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Knowledge age not industrial age education needed

7 June 2005

Knowledge age, not industrial age, education system needed

A new book looking at the future of education and the knowledge society challenges the current education system, concluding that many of the ideas that drive it are no longer appropriate as we move into the knowledge age.

Catching the Knowledge Wave? written by Dr Jane Gilbert, a Chief Researcher at the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER), challenges some of our most deeply-held ideas about knowledge and education, and explores the ways our schools need to change if they are to prepare people to participate in the knowledge-based societies of the future.

The knowledge society, while widely discussed, is generally not well understood. It is a paradigm shift, a period of major social, economic and intellectual change, that is occurring as we move out of the industrial age.

Dr Gilbert argues that the current industrial age model of education, which works like a production line, using traditional academic subjects to sort people according to their likely place in the job market, is now redundant. In the ‘new work order’, everyone (not just high achievers) needs the kind of ‘higher order’ thinking skills that will allow them to be independent learners all their lives, and productive citizens.

In the knowledge age, ‘knowledge’ has a new meaning – the old idea of knowledge as ‘stuff’, something we get and store away, is being replaced by a view of knowledge as energy – something that does things, something that makes things happen.

While recognising that ‘old knowledge’ is the raw material from which ‘new knowledge’ will emerge, Dr Gilbert suggests that to take account of knowledge’s new meaning, we need a new way of thinking about the school curriculum.

This new approach is also critical to our ability to raise achievement, promote equal opportunity, and reduce disparity in the education system and in society.

NZCER Director Robyn Baker says the book will be a valuable addition to current thinking about educational and social changes.

“There is a great deal of work being done by NZCER and other researchers into the transition from schools to the workforce or further study, the impact of these changes on the way schools are organised, and curriculum and policy development in the knowledge society. The ideas in this book are at the forefront of this area of research, and need to be seriously considered by everyone who deals with educational, economic and social development.”

Catching the Knowledge Wave? was launched by the Minister for Research, Science and Technology, Youth Affairs, and Social Development and Employment, Steve Maharey, at a function this evening.


Please find attached a two-page summary of the book’s key findings.

Further information

Catching the Knowledge Wave? is published by NZCER Press and can be purchased for $36.00 through the NZCER website ( or by faxing 04 384 7933.

About the author

Dr Jane Gilbert is a Chief Researcher at the New Zealand Council for Educational Research. Prior to joining NZCER nearly two years ago, Jane was a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at Victoria University, where she taught courses on the sociology/philosophy of education and science/technology education. Prior to that role, Jane worked at Waikato University’s School of Education, and taught science subjects for 10 years at Wellington East Girls College and Wellington High School. A widely published author in both the educational and social arenas, Jane has also been a keynote speaker at many national and international conferences.


The New Zealand Council for Educational Research is an independent, educational research organisation which provides educators, students, parents, policy makers and the public with innovative and independent research, analysis, and advice.

Established in 1934 through grants from the Carnegie Corporation, it became a statutory body in 1945 and now operates under the NZCER Act 1972 (and amendments). It is not attached to any government department, university or other educational organisation.

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Catching the Knowledge Wave? The knowledge society and the future of education
Dr Jane Gilbert, Chief Researcher, New Zealand Council for Educational Research

A summary of book’s main ideas

Catching the Knowledge Wave? takes apart some of our most deeply-held ideas about knowledge and education, and explores the ways our schools need to change to prepare people to participate in the knowledge-based societies of the future.

The knowledge society is an idea that is widely discussed, but not well understood. Perhaps this is because we need to use knowledge as a verb, not a noun – it something we do rather than something we have. This new meaning for is quite different to the one our schools were built on, and because of this knowledge society developments are a major challenge for our schools. We cannot address this challenge by adding more ideas to our existing structures. We need a completely new framework, one that takes account of knowledge’s new meaning, but that in practice also gives everyone an equal opportunity to succeed.

The book argues that our current education system is set up to serve industrial age, not knowledge age, needs. It works like a production line, using the traditional academic subjects to sort people according to their likely place in the job market. This, it argues, is completely inappropriate as we move into the knowledge age.

If people are to have a job at all in the ‘new work order’, they need more than basic literacy and numeracy skills. Everyone (not just those heading for university) now needs ‘higher order’ thinking skills. They need the ability to be an independent learner, and the ability to go on learning all their lives. However, they also need to know quite a lot – not, as in the past, at the detail level of traditional forms of knowledge, but at the ‘systems’ or ‘big picture’ level. They also need the ability to work as part of collaborative teams in which the members acknowledge, recognise and build on each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

In contrast to the present system that encourages people to master existing knowledge for its own sake, a knowledge age education system needs to help people (all people) go beyond this. It needs to help people develop the ability to generate new knowledge from old. This move from industrial age to knowledge age is a paradigm shift, not a gradual progression.

One of the defining features of the knowledge age is that knowledge has a new meaning. The old idea of knowledge as ‘stuff’, something we get, and store away somewhere, is being replaced by a new view of knowledge as being more like energy – something that does things, something that makes things happen.

This new view of knowledge doesn’t mean that the ‘old’ kinds of knowledge (the stuff we get to store away) don’t matter any more. On the contrary, old knowledge is the raw material for the new, so we still need to know it.

However, learning the ‘old’ forms of knowledge is no longer an end in itself, as it is in our current education system. We now need to learn it so that we can do things with it: Old knowledge is the raw material for new knowledge building.

The ability to do things with knowledge is now the key skill people need: however people need to be taught how to do this, and they need to learn how to do it from an early age (not wait until postgraduate university level).

A second key feature of the knowledge age is a new model of individuality (what it means to be a person), and, as a result, new ways of thinking about things like equality and social justice.

Just as the one-size-fits-all production line model of education is no longer appropriate for developing the knowledge age’s human resources needs, the one-size-fits-all model of equality (as sameness) is not an appropriate framework for thinking about citizenship in the knowledge age. Multiplicity, diversity, difference and hybridity are the norm now. Identity, like knowledge, is now a verb, not a noun – it is always ‘in process’, never finished. Thus we cannot expect everyone to learn things in the same way, in the same order, at the same time (as they do in the production line model). We need new, more flexible, non-linear learning systems.

The new ideas about knowledge and identity are a significant challenge to our current education system. We can’t address this challenge by tinkering with the current system – a paradigm shift is needed. This book attempts to map some of the features of this paradigm shift. It argues that we already have most of the raw materials needed for it: all we need now is a unifying framework that will let us think outside the production line square.

Therein lies the challenge.
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