What we must teach our students in today’s world

New competencies change the focus of learning from subject content knowledge to learning skills that foster students’ abilities to learn more independently and become self-directed in their learning

 Dennis Sale   Picture: ROB CURRIE. (30730815)
Dennis Sale Picture: ROB CURRIE. (30730815)

WHAT is taught in schools is bound up with existing beliefs on what constitutes the ‘good society’ and the ‘educated citizen’.

Historically, much of these beliefs can be seen to favour dominant groups in society, including religious, economic and political elites. For example, Colquhoun (1806), writing about education in England, noted: ‘It is not proposed that the children of the poor should be educated in a manner to elevate their minds above the rank they are destined to fill in society… Utopian schemes for an extensive diffusion of knowledge would be injurious and absurd.’

In our society, while wealth and power inevitably still influences policy-making, there is greater opportunity for all citizens to collectively shape the society we live in, and that is why I can freely write this article. Also, the internet has been significant in rapid global information transmission – especially relating to ideas about how we can or should live, and who is responsible for shaping aspects of reality.

However, we are now living in a VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous), with human knowledge increasing exponentially. This makes our lives more challenging and potentially stressful, as our brain is not naturally attuned to dealing with such information overload and rapid change.

Research suggests that human brains today are much the same as those of our ancestors some 50,000 years ago. Indeed, recent data shows that even 300,000 years ago the brain size in H sapiens already fell within the range of present-day humans (Neubauer, 2018). Cognitive overload (eg, too much information for the brain to deal with), probably of little concern to our primitive ancestors, is now a significant problem and may underpin much of modern stress in human learning and well-being.

Learning in primitive societies would have been little in terms of content knowledge, and the important bits were probably taught (and learned) relatively quickly. Deciding what to teach now is increasingly challenging, as we simply cannot pour more and more information into students’ brains.

One approach to dealing with the challenge of what to teach in today’s context has focused on the identification of what is now referred to as 21st Century Competencies, especially the ‘4Cs’ (Creativity, Communication, Collaboration and Critical Thinking). It is not argued that traditional curriculum school subjects such as history, geography, etc and the ‘3Rs’ (reading, writing and arithmetic) are not important, but other skills are increasingly necessary in this changing digital age.

These new competencies change the focus of learning from subject content knowledge to learning skills that foster students’ abilities to learn more independently and become self-directed in their learning.

It is not possible to predict with clarity what competencies and skill sets will be most relevant in future decades, especially for the world of work, as the development of artificial intelligence will make increasing numbers of present occupational roles redundant. However, what is clearly obvious is that schools must focus on helping students to think and learn better, manage themselves better and be versatile in adapting to rapid change – both at work and in life. Such skill sets and attitudes are often captured in the term Self-directed Learning (SDL). Self-directed learners are able to:

lSet key goals for learning (eg, short-term, long-term) and decide what needs to be learned for what purpose.

lKnow how to learn and plan a successful learning strategy (eg, what to learn, how, when and where).

lUse specific learning strategies to achieve the learning goals.

lPersist, maintain positive beliefs and manage emotions in the face of challenges and/or setbacks.

lMonitor and review one’s progress and modify/change aspects of strategy based on feedback (if necessary).

Teaching students the core principles of effective learning (ie, how the learning process works, barriers to learning and effective strategies) is essential for helping students to understand how their minds work and, over time, empowering them to become self-directed learners. This knowledge, and the skills necessary to apply it in meeting academic and future life goals, can be effectively taught in our schools. Teachers today must develop the capability to do this expertly, and this will constitute ‘The Future of Learning’, as Treadwell (2017) described it in a book of that title.

Furthermore, educational focus must go beyond preparing students for work and personal well-being, but incorporate conceptions of citizenship and global identity, as these are all positively interconnected. Covid-19 has made us starkly aware of our interdependence, and environmental issues are becoming increasingly part of global politics. We need citizens who can think well and be self-directed in their own lives, but we also need them to have a global mindset.

While we may think of well-being as a personal state of mind, it is also a collective experience, as we share universal psychological needs that transcend cultural differences. To illustrate the point, there are few people in the world who want to experience suffering – though it is a universal feature of our existence – and they would prefer not to suffer. In contrast, I also think that most people would like to experience kindness, fairness and justice in their life experiences. These fundamental human preferences should constitute a natural set of core values as they support the flourishing of humans, irrespective of race, ethnicity or gender. Hence, considerations of such core values must be seen as priority considerations in what we teach our students in this new educational landscape.

We now possess extensive knowledge on how humans learn best, and what constitutes well-being. For example, it is estimated that we have learned more about how the human brain works in the past two to three decades than in the rest of human history. Educational planners must use this knowledge and insight in developing and delivering the school curriculum. We can then provide the educational opportunities and experiences to help students become self-directed lifelong learners with a global mindset.

Dennis Sale worked in the Singapore education system for 25 years as adviser, researcher and examiner. He coached over 15,000 teaching professionals and provided 100-plus consultancies in the Asian region. Dennis is author of the books Creative Teachers: Self-directed Learners (Springer 2020) and Creative Teaching: An Evidence-Based Approach (Springer, 2015).

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