Learning in times of Uncertainty

Learning in uncertain times: 

It is almost universally agreed that we are living in uncertain times that are complex and rapidly changing. This has often been described as the VUCA world ( Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous). It should not be surprising that Complex Problem Solving tops the list of top 10 skills, and creativity has moved up from being at no.10 in 2015 to no.3 in 2020 as identified by the World Economic Forum for both 2015 and 2020: https://www.hausvoneden.com/sustainability/10-faehigkeiten-um-in-2020-erfolgreich-zu-sein/#inline


A simplistic naive response to uncertainty is to deny it or try reduce it—or even better, to try to wish it away. Many scholars however agree that it is essential in our rapidly changing world for young people to develop ‘uncertainty competences’ comprising specific sets of skills, knowledge, attitudes and capabilities needed to deal with uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity in diverse contexts. Intelligence uses what is known to solve problems. Creativity uses what is unknown to discover possibilities.  Learning to handle knowledge uncertainty requires learning environments tolerating, even inviting, uncertainty into the learning process. Maybe we should have an approach of accepting it, and even embracing it, like what Physicists like Max Planck, Niels Bohr, de Broglie and Albert Einstein did to develop the foundations of the new framework built on accepting the inherent ‘uncertainty’ postulated by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in what till then was considered a fully deterministic world. This led to the development of Quantum Mechanics and the resulting technologies leading to the present digital computing age and the coming age of Quantum Computing and Quantum Biology. 

Likewise, in about a decade from now, this uncertainty in our environment may lead to a transformed model of education, a model that I have labelled Learning 321, real learning relevant education for the 3rd decade of the 21st Century. For more details follow this link : https://mmpant.com/2020/05/20/education-in-the-post-covid-19-era/

This will be the decade of transformation of India to a respectable place in the knowledge, innovation and creative economy. 

The key elements that comprise this education model dealing with the decade long uncertainty that we may see before we enter another phase of relative stability are the following:

1: The transition to life-long learning. The NEP 2020 recognised the value of pre-school learning and has incorporated it in its scope. But equally if not more important is the learning throughout life, and especially the added years because of longer longevity. Age related demarcation into finite stages of learning as in the NEP2020 is not relevant, as each learner’s developmental journey is unique and on a continuum. Watch this 5 minute video where Bill Clinton, a former President of the USA extolls the imperative of life-long learning:   https://youtu.be/L_nUOfaWEC4

That this is not just a theoretical idea, has been witnessed here in India during the last months when schools were closed and teachers of all ages, very gracefully transformed themselves from face to face in class teachers to remote online teachers using Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Team, Webex and others. They did not depend upon the NCTE mandated syllabus for B.Ed or M.Ed, but learnt from several sources, including colleagues, students and sometimes even their children and grandchildren, which I describe as a “ learning community”. True lifelong learning will put Maslow before Bloom and strive for the highest levels of attainment in both frameworks . 

2: Interestingly the idea that a learning community can manage the “commons” better than either the Government or the private sector was an idea for which Prof Elinor Ostrom was conferred the Nobel Prize in economics in the year 2009. Our teachers, during this pandemic have given one more piece of evidence to support her work. In times of uncertainty it may be a good idea to move from pre-defined learning outcomes to ubiquitous and serendipitous learning . Going forward, learning in uncertain times should be largely  the responsibility of the learning community, rather than bureaucracies or businesses. The citation for her work for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize identified her contribution as : Challenged the conventional wisdom by demonstrating how local property can be successfully managed by local commons without any regulation by central authorities or privatization: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/economic-sciences/2009/ostrom/facts/

3: For life-long learning to be successful, as a movement , and not just for some outliers,learners must have a disposition and ability of self-learning. Many enlightened thought leaders have said that any attempt at instruction is futile. Gibbons said “ But the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous”. This was quoted by Richard Feynman in his famous “ lectures on Physics”. The professor-poet Robert Frost said “ I am not a teacher, I am an awakener”. The skill of learning to self-learn, includes building learning power ( Guy Claxton) and developing critical thinking skills. In times when there is great uncertainty, we should follow John Holt who had said that we should foster a love of learning, and the ability to learn very well.

Just like in the case of self-driving cars, where the SAE ( Society of Automotive Engineers) have approved 5 levels, self-directed learners may also be at different levels. If we treat autonomous learning as a skill similar to a language skill, we may use the 9 bands like in the IELTS framework or the 6 levels like in the CEFR. Or we could draw an analogy to a learning maturity level like the 5 levels of the CMM framework. The skill of Ultralearning will be essential at the topmost levels of being an Autonomous learner. This has interesting consequences for the cost of education. The more a learner can learn on one’s own, the less the cost of the person’s education. The more external help needed for learning, the higher the cost of education. There will therefore be an economic value to developing self-learning power. What is worth self-learning ? https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/10/top-10-work-skills-of-tomorrow-how-long-it-takes-to-learn-them/

4: Developing Foresight: If the purpose of learning is to be future-ready, then the starting point is to have some idea of the future trends. Knowing the future with any measure of accuracy would be very difficult, but an appreciation of the mega-trends is perfectly feasible. Today I will do what others won’t… so tomorrow I can do what others can’t said Elon Musk.

To have an idea of where the frontiers of Knowledge are headed one needs to look up the progress reports of leading research enterprises and think tanks. Following the awards and citations of Nobel Prizes in each of the 6 areas of Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, Peace and Economics, the Field medal in Mathematics and the Turing Prize for Computing will give a good idea of where the frontiers of new knowledge in different domains are moving. The economic manifestations of the progress in human knowledge is often seen in reports of organisations such as the World Economic Forum, the World Bank, the OECD and various similar organisations.

The 2 main drivers of change in the education domain right now are the 4th Industrial Revolution to which attention was drawn at the World Economic Forum 2016 at Davos by it’s founder Prof Klaus Schwab, and the 4th Education Revolution which is the title of a recent book by Anthony Seldon. 

In its January 2020 meeting at Davos  it was estimated that about a billion people in the world have to be re-skilled‬.

A very recent report from McKinsey on managing in uncertainty. Here is the link : When nothing is normal: Managing in extreme uncertainty 

5: Technology ( especially Artificial Intelligence ) must be used to empower both the teacher and the learner. The goal has to be to promote individuation ( a term introduced by the Psychologist Carl Jung) as opposed to homogenisation, which is the averred goal of all National Education Policies. At a fundamental level, the common thread through much of current technology is Information which can provide answers to profound complex questions. What is the information content of the genome? The human brain? A black hole? The universe? Time and again, the concepts and laws of information reveal breathtaking insights into the workings of nature, even as they lay the foundation of astounding new technologies.

It is important that all educators are conversant and familiar with these technologies, and some are fluent with them. The adoption of technology in education should be spearheaded by educators, as suggested by Anthony Seldon in his recent book “ The fourth Education Revolution”. 

6: The origins of Artificial Intelligence lie in the Turing test. Seventy years after it was proposed, we should embrace its spirit and should be certifying the learning outcomes achieved by a learner irrespective of the learning path or trajectory  pursued. The management of such credentials could be as digital badges if they are not high stake or through Blockchains if they are more highly  valuable credentials. The issue of limited seats in any educational Institute thus becomes redundant. Ridiculous situations like needing to get 100% marks at School leaving level to get admission to Bachelor degree courses will become a thing of the past. One should be able to learn whatever one wants to the level that the person can attain. We could easily do away with IIT-JEE, NEET and such other barriers. 

7: Unlike what some may hasten to  infer, the role of teachers will not become less but more important. The teachers will in fact be central to the new learning ecosystem, and will be the key drivers of the next education revolution. The New Education Policy 2020 gives a big push to the practice  of Heutagogy and encouraging learners to become self-directed learners. The NEP 2020 at para 4.6 says: The key overall thrust of curriculum and pedagogy reform across all stages will be to move the education system towards real understanding and learning how to learn – and away from the culture of rote learning as is present today. The goal will be to create holistic and well-rounded individuals equipped with key 21st-century skills. All aspects of curriculum and pedagogy will be reoriented and revamped to attain these critical goals.

Teachers will be more important than ever before. The reason is that while an expert can demonstrate his or her expertise, a teacher can transform an ignorant person to an informed person, a knowledgeable person and eventually an expert. Like machines that help make other machines, a teacher is a lifelong learner who creates other lifelong learners. Learning anywhere will be the new norm. Learning at School or learning at home ( under lockdown) are actually special cases of learning anywhere. Similarly teachers will be able to teach from anywhere. An extension of anywhere learning would be everywhere learning. The mobile phone will be the access device for anytime everywhere learning. First you learn to use the mobile, then you use the mobile to learn. 

8: Since the Constitutional obligation of the state to provide right to education remains largely unimplemented, in these times of the pandemic it may be a good idea to go to the directive principles and invoke Article 51A(h) to the fundamental duty of the citizen “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”, and it is the learning community referred to at point no.2 that will facilitate the implementation of this. At one level this refers us to the well known method of Socratic questioning, or the shastrartha or samvad in our own tradition. The reference to humanism becomes even more important in the coming age of Artificial Intelligence. Max Tegmark in Life 3.0 has drawn attention to this, as has Joseph E Aoun President of the NorthEastern University in his book “ Robot-proof education” where he used the word ‘humanics’ as an attribute for humans in analogy to robotics. But humanism suggests a larger scope. Developing the scientific temper involves an appreciation of the Quantum view of the world. As said in the beginning of this piece, mankind progressed substantially by not being afraid of but by understanding the realities. Once one appreciates wave-particle duality, it will be easier to accept the teacher-learner duality implicit in the lifelong learning model. All students while at School need to be introduced to the Quantum Magic, appreciate the key Quantum concepts and be ready to embrace  Quantum Computing and the emerging area of Quantum Biology. This is in alignment to the announcement of substantial allocations in this year’s budget to Quantum Technologies. 


About mmpant

Prof. M.M.Pant has a Ph.D in Computational Physics, along with a Professional Law Degree, and has been a practitioner in the fields of Law, IT enabled education and IT implementation. Drawing upon his experience in world class international institutions and having taught in various modes of Face-to-Face, Distance Learning and Technology Enhanced Training, Prof. Pant is now exploring the nature of institutions which will be successors to the IITs, which represented the 1960s, IIMs, which represented the 1970 and Open Universities which were the rage of 1980s & 90s. He believes that the convergence between various media and technologies would fundamentally alter the way learning would be created, packaged, and delivered to learners. His current activities are all directed toward actual implementation of these new age educational initiatives that transform education in the post Internet post WTO era.. Prof. Pant, has been a Former Pro-Vice Chancellor, Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) and has been on the faculty of IIT – Kanpur (the premier Engineering institution in India), MLNR Engineering College and Faculty & Visiting Professor - University of Western Ontario-Canada. He has been visiting scientist to research centers in Italy, England, Germany & Sweden and has delivered international lectures with about 80 papers published. During his association of almost 15 years with the IGNOU, Prof. Pant has served as the Director Computing and has been the Member of All Bodies (i.e. School boards, Academic council, Planning board, Finance committee and the Board of management). With his interest in Law, backed with practice of Law in a High Court, and his basic training in Science and IT, Prof. Pant has been particularly interested in the Cyber Law, Patent & trade mark issues, Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) issues etc. and has been involved with many activities, conferences on “Law & IT” Prof. Pant is presently; • Advisor to Media Lab Asia - Chairman of working group on ICT for Education, chairman of PRSG handling projects on ICT for education. • Lead Consultant for an ADB funded project for ICT in Basic Education in Uzbekistan • Member of the drafting Group for India’s National Policy on ICT in education • Chairman of the group creating books for class 11 and 12 students on ‘Computers and Communication Technology’ appointed by the NCERT • Preparing a ‘Theme Paper” for the NCTE in the area of ICT and Teacher Training • Advisor and mentor to several leading Indian and Multi-national Companies in the area of education. Prof. Pant has in the recent past been ; • Member – Board of Management – I I T, Delhi for 6 years (two consecutive terms) • One-man committee to create the Project Report & Legislation for Delhi IT-enabled Open University • Advisor to the Delhi Government on Asian Network of Major Cities Project (ANMC-21) distance learning project in association with Tokyo Metropolitan Government. • Chairman Board of Studies, All India Management Association With his mission to create and implement new business opportunities in the area of e-learning & learning facilitation, Prof. Pant has promoted Planet EDU Pvt. Ltd., as its Founder & Chairman, along with a team of highly experienced and skilled professionals from Education & Training, Operations, IT and Finance.
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