Will octopuses take over the world, and other questions at the heart of modern education

Richard Wallace

In her book The Soul of an Octopus, Sy Montgomery explores her friendship with a sweet-natured cephalopod named Athena. She proposes that octopuses could be considerably more intelligent than we credit them for, but because their biology and consciousness is so alien to us, we lack the framework to understand how that intelligence manifests itself. This is interesting because humans do tend to have a fairly narrow understanding of intelligence, an area of some contention in schools, where educational progressives argue that stifling systems of standardised testing do not equally favour for the whole spectrum of ‘intelligence’ in childen.

This makes sense. Our school system is a reformed but still fairly intact iteration of a Victorian system, in which a specific set of skills and values would be needed to be economically prosperous in a highly industrialised system. Creativity, emotional intelligence, non-cognitive ability, lateral thinking? These were less useful skills. But our economy has become so much more nuanced and wide-ranging. And it’s changing all the time. Is such an outdated version of economic efficiency really a useful benchmark to measure how our children develop?

The debate is particularly febrile in the grammar school debate, where the educational futures of children is decided by the eleven-plus. Proponents argue that grammar schools allow for greater social mobility and the avoidance of selection-by-wealth; opponents say that it is outdated, and unfair for years of educational privelege to be denied to children who have bad test days. There is a feeling underpinning the pro-comp lobby that a single test cannot possibly define a child’s entire abilities.

It used to be that figuring out intelligence was cut-and-dry. If one child was reading Catcher in the Rye at nine, they were smart. If another child of the same age group had yet to work out how to use doorknobs, they probably weren’t heading for the C-suite. But is this fair? And is it be right that the latter child should face a world full of closed doors?

There is a quote that often crops up online, falsely attributed to Einstein, but still relevant. “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Narrow ideas of what intelligence means can be destructive, especially when standardised testing is so arbitrary—grades will vary from one teacher to the next, and separating subjects into rigid disciplines renders non-discipline skills irrelevant. Instead of recognising inherent ability, we are not just judging fish on their tree-scaling abilities, but actively testing them on it. Just because an octopus cannot perform well in Key Stage Three maths, does it mean it isn’t intelligent? (Not to mention the number of disciplines that they could excel in given the chance; drumming, for example.)

If we predicate intelligence solely on retention of data and learning by rote, what is left of human ingenuity? AI will soon outperform humans at almost all knowledge-based curricula, from the simple to the complex. In order to escape a dawn of human cognitive obsolesence, it would do well to begin teaching our younger generations what is actually special and unique about the human mind. The way it can interpret art, react emotionally to data, and apply a subjective consciousness across disciplines, rather than reducing everything to pure logic.

Rose Luckin, a professor of learning-centred design at University College London identified seven kinds of intelligence we need to thrive:

1. Interdisciplinary academic intelligence: the ability to tie subjects together rather than understanding them in silos

2. Social intelligence: developing an awareness of our own emotions and how we regulate those in a group

3. Meta-knowing: our relationship to knowledge. The ability to understand what constitutes good evidence and how to make judgements based on evidence.

4. Metacognition: knowing ourselves and regulating our cognitive processes

5. Meta subjective intelligence: understanding our emotions and their relationship to our learning and well-being.

6. Meta contextual intelligence: the dynamic context in which learning takes place

7. Accurate perceived self-efficacy: our ability to assess our own abilities

As our crass understanding of human intelligence develops, it’s no surprise that more innovative educational institutions are gaining popularity. For example, Steiner Schools encourage learning through play until the age of seven, with the aim of developing the “whole” of the child’s mind: academic, physical, emotional, spiritual. As well as instilling a love of learning and enthusiasm for school, this method is designed to foster the imagination and the artistic mind, in order to better apply to a diverse range of traditional academic disciplines, and to produce a strong sense of self. Then there’s Montessori Education, characterised by multi-age classrooms, and based on self-directed activity, hands-on learning, and collaborative play. In an age when empathy and compassion seem sorely lacking, would educational models that encourage these qualities actually benefit the world, socially and economically?

Some purists may argue that new-age learning is inferior to time-honoured traditions, but in a world that is changing more than ever before, and with more information at our disposal about how children learn, it could be that new thinking is desperately needed, in order to prepare children for a totally different type of economy.

You never know; previously under-acknowledged forms of intelligence may well be nurtured and rewarded in future economies. Plus, the animal that marine biologists think is most likely to take over the planet? The octopus. Make of that what you will.