I imagine a future where a grandchild might come to me and say, “So let me get this right, Grandad … when you were young, people used to dig up coal and oil from millions of years ago? That was dangerous and expensive and destroyed the landscape and upset the people where it happened. Then you’d burn it in big buildings to create electricity, or set fire to it to run your engines, but those buildings and engines would lose most of the energy as waste heat? And people used to go to war for the stuff in the ground because everyone wanted it so much, but when you burnt it, it helped kill more people than all those wars put together through pollution and climate change? Did I get that right?”
And I’d have to say, “Yes, that’s about it.”
“But Grandad,” they might say. “That sounds stupid when energy is coming out of the sky for free!”
And I might try to give some context. “Well, we didn’t always have the know-how or the technology to get the energy in the way we do now – and when we did work it out, the people who’d built the old system weren’t happy about the new one because that’s how they paid themselves and fed their families. We’d become very accustomed to that way of doing things. It seemed, er, normal.”
To my grandchildren (should I be blessed with any) our energy system will seem ridiculous, short-sighted, barbaric even. Those who resist the shift to renewables may, in retrospect, seem cartoonish in their defense of the old, the easy villains of history – for my grandchildren will have grown up in a different energy culture, one where, in many parts of the world, generating power locally and cleanly will seem obvious and unsurprising, the normal way of doing things.
I know this because I’ve already seen it. For my last book I researched and visited towns of all sizes who already had, or were in the process of moving over to, renewables. One moment sticks in my mind. In the town of Güssing, South Austria, I was sat in one of the area’s many solar facilities. My guide, the ever jolly Joachim took me into the control room where he showed me how much local households were consuming and their current bills. “They pay about half the price they would with a utility,” he said (and those cheap bills, I found out, included a levy for maintenance costs, explaining why the facility was still in fine working order after nearly two decades of operation).
“Well, everyone must be very happy with that,” I’d said. Joachim shrugged. “Not really.” I was surprised. ‘What’s not to like’, I thought? But I had misunderstood him. It’s not that the locals were unhappy, it’s just that they’d been making energy this way for twenty years. In Güssing, cheap, reliable, community-owned, renewable energy is nothing remarkable any more. It was an attitude I came into contact with time and time again. From café owners to public officials, from taxi drivers to shop owners, there was (and is) a belief that there is absolutely nothing strange or unique about the way the town generates and distributes its own power. ‘Why would you do it any other way?’ is a common refrain. “For us, it’s normal,” said Joachim. “That’s it.”
Towns as different as Georgetown, slap-bang in the middle of oil-rich Central Texas (population: 60,000) to Wildpoldsried in Germany (population 2,600) – which generates 5 times the energy it needs
thanks to a 20 year transition to renewables – have realised that the world of energy is shifting from one of economies of scale to one of economies of distribution, and, slowly, the smarter national governments of the world are realising it too. Indeed they must if they want to remain competitive. Keeping your old monolithic energy system while trying to compete with a nation that has radically reduced its energy bills (while making the system less vulnerable to attack) is economic suicide.
Juan Enriquez, variously an investor, futurologist, former peace negotiator, author, Harvard academic and businessman and who, because of these reasons, a man I like to buy lunch for when I’m in his hometown of Boston, says: “There will be whole nations who end up on the scrap heap because they don’t understand this stuff.” But when he talks about “stuff” he’s not just referring to the energy transition. He’s talking also about the questions the future raises for us about transitioning away from our unsustainable food system (and the related water stress it creates), the impact of artificial intelligence, the power of synthetic (programmable) biology, climate change, the promise and threat of blockchain powered administrations, the ageing of our populations… the list goes on.
Juan is highlighting the importance of what I call ‘future literacy’ – which I define as: understanding the questions the future is asking us, and then working out how we can answer those questions to make the world more sustainable, equitable, humane and just – for everyone. If nations are, as Juan puts it, to “understand this stuff”, they will need future-literate education systems that can comprehend those questions and create a citizenry willing and capable of answering them. In the UK (and in many developed economies) that is not the education system we have. Nowhere near.
There is a staggering lack of future literacy in many of our educational institutions. There is little understanding of the real questions the future is asking us – those our children will be called upon to answer. We teach our students, on the whole, to know things, but not how to ask the right questions. I can vouch for this because I deal with the results of the poor-questioning mind in the workplace. Too often organisations leap to create products, services or policies that answer the wrong question, a superficial one or one that no-one really cares about, including their employees. The Right Question Institute sums the problem up:
The ability to produce questions, improve questions and prioritise questions may be one of the most important—yet too often overlooked—skills that a student can acquire in their formal education. However, this skill is rarely, if ever, deliberately taught to students from kindergarten through high school. Most people acquire the skill through exposure to an elite education, or years of higher education, advanced training and much professional experience.
Why is it not taught? Perhaps because it’s hard to assess in the traditional way. And perhaps because the questions we need to ask are considered too dangerous for young minds? Maybe questioning why we have a governance system built for the 19th Century still in place in the 21st isn’t something those in charge are keen to discuss. Or why is democracy in decline? Or why public trust has evaporated? Or why inequality is soaring? Or why so much of our press is prejudicial? I’m a fan of Voltaire’s maxim: ‘Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.’ If we were to judge the UK’s education system by the questions it’s asking I fear many of us would find the exercise dispiriting.
A second, and related, problem is that there is precious little systems thinking in education. We split the world into subjects and then complain that our organisations are not agile enough to deal with change. Yet should we be surprised when we build those organisations in the image of the education
we had, replacing ‘subjects’ with ‘departments’ that rarely talk to each other? The devil, we are told, is in the detail, but the devil is really in the cracks separating fields of expertise that siloise themselves into (non)intellectual bubbles, unable it seems to comprehend the systemic problems we face. Just to be clear, I’m not in any way against specialism and mastery. I’m against it being isolated from meaning, context and future literacy (an isolation that some senior academics seem to pride themselves on).
This lack of future literacy and systems thinking has led us to the ridiculous situation in education of championing ‘hard’ subjects above all others, putting on a pedestal the very skills that the machines outperform us on a thousand times over, all without raising a mechanical eyebrow. Yet the jobs of the future will increasingly demand skills of empathy, collaboration, systems thinking, caring, philosophy, creativity, craft – the very things we call ‘soft’ subjects. Don’t get me wrong, I am nut for the so-called ‘hard’ stuff (I willingly took Maths, Physics and Economics at ‘A’ level and graduated top of my year with a Business Technology degree before becoming a cryptography nerd). Judge me on the fact I used to sooth my baby boy to sleep by reading him passages on number theory from The Principia Mathematica. And you won’t find me arguing against a need for literacy (despite starting that sentence with ‘and’). After all, part of my living is writing research-heavy books for a general audience. But to suggest in a world increasingly full of artificial intelligence, big data and robotics, that these skills are where the work (and the fulfillment) will be for most people, is madness.
A clear result of these and other problems with our education system is that we have made a good deal of learning very dull – which is a hell of an achievement when you think about it. Our children look at the silos, the traditions, the protectionism of an old set of values, and a curriculum that seems wholly unsuited for the world they see around them and become bored or actively antagonistic. If the education system worked, they figure, perhaps the planet wouldn’t be heading to environmental collapse and riven with mass inequality, while the powerful continue to defend political systems poorly equipped to deal with the problems we face. The results of a 2012 Canadian study of 63,000 schoolchildren are typical, finding that only 39% of them found lessons engaging. That said, they don’t necessarily dislike school. 69% were engaged with its social aspects and, importantly, the idea of school – understanding that it’s there to help them improve their life chances. In short, kids understand that school is a good idea in principle but find lessons boring or irrelevant. It’s hard to blame them – and it’s a lost opportunity of gargantuan proportions.
But what do we do to schools that dare to experiment, to break through the silos, to embrace systems thinking, to encourage future literacy and, as a result, encourage personal responsibility for making the future better? (In short schools children actually like and value). It seems that our educational overseers soon bully them back to compliance with the old ways. It is a great irony in education that those in positions of power are the ones the old system served well (often thanks far more to socio-economic factors than raw talent) making them precisely the wrong people to build a better one. They will soon recreate the system that served them. By the way, I’m one of those that did well, but I’m under no illusion that much of that is down to the accident of my birth (white, male and middle class to loving parents – or ‘my big break’ as I like to call it). Children from disadvantaged and poor backgrounds don’t get the ‘second chances’ that kids from more affluent households might enjoy (allowing them to, for instance, more easily get a job at the Department for Education or OFSTED, or become futurist authors). Their disengagement, as the US National Research Council puts it, ‘increases dramatically their risk of unemployment, poverty, poor health, and involvement in the criminal justice system.’
The cost to our economies is enormous. The human cost unimaginable.
And so to perhaps the biggest problem with education. In the UK (and elsewhere) it has become politicised. ‘Traditional’ and ‘progressive’ have become code-words for Right and Left. In the same way renewable energy in the US is seen by some as a ‘liberal’ idea, so attempts to change the curriculum to embrace a changed world rather than propping up the old one is often cast as the indoctrination of children into a leftist ideology. By the same token, advocacy of discipline or rigour, or suggestion there is a great deal of value in training the memorising muscle is decried by some as the crushing (and politically motivated) hand of conservatism.
Depending on what question you need to answer, nearly every approach to pedagogy has its place. But if you’re asking the wrong questions, as our education systems are, everyone can point to the failings of everyone else, because no approach is sufficient. Society continues to stagger from one crisis to the next, and it’s always the other side’s fault. So, do we all keep on failing and blaming the other ‘side’, or can we wake up and jointly create an education system fit for the century we’re going to be living in? Because if we don’t we’ll end up vapourising our economy. As Juan said, “There will be whole nations who end up on the scrap heap because they don’t understand this stuff.”
I imagine a future where a grandchild might come to me and say, “So let me get this right, Grandad … when you were young you used to send kids to school to learn about the world by dividing it up into ‘subjects’ – just as the world became more connected? And you valued the things you could easily examine even though the machines could do most of them better? And education was about answers not questions, and about individual performance rather than collaboration in the service of the common good? And kids from rich families had more help and opportunity than kids from poor ones? Did I get that right?”
And I’d have to say, “Yes, that’s about it.”
“But Grandad,” they might say, “That sounds stupid, and really boring – and not good for the country!”
And I might try to give some context. “Well, the education system was born in a different time and the people who’d built the old system weren’t so happy about a new one because that’s how they paid themselves and fed their families. We’d become very accustomed to that way of doing things. It seemed, er, normal.”
Nelson Mandela famously said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” When I hear this quoted, as it often is in educational circles, I’m surprised that it is always taken in the positive. But education is as much a weapon to change the world for ill as it is for good. Educate a populace into isolationism, deference to the status quo, self-interest over the greater good, compliance over creativity, exam results over social and economic ones and you can indeed change the world – just not in a very nice way.
Finally, shouldn’t building a future-literate education system be fun, goddammit? Shouldn’t we all be throwing our hearts and minds into it with the greatest of enthusiasm, pooling all our different perspectives and experience in a spirit of collaboration, and making new and unexpected friendships
along the way? Shouldn’t we be modeling something our children can be proud of, rather than sustaining the tribal squabbling that seems to characterise so much of the debate in education? All that achieves is handing the reigns of power to those with the biggest sticks, instead of the best collaborators.
The scrapheap awaits, as does a rebirth. There are consequences to our decisions. Let’s not make ourselves the easy villains of history. Let’s move education forwards – and let’s really enjoy doing it.
Self described ‘reluctant futurist’ Mark Stevenson is the author of two bestselling books, An Optimist’s Tour of the Future and the award-winning We Do Things Differently. He is one of the world’s most respected thinkers on the interplay of technology and society, helping a diverse mix of clients that include government agencies, NGOs, corporates and arts organisations to become future literate and adapt their cultures and strategy to squarely face the questions the future is asking them. His many advisory roles include Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Earth Challenge, Civilised Bank and the Atlas of the Future.