I'd like to start by saying something obvious: that we are teachers and that we work in the education sector. But there is one question which has been at the back of my head for some time, namely, how much of what we are doing counts as genuine education?
We tend to associate education today with getting knowledge and skills, but the Spanish speakers among us know very well that „educado” means so much more than just „trained”. That genuine education gives people not only sharp skills, but also certain qualities and depth.
And nowhere is that dual nature of education more clearly reflected than in languages, where the surface called grammar coexists with a depth called meaning.
However, for the past many years education systems all over the world have been growing increasingly one-sided.
The whole of education started to be perceived through skills, and whichever problems emerge, they are believed to be solvable through ever new set of skills, like the 21 century skills, for example, to deal with the growing ambiguity and uncertainty of our world.
As a result, the education that is on offer today is mostly reduced to the distribution of knowledge and the training of skills. Not least because this is the only part of education that gives in to commodification.
Our profession has been commodified to an enormous extent, but before it became a business worth billions of dollars worldwide we started seeing language as commodity that can be measured, graded, scaled, marketed, and sold; the teaching profession has lost some of its prestige due to this, so it was only natural that many of us have been rebranding themselves as trainers.
I, for my part, don't blame anybody. Many of us just wanted to work honestly and with dedication within a system that was given; and not to carry the torch of enlightenment. But what we didn't realize, I think, was that the education we cultivated had suicidal tendencies.
Because everything that can be commodified can, by principle, also be made disposable once technology reaches a sufficient level of development.
It happened to warmth with the central heating plant, it happened to music with the stereo, to meals with frozen food, etc. and it is happening as I speak to education with search engines and advanced Artificial Intelligence.
The promise of technology is to liberate and disburden and provide life of fulfillment. But the idea of technology liberating and disburdening us from education hardly sounds like fulfillment.
If we assume that the real purpose of Education is to teach us how to think, how to exercise control over what we think, how to liberate ourselves from the doxa, how to choose what we pay attention to - if we get disburdened from this - then - in the words of David Foster Wallace - we are „totally hosed”.
We paid a high price for the industrial civilization because it cost us our planet, but this time around, with the coming of the information civilization, the the bill may be even higher, because it is our very humanity that may be the price.
So, it looks like we wanted to just teach but I'm afraid we are going to have to save the world now.
Some of you may ask, like Billy Pilgrim from "Slaughterhouse Five" - why me? Why us? Why English teachers?
But the answer is very simple: because we have access to the superpower called language. And unlike Billy, we are not stuck in amber, we can act. And
The genius of language" - to repeat after a philosopher - "is so great that to meditate upon mere words leads to profound understanding.
Understanding, and the resulting from it wisdom, are the missing parts of modern education.
They had to go because they were too hard to commodify, and they misbehaved. Take this: understanding didn't help people to become who they decided to be, but instead, made them someone they never could have dreamed of being. A young person went to a business school and ended up as a teacher, or another one went to a law school and ended up as a senior caregiver. Now, what kind of business is that?
Some of us here may also be here because of that kind of misbehavior on behalf of understanding.
Understanding means vitalization. Every time something is understood it starts playing an active part in our life. And education without understanding turns into a mechanical and dull process of memorizing.
If modern education finds itself in crisis today, with more and more young people questioning the point of school, it is because they lack genuine motivation for their choices, and the knowledge they learn is disconnected from themselves.
Now, because languages are natural vehicles of understanding, they can help us create these connections.
Languages can help us connect what we learn about to what we know, what we know to what we feel and what we feel to what we think.
Such connections are later the source of never-before-imagined thoughts, of creativity, originality, and joy, but most importantly, they help to produce"whole men", that is, people who are in touch with their center, sure of their basic convictions like Christopher Columbus from the monument at the lower end of la Rambla.
That wholeness may be the source of real courage and real self-confidence. I say “real”, because it contrasts with the temporary and short-lived courage and self-confidence coming from entitlement or a certificate. That, in turn, may produce certain intellectual discipline that adapts itself to new and changing circumstances, precisely because it is not attached to the narrow details of tomorrow's technology or tomorrow's world, which will soon be yesterday's technology, and yesterday's world by the way.
And this is, in short, what I meant when I said, in the teaser of my speech, that foreign languages could be the only school subject taught at schools.
However, to unlock the educational potential of English we need to change our current perception of it.
We need to stop looking at English as just another school subject and, most importantly, we need to stop teaching it in the same, linear way as everything else in school today.
We need to shift emphasis from grammar to meaning. What does it mean in theory, and in practice?
In theory, meaning cannot be imposed from outside, it is always materialized by each one of us from inside to outside.
In practice, it means moving away from teaching ABOUT language to doing something IN language and letting students use the language and build the meaning.
Fortunately, there are more and more scientific arguments now that this is how languages are learnt, and that is extremely optimistic, because once again it turns out that proper language teaching has a lot in common with genuine education.
Further implications involve emphasis on meaningful conversations, run ideally in small groups or individually.
These are the conditions we have always wanted as teachers, but they were constantly denied to us in the world of scalable education.
Now, can we win against the scalable education powered by the powerful forces of the market as well as the interests of surveillance capitalists - the big tech companies who want to control our behavior and for who our goal - human consciousness - is a threat to their revenues?
Call me naïve, but I see some silver linings in the current situation.
I think that the growing fatigue with the current education might eventually contribute to our cause and reverse the trend.
There is a new wave of disruption happening as I speak. Disruptors using AI disrupt previous disruptors with even cheaper labor costs (check what is happening to companies like Chegg or Udemy listed on NASDAQ). But their fight takes place in the domain of the reduced version of education. They will pretend it's real, genuine education, but it's not.
If teachers and teacherpreneurs among us grasp the difference between the reduced and genuine education, we should be able exit the current doomed education sector, and start playing in a totally different league.
It will take time before we manage to explain the benefits of our version of education to a wider public and before the blind forces of the market start rewarding us materially, but with the quality we have got, I am sure we will eventually triumph.
The stake of this turnaround is much higher than just effective teaching of a foreign language. The stake may be the future of education and the future of humanity.
Because if one day Elon Musk installs his Neuralink in our brains, and Sugata Mitra's vision comes true, that “not knowing will become as unimportant as not being able to tell the time without looking at a watch”, we will be safe and education will be safe too. Because education, genuine education is immortal and it is forever enshrined in language.
Thank you for your attention.
Education has become increasingly focused on skills and knowledge distribution, commodifying the teaching profession. The rise of technology and artificial intelligence further threatens the importance of education. Jedrek Stepien argues that true education should teach us how to think, exercise control over our thoughts, and choose what we pay attention to. Stepien emphasizes the vital role of language in connecting knowledge, feelings, and thoughts, fostering understanding, wisdom, and creativity. The current crisis in education stems from a lack of genuine motivation and disconnected knowledge. Stepien proposes a shift in perception, advocating for a focus on meaning rather than grammar in language teaching. He emphasizes the need for meaningful conversations and small-group interactions. Despite the challenges posed by scalable education and big tech companies, Jedrek Stepien remains optimistic that a growing fatigue with the current system will eventually lead to a reversal of the trend. He believes that genuine education is immortal and essential for the future of humanity.