Faced with the challenges of the ‘digital revolution’, schools have a major role to play, both in purely educational terms and for the values they convey.

"The values taught in schools today are fundamentally unsuited to a digital society"

Interview with Eric Verhaeghe, French philosopher and essayist, at the ‘Printemps du Numérique’ (Digital Spring) event which took place on 5 June in Compiègne, in northern France. Following a career in French public service, mainly at the Paris City Hall and the Ministry of Education, Eric Verhaeghe founded Parménide, a social innovation consultancy which specialises in developing social networks.

You see the school system as one of the major challenges, if not the main challenge that French society has to meet in order to come successfully through the upheavals created by the shift to digital technology. How far does this go and why must it start at school?

We very often forget that the primary role of schools is to convey values. And I’m afraid the values taught in French schools today are fundamentally unsuited to a digital society. Take for example the student working in total solitude on his/her dissertation, the lack of co-operation in building knowledge, the primacy of pen and paper over the keyboard. In tomorrow’s world, a ‘well-educated’ person will be one who knows how to share sources, is adept in inter-personal relations and dialogue, and who co-operates at every stage of the knowledge process. In the school of tomorrow, the act of working together will be an essential value, even if it’s only working with others in a theatre group or for a charitable organisation helping less advantaged people. This type of commitment is sadly absent from today’s French school system.

Should learning for this technology revolution begin at primary school?

Oh, probably even earlier. Many US states have now stopped teaching cursive writing. The keyboard make this a matter of secondary importance. Not entirely lacking in usefulness, but nevertheless secondary. This means that teaching in North America is focusing on the essential skills needed for the digital society, while in France our teachers remain obsessed by the ‘well-educated’ man from way back in history in the ‘Ancien Régime’, who travelled the world with a notebook and a lead pencil. We’re lagging behind, and if we want to catch up we’ll have to make a rather abrupt adjustment, and that includes the job of the teacher. Basically, we no longer need schools as places to transfer knowledge. The Internet does that infinitely better in every case. However, we do need schools as places where young people can build their personalities. Learning how to learn, learning to find the sources you need, to sort and analyse – the job of tomorrow’s teacher will be to help with this.

Schools have started to get connected and move to digital – digital screens instead of blackboards and chalk, computers instead of schoolbags, MOOCs and so on. Are these resources adequate and are they currently in widespread use?

Well, this is obviously a good start. However, the shift to digital technology shouldn’t be limited to just providing support for teaching. It must be at the core and must be used to exploit all the potential on offer. For example, it would seem natural for digital technology to support the teaching of mathematics, or even be central to it. No need of course to mention history and geography lessons, which are superbly suited to the use of digital tools.

Should digital education focus on using the technology and doing jobs with it, or should it be more about the actual devices?

It should focus on both. But here I would inject a note of caution. As yet we only have a very truncated and fragmentary vision of teaching using digital technology in the future. For example, I’m convinced that the Internet is opening the door to a new style of presentation and argument. Expressing yourself on the web calls for mastery of a number of stylistic devices, which are far from being just improvised. Little by little they’re becoming codified and it will obviously make a lot of sense to learn the new code. The code isn’t complete yet but this development underlines the fact that digital technology will once again give pride of place, in a new form, to subjects and disciplines which today have been forgotten in the teaching world, but which twenty or thirty years ago were considered very modern. At the same time, the need to master purely scientific tools – e.g. in the fields of physics and chemistry – should be taken into account when adapting the teaching of science to modern demands.

What obstacles will this revolution in teaching encounter? Will they be ideological or material?

The first obstacle will be the reluctance of those teachers who are totally convinced that their job is to transfer knowledge. In France the image of the teacher still stems from the fantasy that a qualified teacher is an expert in his/her subject, and that their credentials depend entirely on their authority in the subject. Hence the feeling of unease experienced by teachers faced with students who call their teachers’ subject matter authority into question, based on information they’ve gathered from the Internet – and sometimes misunderstood it. Teachers, like any other salaried employees in France, will have to accept that their jobs are changing in response to the digital shift. They can’t compete with the Internet. So, they’ll have to take a different stance, helping their students to forge their own personalities in a connected world. They’ll have to help them to search for the way and find their own path.

Has France got far enough with its transition to digital to be thinking about re-working its school system in such a radical manner?

When it comes to the Internet we’re one of the best equipped countries in the world. Our problem is not about infrastructure but superstructure. We have the equipment, but we don’t yet know how to use it to best effect. And that’s where schools have a vital role to play. Our schools ought to be speeding up the digital transformation, running in front instead of slowing things down.

How exactly do you think schools will look in 10 or 20 years’ time? Will schools still exist or will it be enough to stay at home in front of your computer looking at tutorials and listening to virtual teachers?

Oh, we’ll still need real-life teachers, but they’ll take on a different role. Classes of 30 passive students waiting for the truth to fall from the mouth of the teacher will certainly disappear. On the other hand learning sessions in small collaborative groups will be essential in preparing students for their future lives.

Apart from school, where do the other challenges arising from the digital revolution lie?

Please excuse me if I appear to be heading off into the stratosphere, but it seems to me that the biggest challenge we’ll have to deal with will be to make sense of what psychologists call ‘intersubjective construction’. This is basically the Wikipedia approach. The truth, or hypotheses of the truth, are no longer to be found in a prestigious, mysterious, hard-to-get-into book, but in a pile of articles drafted in a collaborative manner. This ongoing collective construction calls for the ability to produce something that is universally acceptable. This approach is important for pure science, and even more so for social science and human topics. Collective production of meaningful information requires a discussion ethic based on transparency, which respects civil liberties and protects human rights.