Why knowledge matters in 2019, and why it still will in 2080…
August 22, 2019
By Dr Lieb Liebenberg


We live in a time of unprecedented change, and according to some experts, human knowledge is going to double every 12 hours in the foreseeable future. Not only is knowledge growing exponentially – and its impact on humans is profound – we are not built to deal with change that occurs consistently at this kind of rate. It seems that, in this environment, the importance of what one knows is becoming less and less relevant. As the Fourth Industrial Revolution is taking shape, and with it, Artificial Intelligence starts taking over jobs that were previously seen as uniquely human, one cannot help but wonder whether traditional teaching and learning still have a place in this world. Once regarded as a uniquely human trait, knowledge is now seen as mere bits and bytes, easily stored on ever-cheaper cloud computers and retrieved if and when needed – at a speed and scale that humans cannot match. 


Tied to this is a growing belief – perhaps as a result of the publications and talks of futurists – that the knowledge we teach kids today will be outdated before they even leave school. In addition, teachers are constantly reminded through popular media that they are preparing kids for jobs that do not yet exist. Given that today’s grade 4 learners will still be active in the workforce in 2080, the task seems nearly impossible. As a result, society is increasingly scrutinising the value of curriculums, asking tough questions about the longevity and relevance of what students learn in school. Of course, these kinds of concerns are not completely new, and to some extent, we have been asking these questions since the early 20th Century. It’s just that there is an added urgency now that was perhaps lacking before.


Recently, a parent who knows I am involved in “the education business”  asked why we still bother with building and supporting tools and solutions that focus on mastery and knowledge. Should we not focus on providing future-proof skills such as critical thinking and creativity, rather than waste students’ time with facts that have a limited shelf life anyway? Against this backdrop, if one is an educator or in the “business of education”, the question inevitably arises: Should we be teaching our students facts at all? If what we are going to teach our students will become invalid or disproven in the foreseeable future – why bother? 


Perhaps we should start by questioning the assumption that all knowledge, especially that which is taught at school, will definitely become redundant. Is this really true? Also, what relevance does the fact that knowledge is going to double every 12 hours by 2020 really hold for education? Which knowledge is it exactly that is being disproved? Is it basic English grammar, numeracy, Algebra or the fundamental laws of Physics, such as the three laws of motion? How much of what we actually teach kids at school is part of this knowledge that is constantly being updated or disproved?  The answer is fairly obvious – not much. What students are being taught at school is the basics – the foundation – of what they will need to participate meaningfully in the knowledge economy once they leave school or university. 


But what if something you have learned at school is later updated or perhaps even falsified? Does it inevitably mean that your prior knowledge (now updated) is worthless, for example, Pluto no longer being considered a planet? Is that whole conversation not a result of a shared scientific vocabulary about celestial bodies, the basics of which are required if one is to make sense of its declassification as a planet? Of course, it is true that knowledge is growing exponentially and that science is constantly updating existing models and paradigms. However, none of this happens in a vacuum – it always happens within an existing framework and understanding of the world. And this framework is the result of a common vocabulary and understanding of the way things are or has been understood, in that particular field up to that time. In order to first understand the claims made as a result of this new knowledge, and second, be able to evaluate or appreciate its implications, you need to be familiar with its foundational framework and language. 


This is the root of the matter: as much as the short and medium-term goals of schooling are to master a particular curriculum, the long-term goal is to ensure that students leave school with the capabilities and skills to participate in the knowledge economy on equal terms – not only with their peers, but also with those that preceded them. Only once they have mastered these will they be able to contribute meaningfully as critical and creative thinkers, because they have mastered the essential skills required to do so. Of course, we can argue about what those basics should be in the year 2019, and how it should probably include programming and robotics skills (as one example), but that is a different discussion altogether.


Follow us