Reading through the conclusion of Charles Murray’s Real Education sharpens my non-academic vision of the future of learning. (The word academy means school. Academic ability is the ability to learn school subjects.) Murray’s conclusions are about an elite with academic ability, K-12 schools that teach a core liberal education, and less young people attending college. Murray explains this far better than I can. If the Internet had not developed, I would agree wholeheartedly with him. But the Internet is here and conforming learning to this marvelous new ecology of enlightenment is the job at hand for educators.
On pages 90-91, Murray writes: “. . . the Internet is revolutionizing everything.” And: “. . . the technology is still in its early stages of development and the rate of improvement breathtaking. . . .”
Yes, and the notion of academic ability is not exempt from that revolution. Murray’s underlying premise in Real Education is that because students differ in academic ability, their schooling should differ. But schooling itself (academics as we have known them) are obsolete vehicles for packaging and delivering learning resources: that by which we have measured intelligence has broken down. The reason for the break down is that fundamentals of how academies deliver learning are incompatible with networks (the open Internet). The hierarchies of courses, curricula, and school grades cannot be shoehorned into networks. The old school methods unbundle.
Here is an example of unbundling: From page 81 of Real Education — an excerpt from a curriculum for third graders includes for science this goal: “Use a prism to learn about the spectrum.” From the hierarchical core of subjects used in the example, third grade students will be taught to a test about prisms at a level thought to be appropriate for nine-year-olds. The prism at third grade level is embedded in a science curriculum.
This example of academic science as third grade subject organization unbundles when a student of any age begins clicking through webpages about prisms like these: Prism refraction applet, Discover of the nature of light, Reflection grating systems, and Color theory. Including, but hardly limited to, what a third grader can learn, these webpages and their links are a network of ideas in which a learner can travel to whatever level an individual student’s and moment’s curiosity beckon.
The academy (schools as we have known them for delivering knowledge) will be obsolete — to put it in 2008 device terms — as soon as iPhone-grade mobile devices deliver the Internet to most of the world’s children. That will happen within a few years. It could happen very fast if we set it as a high priority.
There may well be a general sort of intelligence that determines how much knowledge about prisms different individual children can ultimately acquire. Patterns of learning seem certain to change when not every kid is not expected to grasp the prism/spectum concepts at age nine. The conceptualizing of intelligence by measuring success at pre-Internet academies (schools) needs to be abandoned. Just as the Internet is impelling the re-conceptualization of literacy, intelligence needs to be measured by network ability, not academics. My guess is that network learning creates not one brainy elite — as an academy does — but elites composed of varying patterns of individuals whose talents emerge at different stages of maturation into different masteries of different subjects.