The Real Lessons of the Titanic: Redefining the Purposes of Education; Preparation for a Knowledge Economy

When a ship like the Titanic was seen as unfit for purpose there were three options available to those who operated ocean-going ships.

1. Carry on building similar ships but also make damned sure they don’t go anywhere near iceberg-infested waters.

2. Radically change the construction of these ships in order for them to fulfil their original purpose – i.e. be capable of operating in iceberg-infested waters.


3. Understand that the Titanic tragedy created an altered public perception of ocean liners, which, combined with the increasing availability of large, fast airliners, would cause more and more people to opt for air travel, and fewer and fewer to travel by sea.

A previous 3D Eye post elaborated on the need for a paradigm shift in education, using the Titantic as an analogy –

titanic 1

The main problem facing education systems around the world today is that there is often no proper agreement as to the essential purposes of education in the 21st Century. This is certainly the case in the UK and the USA, where arguments continue to rage between the traditionalists who demand we stick with our original designs (with a few modifications or ‘reforms’ and continuous rearrangement of the deckchairs) and the radicals and evolutionists who see the connected digital world combined with new approaches to teaching and learning as the new air travel.

The countries that fail to redefine their goals for schools and for learning will, in our view, need to import more and more of the skilled, creative, imaginative individuals they will need in this technology-driven century, whilst countries like China, Singapore and probably India will increasingly become net exporters of such people.

Finland was perhaps the first country to take stock and decide that the 19th Century paradigm was no longer fit for purpose, and that what the country needed was lots of creative, confident people that were capable of putting knowledge to practical use – self-directed problem solvers, creative thinkers and potential innovators. As a result of the reinvention of their education system (along with a continuing commitment to social and educational equality) the young people of Finland have been for some years in the very top rank of those tested for practical, problem-solving life skills, including everyday literacy and numeracy, according to the OECD.

Singapore similarly took stock and decided that it needed to follow in the footsteps of Finland – away from didacticism and factory schools and towards putting the learner and personalised learning at the heart of education. Hence its shift to a “Teach Less, Learn More” strategy.

More recently two regions of China – Hong Kong and Shanghai provinces – have retrained their entire population of teachers to teach for more personalised learning and creative thinking using all available resources, especially information technology. China recognises that millions of competent & obedient but uncreative & unimaginative clones are not what the country needs now or in the future, and China will now spread its New Learning Revolution to the rest of its population.

Unlike the UK and the USA, China considers that any significant changes to its system need to be properly prepared for and properly trialled. Since Shanghai’s young people  rose to the top of the OECD/PISA international comparisons following the introduction of radical changes then the case for the reinvention of education seems to be pretty well proven.

English: The skyline of Shanghai, China.

English: The skyline of Shanghai, China. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It seems young people in Shanghai now enjoy their school experiences and look forward to lifelong learning and the prospect of setting up their own enterprises. It would seem an enterprise mindset comes with learning experiences that put the onus on the learner to at least co-create their own learning, and forms of learning which encourage divergent thinking, imagination and problem-solving.

In Britain we talk about the “knowledge economy” but fail to realise that the accumulation, memorisation and regurgitation of “facts” is only a part of the picture, especially in an age when supercomputers and voice-controlled search engines can deliver to your hand-held device any amount of information you can possibly want.

In the 21st Century the emphasis needs to be on our ability to create new sorts of knowledge and understanding, and we have to consider the ways in which we enable our populations to become such creators.

Do we want to carry on creating pyramids of academic achievers and failures – dividing our populations into ‘academic’ sheep and goats through the ‘standards agenda’ in the mistaken belief that this somehow prepares young people for the knowledge economy? Or will we eventually see the need to empower all of our young people to become enthusiastic lifelong learners with an ability through self-directed lifelong learning to achieve whatever their potential and their Element might be?

(For further thoughts on how we can now access and participate in free online university-level courses see this article in this week’s Guardian Education –  Study a Mooc with one of the world’s top universities: Massive open online courses offer anyone with access to the internet the chance to study at a top university for free)

See also:

Massive open online courses: a first report card

MOOCs: a massive opportunity for higher education, or digital hype?

Consider also the ever-increasing amounts of online learning available for students and learners of all ages, and the increasing possibilities for collaborative online learning between learners around the globe. In this century schools, colleges, etc will not only ‘compete’ with one another for students, they will also need to contend with a massive online offering for those seeking learning of all sorts. Distance learning and home learning are increasingly attractive options for those who find the pressures of school life in a regimented world of league tables somewhat difficult or unattractive. Sooner or later schools will need to pay proper attention to the wellbeing, needs and preferences of their learners and not simply attend to the demands of politicians and the systems they create.

Fortunately we already have within the UK (as well as in other countries) some excellent examples of schools that manage to combine student wellbeing, enjoyment of learning and personalised learning with high achievement and attainment. We intend in this blog to go on sharing our experiences of those schools as regularly as possible.


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About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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