Foolishly (I should be doing other things), I’ve just been watching some of the talks from the Global Education and Skills Forum being held in some exclusive resort in Dubai where everyone was sitting in nice white armchairs. There was much talk about the 21st Century Learner. Personally, I think this whole concept is, to coin a phrase, bullshit, but I like to think I have an open mind so I did a bit of 21st learning myself, i.e., I Googled around the topic.
I quickly came across this article by Andreas Schleicher, the top education guru in the OECD, and a keynote speaker at the Forum. Here are some quotes from his article.
“For most of the last century, the widespread belief among policymakers was that you had to get the basics right in education before you could turn to broader skills. It’s as though schools needed to be boring and dominated by rote learning before deeper, more invigorating learning could flourish. Those that hold on to this view should not be surprised if students lose interest or drop out of schools because they cannot relate what is going on in school to their real lives.”
I’ve no problem with the first sentence but the second is a non-sequitur of the highest order. Where on earth has it ever been implied that acquiring the basics of a discipline has to be boring and based on rote learning? Anyone who actually teaches or has been a student knows that acquisition of basics can, in fact, be ‘invigorating’. In engineering, for example, basics are best acquired by lots of active practice – ‘doing the problems’ as we say – and solving problems is one of the most rewarding things a student can do in education. But the last sentence is one of the more worrying in the article and it touches on something that has been a big issue in the UK in particular. This is the presumption that students – mainly young people – will only engage with education if it relates in some ways to their ‘real lives’. This is a desperately bankrupt, utterly utilitarian view of education that shows a complete lack of faith in students, especially their capacity to engage with all sorts of knowledge. In fact, students will engage with everything from history to art to literature to science, if it is a presented in an engaging manner. But presenting material in an engaging manner does not mean contorting it to fit our daily lives, and engaging doesn’t have to mean ‘innovative’.
“A generation ago, teachers could expect that what they taught would last their students a lifetime. Today, because of rapid economic and social change, schools have to prepare students for jobs that have not yet been created, technologies that have not yet been invented and problems that we don’t yet know will arise.”
Let’s say a generation is about 40 years or so and let’s think about the world in 1975. Television (coloured!) was becoming a feature of daily living, the first calculators were being used, digital watches were appearing on the scene (not for long) and inter-continental air travel was becoming commonplace. The Voyager spacecraft were being built in anticipation of their launch into deep space in 1977, the term ‘fractal’ was coined, monoclonal antibodies were produced and on April 4th, Microsoft was born. This was no static world and where exactly is the evidence that the education system presumed that the world was standing still? Indeed, over the next 10 to 15 years, we would go from a situation where we had a handful of mainframe computers in this country to one where everyone had or at least aspired to having their own microcomputer on their desk. Space Invaders, Asteroids and that hypnotic and irritating tennis game appeared and the gaming industry was spawned. Work was made easier as printers, plotters (remember them!) and faxes (remember them) became commonplace. Email arrived. Those of us who were educated in that period were ready, willing and even excited to adapt. No one ever suggested that we needed to be educated to be adaptable, flexible graduates. That was our mind-set, forged from a combination of common sense, enthusiasm and a general awareness of the world around us. Although by no means special, those of us educated in the 1970s and 1980s adapted to the internet age of the 1990s quite easily and there is no evidence that the events of 2015 are so different that the education of today needs to be radically transformed in some way. There is no doubt, however, that education in 2015 poses many new challenges but many of those are not because of the ‘rapidly-changing’ workplace, or ‘connectedness’, or any of those things; it’s due to the fact that education, especially higher education, is no longer the preserve of the few but the right of the many. The education ‘audience’ is just more complicated now.
“However, educational success is no longer about reproducing content knowledge, but about extrapolating from what we know and applying that knowledge to novel situations.”
Sorry, but when was education ever about reproducing ‘content knowledge’ only. The very essence of my own discipline, engineering, is the application of knowledge and methods, and I’m sure others can make the same argument for their discipline.
“If we spend our whole lives in the silo of a single discipline, we cannot develop the imaginative skills to connect the dots or to anticipate where the next invention, and probable source of economic value, will come from.”
We hear this kind of thing a lot and, yes, some of the big problems of science and society are on the borders between disciplines, but many are deeply embedded in the disciplines. A huge amount of important, imaginative work is done that is discipline-based and nowhere near the borders. Furthermore, even if the big problems are on the borders, that does not mean that they cannot be tackled by teams of experts with complementary knowledge and skills, and it does not mean that individuals need to learn in a multidisciplinary way. The Apollo missions were the multidisciplinary challenge par excellence and involved the collaboration between experts, experts who were educated to have deep knowledge of their discipline. The Eagle would not have landed, for example, without the thousands of pages of computer code written by Margaret Hamilton, a woman who was single-minded in the pursuit of excellence deep in the heart of her own discipline. The world needs its Margaret Hamiltons.
“Traditionally, you could tell students to look into an encyclopaedia when they needed information, and you could tell them that they could generally rely on what they found to be true. But today, literacy is about managing non-linear information structures. Consider the Internet. The more content knowledge we can search and access on the web, the more important the capacity to make sense out of this content becomes. This involves interpreting the frequently conflicting pieces of information that pop up on the web and assessing their value, a skill rendered essential by the appearance of the Internet.”
I’m not sure what point the writer is trying to make here but, in my view, this is a really good argument as to why students need to be taught content (as opposed to vague 21st century skills), because without having been guided by an expert through the knowledge of any given field, the learner will have not have the framework of their own personal and reliable knowledge to be able to interpret the vast amount of ‘information’ that can be accessed on the web. Unfortunately, there is a large tendency these days for proponents of 21st century learning to figuratively throw their hands in the air and suggest that it’s a waste of time acquiring any knowledge at all – all that is need are learning and even ‘unlearning’ skills, and thinking skills, they say.
“Rather than just learning to read, 21st century literacy is about reading to learn and developing the capacity and motivation to identify, understand, interpret, create and communicate knowledge.”
So, what is being said here? In previous generations, children were taught to read just for the sake of it, so that they could make sounds??? I think the writer was just trying to say something ‘clever’ by flipping ‘learning to read’ into ‘reading to learn’. Nice sound bite but devoid of meaning.
Here’s what I think: Education has been hijacked by ‘educationalists’ who have a birds-eye, hands-off view of education and who seem to exist in their own parallel universe where they talk amongst themselves in vague, unsubstantiated, yet plausible-sounding generalities. The have invented an educational past that never existed and are now obsessed with jobs that don’t exist. Sounds like they live in an imaginary world.