Ever since we came out of the fields and into the towns and cities, life has become progressively more about how productive we can be.
And always there have been threats to our jobs. The cotton gin; industrialisation; the production line; time and motion studies; the robots that came in during the 1980s. The latest is Artificial Intelligence. And yet today more people are in work than ever before. So maybe we need to chill out and ignore the doom mongers.
But there’s something else to consider. Maybe life doesn’t have to be a treadmill. What if we could find a way to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table and still indulge our playful, creative side? Have you seen Google’s proposed new offices in London’s King’s Cross? That’s the architect’s impression at the top of the page. Note the roof garden.
And if you could look through the windows, you might see something like this (right). In fact, in every hi-tech office I’ve visited in the past 15 years, increasingly play has become integral. First it was table tennis and darts. Then it was rollerskating and skateboard paths.Now, it’s the apparent playground that is Google.
There’s a serious fly in this ointment though. The education system in the UK (and most likely elsewhere in the western world) is resolutely stuck in the 1980s. And yet the jobs that were available in the 80s are disappearing. More than 50% of jobs available today didn’t exist 15 years ago. Do we imagine that is a trend that is miraculously going to reverse itself? Do we go along with Donald Trump and his promise to bring work back to mining communities in the Appalachians Mountains? Of course, we don’t.
So we need a revolution in education. To work in the digital world requires a number of skills. Paramount among them is creativity. How do you teach creativity? Finland has a curriculum that “puts a big emphasis on music, the arts, and outdoor activities” (bigthink.com). The country has been doing this since the late 70s. And yet it has slowly climbed its way to fifth in the international rankings in, of all subjects, science.
Despite this, just last year, Finland overhauled its already successful system by scrapping individual ‘subjects’. These will be replaced by classes studying a topic (such as climate change) and applying all the attendant relevance of maths, history, geography and science.
Without pre-judging whether this new system will work or not, it is obvious that it will require and induce creative thinking on the part of the students. Understanding why maths is important might well reverse the trend (particularly in the UK) of avoiding the subject like the plague. Over time, this has led to a dearth in the UK, particularly at Primary School level, of qualified maths teachers. Ditto the sciences.
Teaching the teachers
So where’s the problem? In the UK, the problem lies in the teaching profession. Today’s teachers are a product of three generations of degenerating standards, particularly in English and maths. It stands to reason that if you weren’t taught English properly your ability to teach it is compromised. Ignoring correct grammar and punctuation and not bothering about spelling – all in favour of ‘expressing yourself’ – has taken literacy standards backwards.
But even more problematic is the fact that we don’t teach coding, or indeed anything about digital engineering. Of course, it would be hard to introduce, since we don’t have teachers qualified in the subjects. The answer to that, in the absence of what some consider a fair contribution to our tax revenue, is to involve the global giants of the digital world in our school curriculum.
And we need to retrain our teachers, overhaul the entire education curriculum. We need to start teaching our children to think, to play, to be creative. They need to look forward to a world where work will be fun, not an imposition. A world where their efforts might positively impinge, through the work they are involved in, on future generations.
Certainly a world where there are no more dark satanic mills, or Thomas Gradgrind figures forcing them into mind-numbing boredom just to put food on their table.