This article is by Dr Saima Rana, who is Principal/ CEO of GEMS World Academy Dubai and Chief Education Ambassador for the Varkey Foundation.
Aaron Sorkin has Steve Jobs say in the 2015 biopic: ‘The most efficient animal on the planet is a condor. The most inefficient animals on the planet are humans. But a human with a bicycle becomes the most efficient animal. And the right computer … will be a bicycle for the mind.’
I love that and it’s a lesson schools and businesses are learning. For those who might have missed the memo, the pandemic is teaching catch-up. We need beautiful, slick, flawless technologies, we need them to be not in the right hands but in everyone’s, and we need it yesterday.
Covid- 19 has shut down schools and locked down students, teachers and parents but schools have been able to continue by going on-line so long as the digital resources were all in place.
Where these technological resources haven’t been available there has been an educational disaster on a monumental scale. It mustn’t happen again.
Technology is an enabler
I’m a techno-enthusiast. Ever since I started teaching I’ve known that IT, AI and digital technologies generally can enhance efficiencies in so many domains of schooling and education. I’ve made it part of my teaching and intellectual DNA and have worked to ensure my students have access to them.
It’s an exciting and ever-changing landscape with innovations happening all the time. To do this planning, investment and future-proofing must be robust, leadership has to be ambidextrous and flexible to balance the need for stability, functional efficiency, best value and the best fit whilst staying cutting edge. School leaders can’t avoid this.
It’s an area where technological expertise is not an option but a necessity, and too often this hasn’t been understood. The pandemic has helped make this a take-home message too.
But if technology makes us the most efficient animals on the planet, that’s primarily all it does. And that’s not everything. But sometimes we techno-enthusiasts can sound like we think it is. ‘If it’s efficient to get lessons on-line,’ the argument goes, ‘then why bother with having them anywhere else?’ That’s a line of reasoning we must resist. To a hammer, everything is a nail.
But everything isn’t a nail, and we’re not just hammers. Efficiency is a great thing, but it can’t make sense of everything we are, and to say it does reduce our understanding of ourselves and our world.
The car is more efficient than the horse drawn carriage. Cars replaced horses. Progress in the technological realm is linear, where the most efficient technology replaces its rivals. But schools aren’t technologies. They have elements within them that are, for example, the digital technologies of AI and computers and the like of course.
But the linear logic of technological efficiency doesn’t capture what a school is. A school is about education. And education is culture. And culture doesn’t work in the same way as technology does.
In this I’m influenced by the late sociologist Daniel Bell. He believed that existence is “radically disjunctive,” that society is best understood “as being composed of diverse realms, each obedient to a different ‘axial’ principle”. For him, the technological realm is animated by the principle of efficiency but the cultural realm by the principle of the fulfillment of the self. I agree.
I’m defending the integrity of the realms, and their autonomy. Education, being largely part of the cultural realm, isn’t driven by efficiency. Education involves the development of values, aptitudes, habits and appetites for self understanding and understanding generally. It is a humanistic phenomenon about nurturing cognitive, emotional, physical growth. It attends to the growth of wellbeing.
It develops the ability to communicate, think, feel, play, imagine, compute, calculate, make judgments, lead, take risks, care, lead, be ethical and understand. It brings about a sense of belonging, of trust, and joins people together globally across all the various disciplines found in a universal broad and balanced curriculum. Education helps people understand how others live, and how they feel and become, and brings self-awareness and self-knowledge too.
The educated person involves herself in a broader, bigger, deeper world than she knew before and is therefore herself enhanced. In culture, existential questions about who we are, where we’re going and what’s our purpose never disappear.
I think the processes involved in this are not solely or even primarily about efficiencies. The educated child doesn’t replace herself when she learns something new, nor does she replace her old world with a new one when she understands something more deeply or grasps more facts. What happens is that she renews her relationships with the old one and continually reflects on herself and what she is becoming.
This relationship is something we can understand clearly if we think about how, for example, a new masterpiece relates to an older one in the arts. When Samuel Beckett wrote ‘Endgame’, his strange modern version of Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’, he didn’t replace Shakespeare’s earlier masterpiece.
Rather, his play communicated with the older piece and through understanding this relationship, Beckett’s play was enhanced by Shakespeare’s and vice versa. In contrast to the way technologies are pictured as progressing along a straight line, with each new innovation replacing the previous one, in culture we have what Daniel Bell called ‘a ricorso effect’, an ever deepening back and forthness that continually buckles and binds everything together in a relationship of insinuating dialogue. As Bell puts it: “Culture is always a ricorso…” because “… the existential questions remain.”
Schools and education must be understood as being places where our young people are brought together within the logic of this culture. And just as the pandemic has shown the need for digital technologies to be available to all, it has also shown that education is best done in ricorso relationships separate from efficiencies controlling and mediating useful technologies.
Even in schools which were able to switch to virtual teaching throughout the pandemic lockdowns and school closures, their students, teachers and parents/carers have all lamented the closures and their enforced physical isolation. Techno-enthusiasts like myself should take this seriously and beware of turning a technological fix into a permanent solution, and of ignoring Bell’s separation of realms.
I’m not so enthusiastic about technology to overlook the dystopian warnings in Disney’s ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, and Marvel’s ‘Age of Ultron’, and far too enthusiastic about education not to invest in the best digital technologies I can afford. The realms of education and technology are separate. And Covid 19 has emphasized what we already knew: we need them both.