It Wouldn’t Be Discovery If We Already Knew It


“If we knew what it was we were doing,
it would not be called research, would it?”

– Albert Einstein

Along with being brilliant, Einstein was also good for pithy quotes.

I had the pleasure of attending the kick off Symposium celebrating Stanford’s 125th Anniversary, “Thinking Big about Education.” It was a great program. It will surprise no one that there are smart people at and around Stanford.

A number of the speakers cited “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.” Which can be attributed to former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley (2, 3). This is not a new thought.

According to Andrew Old’s blog, Scenes from the Battleground, “In Progressively Worse, Robert Peal quotes the following from a book written in 1966: ‘The idea that our schools should remain content with equipping children with a body of knowledge is absurd and frightening. Tomorrow’s adults will be faced with problems about the nature of which we can today have no conception. They will have to cope with the jobs not yet invented.'”

The thought is frankly even aeons older than 50 years. The 5th Century BCE philosopher, Heraclitus of Ephesos stated that “Life is Flux” (popularly translated as “change is the only constant in life”). The fact that our educational system needs to provide our emerging adults with the capacity to face the challenges of the ever changing world that awaits outside the extended womb (the “alma mater” in it’s original meaning) and ultimately to then be able to assume the mantle of leadership in our ever changing society should not be news.

Regardless of the timescale, we do need to continually adapt our education to account for the changes that are occurring to better equip our future generation. And the point that former secretary Riley, Mr. Old and Mr. Peal are making is that we cannot hold fast to outdated methods (and modalities) in an ever advancing world and expect positive outcomes.

In the aptly titled article “American Schools Are Training Kids for a World That Doesn’t Exist” Professor David Edwards from Harvard University makes the point that “Failing to create a new way of learning adapted to contemporary circumstances might be a national disaster.” Professor Edwards suggests that “…an exciting new kind of learning is taking place in America. Alternatively framed as maker classes, after-school innovation programs, and innovation prizes, these programs are frequently not framed as learning at all.” He tells us that “Learning by an original and personal process of discovery is a trend on many US university campuses…” And that, “Students and participants in these kinds of programs learn something even more valuable than discovering a fact for themselves, a common goal of ‘learning discovery’ programs; they learn the thrill of discovering the undiscovered.”

Which brings us back to Einstein’s quote, “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research, would it?” As ever, Einstein was prescient. Let’s embrace Einstein’s rhetorical query about research and make the logical leap to curiosity and discovery. Let’s support educational initiatives that celebrate this desire for research and discovery. This is the type of education that will prepare us for the inevitable changes that will face our next generation.