Educating for the Future

What should learning look like to prepare our children for the future world?

Posted Sep 22, 2019

Yuganov Konstantin/Shutterstock
Creativity and Knowledge
Source: Yuganov Konstantin/Shutterstock

Albert Einstein famously asserted, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” As we progress further into the 21st century, Einstein’s statement resonates in my mind as I deliberate over the current focus and probable trajectory of education.

What should learning look like to prepare our children for the future world? Should creativity be the sole focus? Is an emphasis on learning how to learn the key, or do children need to develop a vast general fund of information?

Reversal of the Flynn Effect

Throughout the 20th century, scores on intelligence tests were rising. James Flynn has explored and explained this effect in great detail. In summary, IQ scores (based on a mean score of 100) have dramatically increased from the time of our grandparents’ generations.

The score increases were about three points per decade, with an average-scoring person from the 1930s scoring approximately 70 on tests that were standardized in the 1980s. Many explanations have been proposed for the Flynn Effect—from more abstract thought required in daily life to vast improvements in nutrition. Rather unexpectedly, the Flynn Effect appears to be reversing now.

What may be causing the IQ change?

Scientists are trying to understand what may be causing this reversal of cognitive gains. There is currently no consensus about what may be driving the score decreases. Lifestyle changes are suggested as a likely candidate:

“Instead, it suggests changes in lifestyle could be what's behind these lower IQs, perhaps due to the way children are educated, the way they're brought up, and the things they spend time doing more and less (the types of play they engage in, whether they read books, and so on).”

Many lifestyle changes have occurred in the last two decades. Increased stress in childhood, less time for free play, and ever-changing educational philosophies are all possible candidates. However, the most likely difference may be right in the palm of our hands—or the screen in front of our faces.

Could our reliance on technology be reducing our intellectual capacities?

To clarify, I am an unwavering advocate for the utilization of technology for learning. I teach online classes and use many technological methods while homeschooling our children. Personally, I also use online learning to satiate my autodidactic tendencies.

I do think that how we utilize technology matters.

The over-reliance on technology for basic knowledge may be replacing humans’ general fund of information. Using search engines and voice-assistants for things we previously had to retrieve from our memories continually is likely affecting our kids (and us) in rather unforeseen ways.

This statement from science writer Brett Frishmann explains this idea:

"I believe we may be making ourselves dumber when we outsource thinking and rely on supposedly smart tech to micromanage our daily lives for the sake of cheap convenience."

Why does this matter? Well, automation will likely make numerous human jobs obsolete. This rather alarming and impending reality causes much parental angst. We are all wondering—what can we do to robot-proof our children's futures?

Creativity and Imagination

Enter creativity and imagination. Humans who are able to organize disparate fragments of information and make unforeseen ideas and connections come to life will be at a significant advantage. This creativity may be the key to future success, but understanding the development of creativity is complex.

To be a creative and imaginative thinker is to develop original and useful products—whether physical or ideational. To develop these ideas, we need to have a knowledge base that will allow our brains to connect different stores of information. Maria Popova eloquently describes why we need to have a large fund of knowledge to be creative:

"The idea that in order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these pieces and build new castles."

The key is to have a strong fund of knowledge to spark imagination and develop creative thoughts. Your brain takes familiar information and assembles it in new ways. If you don’t have that information easily available—because of Alexa, Siri, or Hey Google—you won’t come up with those creative thoughts and new ideas that will differentiate you from the robots.

Research indicates that retrieval practice is one of the best methods to learn information. If you aren’t trying to retrieve information to bring it to your thoughts—instead pulling out your phone—this may be problematic for not only a general fund of knowledge but also for the ability to initiate creative contemplations in the future.

Final Thoughts

While Albert Einstein’s quote is a powerful reminder of the prominent role of imagination as a necessity to move us forward scientifically, we shouldn’t underestimate the influence of knowledge to trigger creativity. Rather than conceptualizing a dichotomy between the creative and knowledge-based domains, we should consider the interplay that necessitates both foundations as we consider the focus of education. In essence, knowledge matters, as our brains will not develop ideas that will change—and improve—the world without an adequate general fund of information.

We should also be wary of becoming too content-specific, which may actually inhibit our creativity. Encourage your kids to become polymaths. Gaining knowledge in many fields can encourage big ideas that span multiple disciplines, thereby encouraging divergent thinking.

Finally, it is important to emphasize that while we should be wary of some uses of technology modifying our knowledge base, we must also recognize the power of technology to engage and teach our children with the touch of a button.

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