The dilemma of structured education

The advent of Artificial Intelligence is changing the learning landscape.

One of my early childhood classmates, Micah (not his real name), had trouble coping with learning. We ridiculed and taunted him for his supposed “foolishness.” In retrospect, I think we were the ones who were foolish as we tried to force our friend to be “normal.” New knowledge provides compelling evidence that structured education has its challenges.

Sadly, structured education persists with hardly any adjustments being made. In the process, we have confined hundreds of thousands or even millions of people into oblivion. Silicon Valley, however, discovered that these “abnormals” are the spark plugs of creativity and innovation.

Literature is replete with information suggesting that many of the historical figures such as Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Mozart and others were thought to be on either the autism spectrum or some other neurobehavioral disorder.

Colin Eldred-Cohen, in ‘‘The Art of Autism’’, says Einstein for example, had difficulty socialising as an adult, which manifested in speech delays. He was very technical minded and in his youth used to repeat his sentences to himself, a phenomenon known as “echolalia.” These were all signs of neurological disorder but by then little was known about neuroscience.

In a recent article, “The Educational Tyranny of Neurotypicals,” in Wired, Robert Warren, who dropped out of two undergraduate programmes, admits that he is most likely “neuroatypical” in some way. He noted that “Neurotypical” is a term used by the autism community to describe what society refers to as “normal.”

According to the Centres for Disease Control, one in 59 children, and one in 34 boys, are on the autism spectrum – in other words, neuroatypical. That’s three per cent of the male population. If you add ADHD – attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – and dyslexia, roughly one out of four people are not “neurotypicals.”

Waren argues that schools in particular have failed such neurodiverse students, in part because they have been designed to prepare our children for typical jobs in a mass-production-based white- and blue-collar environment created by the Industrial Revolution.

Students acquire a standardised skillset and an obedient, organised, and reliable nature that served society well in the past – but not so much today. He suspects that the 25 per cent of the population who are diagnosed as somehow non-neurotypical struggle with the structure and the method of modern education, and many others probably do as well.

Warren’s article is not the first one to note the kind of diversity he writes about. Sir Ken Robinson’s highly publicised Ted Talk, How to escape education’s death valley, first propped into the issue of structured education, terming it as a system designed as an industrial process that is capable of being fixed mechanically. Those who subscribe to this type of system, who happen to be the majority, he said, were wrong since education is a human system.

In his view, what is needed to change education systems are revolutions. Finland is acknowledged as having the best education system in the world and their secret is that they are less structured and have minimal standardised tests in both primary and secondary school.

As such, there is more focus on learning than on exams, an elevated teaching profession relative to other professions, and students have more time to play, which leads to less stress. It also helps that college is free. Education is considered an investment unlike many parts of the world where it is considered an expense.

The advent of Artificial Intelligence is changing the learning landscape. In Nairobi, a startup educational institution, Mshule, brings diversity to learning while paying attention to every learner.

The institution recognises that different learners have different abilities, needs, strengths and goals. In response, they have built an artificial intelligence system that understands each individual child’s competency, and delivers the right lesson for them at the right time.

Like Robinson, Warren is advocating for a revamping of our notion of “education” and shaking loose the ordered and linear metrics of the society of the past, when we were focused on scale and the mass production of stuff. Accepting and respecting neurodiversity is the key to surviving the transformation driven by the internet and AI.

Bitange Ndemo is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.