Education: Teaching for the Future

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Catherine Feore talks to an educator who believes education needs to prepare children for jobs that do not yet exist.

The world has never appeared to be such a challenging place for our children with rapid technological development and global challenges to health, the environment and security. We turned to the Education Director for the Inspired Schools Group, Dr Stephen Spurr, to ask how to prepare the next generation for what lies ahead.

The Inspired Group encompasses 30 premium schools on four continents with over 18,000 students; the group includes the prestigious St John’s International School in Brussels. Dr Spurr, who is the group education director, taught at Eton and was headmaster of Westminster in London, the top academic school in the UK.

Together: Children appear to be living in an age of greater anxiety. Artificial intelligence could render the careers their parents pursued redundant? What can the education system do to preparechildren for a very different world?

Dr Spurr: There is no doubt about this. We are bombarded with information about an automated world where there will be lots of new jobs that we don’t yet know about, which induces anxiety. Teachers have always tried to prepare their children for the future. The teachers therefore need to understand technology in order to help children to prepare.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the worldwide web, recently spoke to some of our students. He said that you must teach not only how to understand what is on the screen, but also what is happening behind the screen. In other words, knowing how computers work will help students to use them better still for their own purposes.

The next generation needs teachers who embrace technology. Education should empower children to shape our world. This is the reassuring message we need to transmit to  students and parents.

I see that you studied the classics. Are the non-STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) still relevant to today’s schools? We have rightly concentrated on STEM subjects, but what we must insist upon on the future is STEAM, where A stands for the arts and humanities in general. We need people with a balanced understanding of human experience. Scientists also need to have creativity and understand what it means to be human.

Steve Jobs said: “Technology is not enough… it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities that yields us the results that make our heart sing.” I would agree with that. At St John’s we teach the baccalaureate curriculum where you have to follow a mix of subjects.

Is there a danger that we are heading for a society that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing? The generation that is becoming more anxious, Generation Z, are much more idealistic than we give them credit for. The z stands for zero – they will be the first generation that has the capacity to reduce poverty, famine and climate change to zero. These are the things they care about and as educators we strongly support them.

You taught in Eton for many years, one of the world’s most renowned schools in the UK. Does it deserve its reputation? Even after Boris Johnson? I taught Boris, Jo and Leo Johnson! Boris also sent his sons to Westminster School where I was headmaster. They are all very cleverpeople and they are all very committed to education and Leo in particular is interested inlooking at future challenges. It’s very importantfor young people to be involved and feel thatthey can contribute to current affairs.

Some of us feel nostalgia towards our own education. Teacher led, not bothered by ‘discovery’ – not very cool; but most of us feel we had a good grounding. We just sat down and learnt a poem by rote, or why the periodic table is laid out as it is. Was that really so bad? Is there a danger of gimmickry in education? It’s not a good idea to copy notes down from the blackboard – or out-of-date text books – and rewarding students for regurgitating what they’ve learnt. On the other hand, if you have never had to remember anything you will not know how to assimilate other knowledge. So a mixture is needed. Yes, it is still important to learn things but children need to be taught how to be critical and analytical.

W.B. Yeats said that “education is notthe filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”. What is the best way to extinguish a flame? Or kindle a flame? It isn’t a binary position. It is no longer enough to fill the pail – we also need to light the fire. We need to fill the pail not just with knowledge, but with optimism and hope. The reservoirs of self-confidence need to be kept full to give children the courage to face an uncertain future.

Education is all about people and it takes place best in a conversation between the teacherand the student. If you can get a child to be passionate about one aspect of their education, that child will excel. This is precious – once you have excelled in one area you can be shown how to be equally good in other things. In this way in a changing world you can be ready whatever comes.