• Niels Strohkirch

Is Technology Driving Traditional Schools To A Crossroads?

“The amount of technical information is doubling every 2 years. For students starting a 4-year technical or college degree, this means ½ of what they learn in their first year of study will be outdated by their 3rd year of study.” [1]

Have schools changed much since Otto von Bismarck established a government driven school system in 1887 in Prussia/Germany[2] which was later adopted almost worldwide[3], to ensure children shall be educated in the right way?[4] The State‘s approach: authoritative driven teaching where children have to sit still and do as they are told, learn as they are told and get examined as they are told. Depending on the State examiner’s grading system the children would be offered either a tertiary education followed by a career or end up as labourers. The system was all about reward and punishment.[5] Has anything really changed since then?

Now, let me guide you through a thought: 

A baby born in the year 2019 will be 31 years old in 2050 and with a bit of luck will see the 22nd century. How will we teach this baby what she needs to survive, while she is growing up, and to be successful in 2050 or 2060 or 2100? Is it the same way I was taught when I was born in 1969 and reached my 31st birthday in 2000?

Such a question would not arise for a baby born in 1400. Why? Just imagine a 30-year-old adult going to sleep for a 100 years and waking up in the year 1500. He would adapt easily to life a 100 years later because nothing much would have changed. The name of the local King or Lord may be different and the kingdom may have expanded or shrunk. In any case, it would not matter much to him. Farming was still done the same way and transportation had not changed much either. Schools did not really existed for common people and you had to learn about life in the school of hard knocks. In comparison, what would happen if a person went to sleep in the year 1900 and woke up in 2000? Where are all the horse carriages? What is an automobile? People can fly? People went to the moon? You can send a message to the other side of the world in under one second? Salaried workers in an office? McDonalds? Pizza delivery service? Impossible! This person would have a tough time adapting to this new environment and may just go mad.

If you look at the rising speed of technology adoption compared to the beginning of the 20th century, not too many people out there would disagree with me that it is occurring faster and faster.[6]

Figure 1: Technology Adoption in US Households

Figure 1 shows just how fast we adopt new technology. Even more mind boggling is the rate of technological development.

See some of these developments as shown on https://orleansmarketing.com/35-technology-facts-stats/

- Over 3.8 billion people use the internet today, which is 40% of the world’s population.

- 8 billion devices will be connected to the internet by 2020.

- More than 570 new websites are created every minute.

- There are over 3.5 billion searches per day on Google.

- Every minute of a day videos are uploaded to YouTube. More video content is uploaded to YouTube in a 60-day period than the three major U.S. television networks created in 60 years.

- By 2020, video will account for about 80% of all internet traffic.

- 340,000 tweets are posted per minute.

- 500 million tweets are posted per day.

- Facebook has more than 2 billion active users with an average of 155 friends.

There are more than 300 million photos uploaded to Facebook every day, 800 million likes per day, and 175 million heart emojis per day.47% of jobs will disappear in the next 25 years as robots replace 5 million workers by 2020.

And most important:

The amount of technical information is doubling every 2 years. For students starting a 4-year technical or college degree, this means ½ of what they learn in their first year of study will be outdated by their 3rd year of study.

Also, look at the time frame of technological revolutions:

Length of Industrial Revolution

While the 1st and the 2nd Industrial Revolution took us about 100 years each from the beginning to the next level, the 3rd revolution was cut short by roughly half the time. The 4th Technological Revolution, which started around 2011 is ongoing for only eight years now. Looking at the speed of the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), Blockchain, Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) and 5G, just to name a few, it seems fair to bet that the 4th Revolution will have an even shorter life cycle than the 3rd one.

When you read the point made above regarding the short-lived period of technical knowledge, you may seriously ask yourself why do people spend huge sums of money and effort to send their kids to university despite whatever they learn becoming outdated even before they leave the institution. And this is the best scenario assuming the university professors are up to date with the latest developments at all times, which does not sound realistic.

Coming back to the current education system and how it may or may not fit into the future. Stuffing as much information as possible into a young mind and forcing it out via exams is not appropriate anymore. It is the anti-thesis of the meaning of the word “education” in Greek, which means “to draw forth from within” or “educere” in Latin , meaning “to bring up, to nourish”. The method used to work relatively well in the past. ‘Casualties’ of this system were labeled as ‘bad students’ or ‘failures’ and did blue collar jobs. Many of them were needed anyway to work in the factories.[7]

But will this work in the future, in the year 2050 or 2060? We would need a crystal ball to see what the future holds. One thing is certain though, technology has changed our lives dramatically in the last decade and it will be even more dramatic in the years to come. Many blue collar and white collar jobs will simply disappear while new jobs evolve. Just 10 years ago who would have imagined being a “Youtuber”, “Instagrammer” or “Social Media Consultant”.

So, what are the choices left for providing your children with the best education? The world has churned out various school systems which are equipped differently for mastering these challenges in the future. Of course, the traditional schools still exist in a variety of guises and then there are other options, such as, Acton Academy [8], Waldorf School[9] and Montessori Schools[10] as well as many hybrids.

There is another trend called “Unschooling”. Parents drop the original concept of Home Schooling altogether and take the responsibility of educating their children in their own hands. It may appear as the most extreme form of “resisting” traditional school systems and many perceive it as almost anarchic or even anti-government. In a country such as Germany it would be illegal to “Unschool” or “Home School” your children and would most likely warrant a visit by the police to force you to send them to school.

Acton Academy [11], places the collective responsibility of teaching and learning in the hands of the children themselves. It is a school of life without teachers but with adult supervision, called Guides. The children form their own community and build their whole lives around it. A golden rule at Acton is that the Guides never answer any questions from the children, instead they guide them to find the answer themselves. It is all based on the concept that children are natural learners[12] and naturally curious. They only need guidance to use these gifts to their fullest potential.

Looking at these options, it is hardly surprising that parents either struggle to make the best decision for their children or simply succumb to the same thing they went through and just send them to the same school or same kind of school they experienced. This is a natural tendency but the crucial question is — does this path equip the children with what they require for life when they leave school?

In the last 100 years school was the main place where you found people with knowledge i.e. teachers and who were willing to stand in front of you day after day to pass down their knowledge to you. You were required to sit for an examination to evaluate how much you understood and given a grade for your effort.

I do not intend to discuss the merits of the grading system, which I think is mostly unfair. My emphasis is that, at the time it was probably the only or maybe even the best way of transferring knowledge and getting some kind of feedback as to whether the student acquired a passable understanding of the subject matter. How is this translated in today’s world of easy access to the internet and specialised content providers who offer specialised research for a fee? To put it bluntly: What can today’s schools offer in terms of learning which you cannot learn by yourself? The big picture answer is: Nothing!

What can today’s schools offer in terms of learning which you cannot learn by yourself? The big picture answer is: Nothing!

Educational institutions offer accreditation via a grading system. Nothing more. And for this honour they either take money from taxpayers or charge a tuition fee, or both. Worse, in many cases of higher education this ensures that students start their career with a massive debt.[13] Lucky ones have parents who can afford the fees without taking up loans.

Coming back to the bold statement that there is nothing a school can teach their students which they cannot learn for themselves, let’s look at the situation a little closer. You have free online services such as Khan Academy[14] which offer the entire American syllabus for free. For sure it is not perfect, but neither are schools and teachers. Furthermore, there are thousands of online courses out there for our children to study independently.

If you think that this is not as good as going to school just look at how many online courses are offered by these institutions.[15] It must be working, otherwise they would not be bothered.

Now, let’s get back to the basics. Why ‘torpedo’ the school systems which have served us quite well for over a 100 years? Why change a relatively well-oiled machine and rattle the principles of teaching and learning?

The only way to prepare our children and any adult to face the current speed of change is through cultivating an open mindset to constant change. Change needs to become as natural as brushing your teeth every morning.[16] This means you have to be able to literally change yourself daily and create a habit of doing so to survive in the future world. The qualities you need to do so are, critical thinking, excellence, resilience and unconditional kindness, among others. It most certainly is not about being able to repeat every word your teacher uttered during the last few lessons before an examination. It is not only useless; but worse, it is counterproductive for the future.

How will the future of learning look like? As I mentioned before, we would need a crystal ball to see it. Is Acton Academy the answer to all the questions for 21st century learning requirements? Being a Co-Founder of Acton Academy Desa Parkcity, hence my biased view, I do not think it is the answer per se, but it is a clearer step in the right direction with many more steps to follow. In my view, Acton Academy is one of the most advanced education systems to prepare our children for an uncertain future where changes will occur faster than ever. It will not only ensure that these children would be able to cope with their environment, but it will also churn out many future leaders, who are independent thinkers.

Historically, emperors, kings and the wealthy hired the best teachers available and tasked them with educating their children one to one. It was an ideal way to find the suitable approach to learning for their children. If one method did not work, these teachers would either change to another method or face the risk of being replaced. I see the future clearly going back to this direction. How? While the children still meet in a classroom setting, they will spend more time learning independently with a learning tool, as in Acton Academy. The difference is that while at present they follow the Khan Academy system, in the future AI will detect how each student learns best and prompt the best apps or tools to provide the student with another way of understanding and learning, if they get stuck. This is to ensure that everyone is taught according to their own learning style. It is like a private teacher who constantly experiments on how to reach the student on their own terms to ensure the most efficient use of time spent studying.


[1] (https://orleansmarketing.com/35-technology-facts-stats/)

[2] The foundation was laid by Frederick the Great in 1763 and significantly enhanced after the defeat of the Prussians by Napoleon.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prussian_education_system.

[4] It was done to limit the influence of mainly Catholic priests teaching children, influencing them in their own direction of course (Kulturkampf). It worked out well for von Bismarck.

[5] I am aware that this is a black and white view and that real life has thousands of shades of grey in between. It is to be taken simply as making a point to ensure everyone gets the point I am making.

[6] While I truly hope they lift like a rocket when it comes to my other statements in this article.

[7] In 2017 Adidas opened a shoe factory in Germany, 20 years after it closed all production facilities in the country and left. Its new production line is fully automated and shows the way “blue collar” workers will go in the world of mass manufacturing — out of work: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/25/adidas-to-sell-robot-made-shoes-from-2017and https://www.wired.com/story/inside-speedfactory-adidas-robot-powered-sneaker-factory/

[8] http://www.actonkl.org/

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waldorf_education

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montessori_education

[11] https://www.actonacademy.org/

[12] Sugata Mitra https://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_shows_how_kids_teach_themselves#t-1223130

[13] https://studentloanhero.com/student-loan-debt-statistics/

[14] https://www.khanacademy.org — Slogan: You can learn anything. For free. For everyone. Forever.

[15] Just two examples: https://www.usnews.com/education/online-education/articles/us-news-ranks-best-online-programs| https://www.bestcollegereviews.org/50-top-online-learning-sites/

[16] Brushing your teeth daily is a habit created only around the beginning of the 20th century and far from being as normal as you may perceive it: The Power of Habit — Charles Duhigg, The Pepsodent Smile.

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