Essay: Back to School … In the Future

Comparing visions of education in science fiction

When I’m at the proverbial cocktail party and introduce myself as a teacher, it often gets people talking. After all, everybody went to school at some point, and many people have children who are themselves in school, so people have opinions on what’s right or wrong with the industry.

And that’s fair. Education is a public good, young people are the future, and we’re all invested in it. Jo Walton cogently made the point in The Just City: Whether you’re rebuilding society from the ground up or hoping to preserve the status quo, it all starts with education. And while the first book of her genre-blending Platonic Gedankenexperiment points out that actual living students and actual living teachers differ from the theoretical kind, it’s still a great example of speculative fiction.

Perhaps the most well-known science fictional depiction of how young minds can be shaped toward a particular end is the prestigious yet frightening orbital Battle School of Ender’s Game. Orson Scott Card makes no mention of Paulo Freire or Jean Piaget — he name-drops military leaders, real and fictional, instead. Nevertheless, he draws on ideas of education, whether or not he’s aware of the source. But Card isn’t the first or only speculative writer to imagine how education might be done differently — in the present or in the future; in gifted, special, or mainstream education.

Consider Howard Fast’s novella, “The Trap.” Published in 1975, it tells the story of a psychologically damaged ex-soldier who takes a job helping his sister with her research on feral children, lost at a tender age and raised by wolves or other animals. What he discovers is that these children, once reclaimed, never develop ordinary human capacity for speech, body language, or even the ability to walk upright.

From this premise, Fast posits the existence of super-genius children, and considers that for them to be raised — and, crucially, taught — by people of ordinary intelligence might be equivalent to a normal baby being raised by animals. To test this premise, his protagonists seek out highly intelligent infants, gather them in one place, and in a cross between a research lab and a Montessori preschool, leave the children to teach themselves while refusing to set any ceiling on their expectations.

There’s a key take-away here about the dangers of the teacher or parent setting a low bar versus having every student shooting for the stars. Of course, it’s not entirely that simple. It never is.

At the other end of the spectrum, Elizabeth Moon’s 2003 novel, The Speed of Dark, features an autistic protagonist and narrator, Lou Arrendale. In an almost throwaway line early on it’s implied that, were he born a couple of decades earlier (i.e., contemporary to the writing of the novel rather than in the future in which it’s set), Lou would not be as high-functioning as he is in the novel.

His special education helped to ameliorate his symptoms: Specialized lessons on reading faces, computer learning (because computers don’t lose patience and will go over it with you again and again until you get it), and different ways of representing information all gave him the opportunity to develop stronger neural pathways and hence, greater learning in the social intelligence to which his brain is less readily inclined.

Again, this seems to fit with what the experts, including parents of children with cognitive differences, say. One mother of a Down’s syndrome daughter I heard on the radio recently explained how her daughter just learns a little bit differently. She needs things slowed down, and she needs things repeated until she gets it. And that fits with what we know about brain science and learning. Creating and then reusing the same neural pathways enough times will make learning permanent for almost anyone. It’s just a question of making sure the person is having the right learning experiences, and having them enough times.

This leads to the idea of “best practice”: There must be, logically, a best way of teaching something, or rather, teaching a specific someone, that could be identified if we had the requisite knowledge of neuroscience and that individual’s brain in particular. Fred Hoyle’s 1957 novel, The Black Cloud, ends with an alien species attempting to pass on the sum of their knowledge to the smartest human they can find, through a series of visual and other sensations. It doesn’t quite work in this case, but the underlying idea still seems right.

It does raise the question, are we doing the best job we can, based on what we know? The answer must almost certainly be no, in the strictest sense, given the reality of schools today. Even if you could manage to figure out the best of all possible educational experiences in order to maximize a given child’s innate potential, how could you deliver unique experiences to a group of 30 all in the same room at the same time?

Most of us end up with a haphazard mix of teachers who seem to bring out the best in us and those with whom we are unable to mesh, not to mention better and worse textbooks, or ways of explaining a concept. Hoyle’s idea that the world’s smartest people are mere statistical accidents, those who had just the right educational experiences in just the right order to be maximally effective, seems to ring at least partly true.

Neal Asher’s Polity series, set some half a millennium hence, and particularly the opening chapters of Shadow of the Scorpion, takes this idea and runs with it. Asher’s future history sees Artificial Intelligences taking over everything from politics to business to education. They’re benevolent dictators, always striving to preserve, maximize, and improve human life.

A scene in this book sees one of these teachers observing a student developing the potential to be a bully. The entire child’s life is laid out like a stochastic equation. And as precisely as a laser strike (actually, there literally is a laser strike), the exact correct action is taken, in real time, to prevent that initial tendency from becoming a habit, and the child becomes a well-adjusted adult. But could anything less than a supercomputer be that mathematically certain about the lessons they teach or the corrective action they take? It puts human teachers and parents to shame.

But let’s bring it back to the somewhat nearer future, and look once more at mainstream education, wherein a whole group of highly individual students must somehow be given the skills to succeed in life by a very human teacher. 2006’s Rainbow’s End by Vernor Vinge tells the story of an elderly man, Robert Gu, cured of Alzheimer’s and rejuvenated by medical science to the point of passing for a teenager. But in the fog of the previous 20 years, he missed the world changing around him.

Now he has to learn everything over again, by re-enrolling in high school alongside his own 13-year-old granddaughter. Vinge’s curriculum is primarily project-based, with students in the class collaborating both with each other and with students around the world through technology. Some students mistakenly think that memorizing anything is a waste of time, since everything they need to know can be found online, but the teacher points out that the only reason crowd-sourcing projects works is because there are people out there with the necessary skills.

Her constant reminder that everyone needs to develop their own core competencies to bring to the mix, alongside the ability to find and collaborate with other people, sounds like the refrain of teachers from time immemorial, “I know you think you know everything, but trust me when I say this is important.”

In the end, perhaps Vinge’s model of education is closest to the mark. Education is a process of building the knowledge and skills needed to function in society, and as society changes, education must change. Theories of learning and motivation are separate from the question of what actual content should be taught, but he touches on these ideas, too. The students get to exercise choice in selecting their projects; they’re encouraged to challenge themselves; and they learn in the process of attempting to accomplish a concrete goal.

Robert Gu starts out as a cantankerous old man in a teenager’s body, but develops a new love of learning in areas of knowledge he’d never considered before. Knowing something you didn’t know before can be its own reward, and it’s inspiring to see him take this journey even as he improves as a human being and rediscovers a love for his estranged family. But it seems likely that tapping into that love in every unique student might continue to be the great challenge, even amidst all the other wonders the future of learning might bring.


J.J.S. Boyce is a writer, educator, and semi-pro omelette chef. He can frequently be found writing at the Winnipeg Free Press, Care2 Causes, and, naturally, AE. He maintains a meta-narrative at his blog, The Back of the Envelope.

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