this were little!) continued to offer to society quality digital tools and services that help bring forth the required creativity, ingenuity and initiative that will help us solve many of our problems. (See Jean-François Rischard, High Noon).

Fourth, the initiatives in the area of formal (school-focused) education and in the area of community affairs, supporting programs and organizations that work with digital inclusion and non-formal education, that most of the main technology companies have taken, are also part of their educational effort, if education is understood in the broader perspective that is suggested here.

Fifth, in the broader perspective that is suggested here, the description that Microsoft, one of the major technology companies of our time, used to make of its “core mission” as a “corporate citizen” of our society is not mere rhetoric: “to help people and businesses around the world realize their full potential”. Realizing one’s full potential is equivalent, in the case of individuals, to achieving self-realization — which is the goal of human development, that is, of education.

But this is a general statement. We are specific individuals, each one with their own interests and passions, gifts and talents, levels of ambition, motivation and energy. The central initial focus of education must be the definition and choice of one’s life project. After that comes the effort to transform that project into reality. In this process, monitoring and evaluation are invaluable to show the need of small course corrections or, eventually, of drastic revisions in the plan of action.

Education, it can be summarized, is equivalent to the strategic planning of one’s life and to the execution of this strategic plan. We do not do it alone: we do it collaboratively.

São Paulo, on the 7th of October, 2012, revised in São Paulo, on the 22nd of August, 2017

(*) I thank Microsoft’s Brazilian subsidiary for the authorization to use in this article material that I wrote at her request five years ago.

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