There’s been a lot of comment in the press recently about the fact that children these days are not being taught map reading. Now before I go any further I should perhaps say that I can read a map and I can also navigate a boat using a chart and compasses! So I’m not a Luddite. I also know that batteries can fail and if you are sailing a boat then for your own safety you need to be able to do at least some rudimentary navigation.
I am however curious about the fact that whenever any new technology appears we focus on the downside more than we focus on the benefits.
GPS is a great example. Most people find it a huge benefit, particularly in cities or if you are alone and trying to drive a car and read a map at the same time (I once drove into the back of a taxi while trying to drive and read the A to Z for London). But what do we get in the press? Endless stories of lost lorries down tiny country roads and much bemoaning of the fact that children can’t read maps.
Well maps are pretty recent technology, there are some very ancient maps that were created for mariners, but the Ordnance Survey maps have only been around for 220 years http://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk and the A to Z of London was only started by the inspirational Phyllis Pearsall in 1936. So how did people find their way around before that?
The downside of technology focus is even louder in education. We are still teaching a curriculum that our great-grandparents would recognise. It is important that children can read but in the future will then need to write or will typing be better? Will the ability to find information and think critically about it be far more important than memorising facts? Why not let candidates take calculators into exams? Let them use Google but teach how to distinguish the good information from the rubbish.
What we are currently trying to do, it seems to me, is to make sure that we focus a great deal of time and effort on learning to do badly things that computers do really well. As technology advances surely we need to focus on the things that humans do better than computers? There are some areas where the benefit of technology is so obvious it has silenced the critics. We use tractors now because they turn over the ground better and faster than men with spades – and so we can feed more people. And I have yet to see the press bemoaning the loss of spade turning skills.
We have invented these machines and they are becoming increasingly smart. We need to focus our efforts on skills that are complementary to them, and not on things that humans do worse.