Tuesday, May 30, 2006

World: knowledge, and the pressure to learn

Far more than ever before, we are under pressure to learn. It’s not just the mantra in recent times that “life-long learning” is important. There’s pressure to understand more of the world around us, to understand the implications of the government’s budget, to understand the latest technological gadgets, to understand computers and the internet and the malevolent emails and software that mutates all the time.

There’s even pressure for our elderly relatives to understand all this, to learn and to adapt to the new technology so they can better communicate with their family.

And there’s pressure on the young, to get started at an earlier age, to adapt to not just technology but more intensive learning.

We had the first ever parent-teacher meeting for our daughter yesterday. It certainly wasn’t an informal chat. In the limited time we had, there was a number of tests, KRAs (Key Result Areas), and performance indicators that the teacher had to show us. Even primary teachers have to know more, do more, teach more. I hear choruses of “in my day, the first year was just playtime”. Well, it’s not now.

From my perspective, it’s good to see our five-year-old picking up on things so early. She’s really keen on school anyway. And I’m happy to see that they’re teaching word processing to the six-year-olds. Still, I can see the converse: parents that are putting pressure on the kids early, pressure on the schools to take the kids earlier. And I see that some four- and five-year-olds are not yet ready for that, whether emotionally, behaviourally, or academically. Some of those kids will suffer for years, constantly trying to catch up because they didn’t have a gentle start and weren’t equipped to match their classmates’ pace.

Where does all this pressure come from, to learn and perform quickly? (Too quickly for some.) Partly from family, friends and colleagues. Partly from economists that say it’s a competitive world and we have to match the standards of our nation’s competitors. I also think it’s just in the nature of modern life: to paraphrase Isaac Newton, we stand on the shoulders of giants. We live in a more complex world where we have to absorb (to one extent or another) all the information and knowledge that has gone before. Further, we actually live in an age of extremely rapid technological advance – particularly compared with the pace of the past. The internet alone has massively revolutionised information and knowledge, in ten short years. And the pace is only going to get faster. We will put more stock in ability to access to information than in the knowledge itself. We will also need the skills to absorb information more readily, and discard it more easily. There will be tools to do some of this, and for many, the path to wisdom stops there. But the wise will be less keen on discarding information, and will be associating and integrating knowledge constantly.

Of itself, information is knowledge only if you can access it instantly. And knowledge leads to wisdom only if you use it well.