16 August 2012 by Neil Logan
We Need More than the Three Rs
The industrial revolution was a turning point in human history. Lasting over 100 years it had a profound effect on lives by changing the social, economic and cultural conditions of the times. Today, we stand in the middle of another revolution: the digital revolution. The digital age is here and just like industrialisation, digitisation is having a similarly profound effect.
When most people first think of industrialisation their minds inevitably focus on the engineer, the machine, the factory. Unfortunately these images are not entirely positive. However when I think of the industrial revolution my first thought is not of the factory, the machine or the worker, it is of the school.
Prior to the industrial revolution, education was something for classes not the masses. If you wanted to learn to read and write you paid for it. At the time many “educated” people felt that the masses simply lacked the mental capacity to read or write. However, as industrialisation took hold, the need for an educated workforce became crucial. As a result, and for the first time, education became compulsory for all and was free at the point of delivery. The school emerged directly to meet the demands of our newly industrialised world.
Compulsory free education goes hand-in-hand with industrialisation across the world. It should come as no surprise then that industrialisation has had a huge impact on the way schools function. Schools remain production lines. The raw materials are young children and over a prolonged period of time are equipped with the skills they need to function in industry. Just like other factories, the raw materials are processed in batches grouped by their “manufactured” date.
The industrialised age required skilled engineers, to create the machines that powered the factories. Schools focused on three main capabilities: reading, writing and arithmetic. The three Rs became and remain the foundations of our education system. However, as the digital revolution continues, we must look more deeply at the skills we require in this digital age.
Just as the industrial age required skilled engineers, so the digital age requires skilled programmers to create the software that powers the internet. (Un)fortunately programmers are not engineers. Programming is a creative, almost artistic activity. It is a craft that requires an ability to abstract and problem solve that in my experience is not commonly found amongst the adult population. In fact I had started to think the skills we required were simply beyond the capability of most people. However our new digital economy demands people with these skills and right now demand is outstripping supply.
I gained some perspective into this problem during a moan conversation I had with one of my colleagues. During one of our regular laments about the lack of skilled programmers available in the marketplace my colleague pleaded: “I’d take someone who could abstract and solve problems… the rest I can teach them”. I’ve thought a lot about this. I started wondering if this was the same challenge that was experienced during the industrial revolution. Did engineers then lament: “I’d take someone who could read, write and count… the rest I can teach them”?
Our education system currently generates individuals who have the building blocks for the industrialised age. Without the three Rs you are simply not able to function as an engineer. However in the digitial age we need something more than the three Rs.
Enter the two Cs: creative and computation thinking.
Creative or divergent thinking is a thought process used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions. It’s a spontaneous, free-flowing process that only a few seem to be able to do. However, there’s something unusual here: we appear to be educating creativity out of children.
Sir Ken Robinson, the famous educator turned author, argues convincingly that our current education system, forged in the industrial revolution, kills creativity. In a number of his talks he discusses that there is clear evidence that our ability to think creatively actually lessens the older we get. Robinson’s assertion is that our current education system actively educates the creativity out of us.
Today there is a greater acceptance of the need for artistic and creative endeavour than there was during the industrial revolution. The arts are more highly prized in and of themselves than ever before. However, I believe that in the digital age, where programmers are the new engineers, creative is the life blood of the time. Without an ability to think creatively, a programmer is simply a “code monkey”.
But creative thinking is only half the battle. Computational thinking, the application of techniques learned from computer science to aid problem solving, plays an equally important role. Spearheaded by Carnegie Mellon University, computation thinking involves data analysis, organisation, modelling, and abstraction. It focuses on formulating problems such that computers may assist and on the identification, test and implementation of possible solutions.
Computation thinking isn’t contained within the digital domain: it actively teaches how to solve problems in ways which skilled programmers already do, but it does it without the computer. It teaches the essence of pure problem solving.
Just as the industrial age needed engineers who could read, write and count, so the digital age requires programmers who are able think creatively and computationally. Creative and computational thinking are skills that should be taught with same focus and determination as the three Rs are today.
However teaching the two Cs isn’t just about us producing more programmers – it’s about recognising that there’s more to life than three Rs and that there is two halves to everyone’s brain. The time has come for our education system to focus on more than the three Rs. The two Cs must take equal importance if we are to prepare ourselves properly for the digital age.