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What should we be teaching our kids to equip them for a tech-fueled future?

We are 15 years into the 21st Century: what should we be teaching our children in the 12 years they are in school that will enable them to thrive in this fast changing world?

The world we live in is changing faster than ever, and it is within this rapidly evolving reality that young people need to find their way. How can the schooling system help them?

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Learners need to be taught to think. They need to acquire the ability to use knowledge—in examinations, the workplace, in life—to their own advantage. The simple question for educators is how will we manage to do this?

It is a common misconception that children will learn by themselves. Deep, meaningful learning remains hard work. Teachers need to understand why we learn what we learn, and how we can improve our ability to keep on learning. South African teachers need to be smarter than ever before.

School is still seen as a place where educational curricula are based on teaching the required skill sets and knowledge to learners in order to provide those learners with, at worst, access to the “real” world and, at best, a successful life.

But how do we ensure the curriculum is relevant or, even more importantly, that the skills and “way of thinking” of learners will make success possible? The answer lies in the all-important issue of what is valued in the classroom. If teachers, parents, and school authorities only value and reward memorisation the chances are slim that learners will do more than that.

A speaker at the recent Cannes Lion Awards, the showcase event for profiling the belief that “creativity is the driving force for business, for change and for good”, said, “70%–75% of the jobs in 10 years’ time have not been created yet”.

So we need to prepare our learners for this uncharted, unknown world. If we exclude Grade R, learners in South Africa who finish Grade 12 will spend approximately 1 000 hours in the classroom.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book The Outliers claims that 10 000 hours is the amount of time that an individual must devote to a subject in order to become an expert. What do we have to show for the 1 000 hours in the classroom? Is it enough to pass a Grade 12 examination, even with a few distinctions, or is there more we can do to make the future a little brighter for our learners?

What the experts have to say about education in the 21st Century

Guy Claxton, a professor of cognitive psychology in Britain, addressed some of these issues during a recent visit to Curro. Claxton promotes what he calls “Building Learning Power” (BLP) in classrooms. Critics have been somewhat cynical of such terms, claiming that it is merely jargon to convey what any good educational system should be doing.

Claxton wants to go beyond educational curricula, however, and set about creating a classroom culture that will foster habits and attitudes that will help learners to face difficulty and uncertainty calmly, confidently, and creatively. This requires more than scoring high marks on exam papers—and in fact inculcates in the learner a willingness to approach examinations with confidence. In the longer term it will inevitably create lifelong learners.

Claxton is convinced that his idea of “building learning power” in the classroom will go a long way towards resolving the “useless qualification” issue.
“To thrive in the twenty-first century,” said Claxton, “it is not enough to leave school with a clutch of examination certificates.” You must come away with “greater confidence, competence and curiosity to face the uncertainties that life will surely throw at them”.

He is not alone in this thinking. Sir Ken Robinson, author and educator, begins one of his TED talks (viewed by more than 13-million people) by asking, “How do we educate our children to take their place in the economies of the 21st Century?” It can’t be done using the current teaching methodology with its roots in the 17th Century for the simple reason that the story we’ve all been told about education is no longer true.

That story was: “Go to school, work hard, go to college, and get a decent job.” It was based on the idea that only those with “academic abilities” could succeed and the rest—the “non-academics”—would fail. That story no longer holds true simply because we do not know what awaits that child entering school this year, who will matriculate in 2026, and graduate in 2030. We don’t know what “jobs” await them, let alone which will be considered decent.

Robinson believes that education should be geared around divergent thinking—an essential capacity for creative thinking.

The USA-based organisation P21—the Partnership for 21st Century Learning—claims that “to be successful today, students must be digitally literate, globally competent and proficient in the 4Cs—critical thinking and problem solving; communication; collaboration; and creativity and innovation”.

Tony Wagner, a Harvard professor who has devoted the past 15 years trying to determine the “survival” skills needed to thrive in the 21st Century, said, in no uncertain terms, “the world no longer cares about what our children know, the world only cares about what they can do with what they know…”

Is this relevant in South Africa?

In South Africa we need to ask the important question whether this thinking is relevant to our environment. We are caught up in an exam-driven education system, which includes a lot of talk about “our unique African market place” for which we need to prepare learners. But as pointed out earlier, the jobs of the future are not yet defined and the market, if anything, will be possibly global rather than local.

We need to acknowledge that the emphasis of learning has shifted away from curricula content to the aims and processes of learning. The teaching strategy in the classroom now must be aimed at helping learners to leave school as tenacious and resourceful individuals, who are imaginative, self-disciplined, and who can collaborate and think critically.

This may sound easier said than done. In all conversations in South Africa when parents discuss the problems in education one theme is recurring; we need things to change… but there is little consensus on how.

Education needs to focus on what is happening in the classroom—described by one teacher as “the place that really makes a difference”—as the centre for imparting knowledge and acquiring the habits required to master a subject. And sadly what is happening in our classrooms is often a display of spoon-feeding learners with information that gives in to the stale demands of formal assessment and examinations. Claxton is on record as saying: “Spoon-feeding on an educational level is modern form of child abuse.”

Obviously, there is no quick fix, and the stakeholders—including parents—would need to be involved in order for 21st Century thinking to be adopted seriously and effectively.

As someone once said, “people should be educated so that they can be educated”—this does not seem too much to ask given the need for our schools to use the 1 000 hours in class to prepare creative and resourceful individuals who can cope with the future.

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