Five pounds for the seven course books a student needs does not seem an unreasonable price, does it?
But in 1400, that was the equivalent of a year’s wage for a master carpenter, or three years’ rent. The student who paid for these books, spent just over £1 for his year’s tuition at Oxford.
In the past, there was a cost on information. Not just quality information or inside information. Any information. And it was expensive. No wonder education put such a premium on memorisation. A good memory could save you a fortune.
Today we are bombarded with information; the internet, email, television, smartphones and social media brings data to our fingertips and in most cases for free. Kindle lets you download the classics at no cost and shelling out cash for a dictionary or encyclopedia is quaintly old fashioned.
An education that focuses on collecting useful facts is as out of date as paying a year’s salary for a set of course books. But too many schools still value content coverage over applying content to develop higher order thinking skills.
Two very different jobs in the energy sector illustrate exactly the kinds of thinking skills that are needed in today’s digital world.
Mark, an Aberdeen-based geologist, explains: “We use surface exposures of rocks to understand what similar rocks would be like in the subsurface. The ways the rocks are configured very much affects how fluid flows through them, and ultimately how the reservoir performs when you start to poke holes in it with wells.”
Geologists combine their knowledge of rocks with close observation and traditionally they would record these observations using handwritten notes and diagrams. In the 60s they may have laid out reams of printouts to analyse underground implications. Sixty years later, both observation and analysis require a very different context of skills.
Mark further explains: “Geologists today work alongside reservoir engineers and geophysicists using high-end computing to do what we do. We are more likely to take images of outcrops to identify rock types by running the same sort of algorithms that self-driving cars use.”
High-level computing skills are also used back in the office. David, a local marine specialist, describes how software programmes that log shipping movements are widely used by energy companies and vessel owners to drive efficiencies in offshore operations: “Patterns of potentially non-productive time can be identified which can then be monitored and challenged through improved communication offshore between vessels and rigs. This could lead to a positive impact on vessel fuel consumption and, in turn, the level of vessel emissions.
“Using IT to problem-solve is a core skill, maybe not as fundamental as literacy and numeracy, but increasingly essential in almost any professional job.”
As technology evolves so quickly, critics may argue that no school-based curriculum can anticipate what computer programmes students will be using in 20 years. Sectors including oil, gas, marine and transportation have changed beyond recognition in a generation. But we teach five-year-olds to read without knowing the books that will be published by the time they are 30.
Traditional IT courses have prepared students to use particular applications but not the thinking about what lies behind information technology. International School Aberdeen (ISA) educates students to thrive in a fast-changing world. From August, it is introducing computational thinking as a core skill alongside literacy and numeracy. It aims for every student to leave able to programme a computer, construct a database and perform data analysis.
The interesting part is not the language they learn or the tools they use but the thinking behind it:
- Decomposition: Breaking down problems into smaller tasks
- Pattern recognition: Identifying similarities, differences and patterns within the problem
- Abstraction: Identifying general principles and filtering out unnecessary information
- Algorithm design: Identifying and organising the steps needed to solve the problem.
Being international, ISA is not tied to national systems which are frequently slow to adapt, but like multinational energy companies can take best practice from around the world. We don’t have to go as far back as 1400 to marvel at how much the world has changed; in our lifetimes, there has been a computer revolution.
ISA provides an education that prepares students for a world of change and opportunity.
Nick Little, ISA head of school