Time for Myth 3 in my summary series of the book “Seven Myths of Education”.
Myth 3: The 21st Century fundamentally changes everything
Theoretical Evidence that this myth exists:
It is claimed that economical and technological change is the reason that we shouldn’t teach facts, that 21st Century kids need a totally different education from the one kids received in the past.
“21st century skills” is the buzzword to indicate that kids need something different.
The skills they are referring to are generally identified as “problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, and interpersonal communication”.
It is claimed that kids don’t need to ‘remember’ anymore as we have created ‘external storage’ for those things (ie internet/computer), so, apparently, they don’t need to memorise and they don’t need facts. This frees them up to focus on skills.
We are reminded that industries nowadays are quickly changing and often ceasing to exist all together. Therefore, whole bodies of knowledge are becoming obsolete. Eg. In the 70s, students used to take secretarial classes, but, in many cases, nowadays, computers have replaced the need for secretaries.
Curriculums called these 21st century skills things like ‘core competencies’ or ‘transferable skills’ [or, as in the case of the Australian National Curriculum – General Capabilities]
Economic change is driving educational change. The idea of a ‘job for life’ is apparently almost extinct nowadays, so, instead, educators are told to aim for ’employability for life’. To do this, educators are supposed to focus on teaching these ’21st century skills’ because the education of the past, usually referred to as ‘the education used during the industrial revolution’, is apparently not sufficient.
Modern employers desire employees who can adapt, see connections, innovate, communicate and work in teams. These are the things that are essential for economic success. These skills are also transferable from one job to the inevitable next. Hence, educators are expected to teach them.
When talking about new ideas (such as teaching 21st century skills), those that are embraced are generally those that make it into the minds of the public. Sir Ken Robinson’s views on 21st century skills have reached millions worldwide. His TED talk, “Changing Education Paradigms“, talks about how educators, in a fast changing world, should educate when they don’t know what the future will hold. His answer was that students need to be taught collaboration and creativity. He also has a talk called, “Do Schools Teach Creativity?“. Basically, Sir Ken says that, since you can’t predict the future, you can’t predict what children will need to ‘know’ in the future.
Another highly popular presentation called “Shift Happens” [original version; 2017 version] makes similar claims – a fast changing society means that what you learn at the beginning of a degree could be outdated before you graduate, hence there is no point in teaching knowledge. Simply focus on skills.
A teaching association published a paper titled, “Subject to Change”. It says, “A twenty-first century curriculum cannot have the transfer of knowledge at its core for the simple reason that the selection of what is required has become problematic in an information rich age.” Basically, we can’t teach knowledge because we don’t know which knowledge to teach, so let’s not teach any.
An organisation for economic co-operation and development says, “As access to information becomes easier and less expensive, the skills and competencies relating to the selection and efficient use of information become more crucial…Capabilities for selecting relevant and disregarding irrelevant information, recognising patterns in information, interpreting and decoding information as well as learning new and forgetting old skills are in increasing demand.” Basically, modern students need to be able to work with information – select it, interpret it, decode it etc – but they don’t need to know or remember the information because they can look it up somewhere.
Evidence that the belief persists in Modern Practices:
Modern curriculums are written with the goal of equipping students for societal and technological changes.
The 21st century skills vary slightly from place to place. The RSA curriculum, “Opening Minds” has 5 essential skills that they use to organise their curriculum – citizenship, learning, managing information, relating to people, and managing situations. This RSA curriculum does not teach subjects but rather organises learning into ‘projects’. A school, called “School 21” (to highlight that they focus on 21st century skills), has 6 essential skills – professionalism, eloquence, grit, spark, craftsmanship and expertise.
[The Australian National Curriculum’s 21st century skills are literacy, numeracy, information and communication technology, critical and creative thinking, personal and social capabilities, ethical understanding and intercultural understanding.]
The UK’s national curriculum says that educators must improve the motivation and achievement of students, especially less able students. They say this can be done by making lessons more dynamic and productive. They say that the learning should happen in real contexts, for reasons that are made clear to the students and that the learning is relevant to the students’ lives.
Another teaching association said that we need to focus more on like skills and then seriously wrote a whole paragraph about the life skill of walking and how students need to be aware of the different types of walking necessary for different occasions eg strolling with no purpose, compared to rushing to get to the train on time.
Why is “21st Century fundamentally changes everything” a myth?
The author says that these skills, every one of them, are indeed important, but that there is nothing ’21st century’ about them. Didn’t people in ancient and medieval times also need to solve problems, communicate, innovate, collaborate and think critically?! So these skills are important and, perhaps, more so than ever before, as less skilled jobs are taken up by computers and robots. This is to say that children need to be educated more than ever, and that they need the education that the elite received in the past, a traditional education.
Creativity and problem-solving have always been important skills but they are not unique to the 21st century. In fact, the methodology supported by proponents of 21st Century skills, removing knowledge/content, will most certainly ensure that children don’t receive those essential ’21st century’ skills at all.
There is one way that things are different in this century – technology is playing a larger than ever role. However, this truth has led to a number of fallacies. It is falsely believed that there is no need for children to memorise when they can ‘Google it’. It is also falsely believed that traditional knowledge is outdated, and, what currently isn’t outdated, changes so often that there is no point in learning it. In the presentation, “Shift Happens”, it says that 1.5 exabytes of unique and new information is added to the world every year and that technical knowledge doubles every year. It goes on to say that, because of this pace of information creation, information would be outdated before students graduated. But that’s not completely true. Lots of this new information does not disprove or supersede the previous information. It builds on or requires the previous information in order to make sense of the new information. Foundational information is rarely disproved so the statements on “Shift Happens” are hugely exaggerated. Archimedes’s principle still holds true, Pythagoras’ theorem is still good and Newtonian physics is doing quite well also. In fact, in Math, there is even less change, only extensions and refinements.
Given how much new information is being created each year, it is more important than ever to prioritise which knowledge is essential for children to learn. There is so much information in the world that our students need mentors/teachers, more than ever, to guide them to the foundational information which they should start out with. A kind of sorting of the wheat from the chaff.
The author also points out that most ‘first’ scientific discoveries for scientists used to happen around the median point of their career, after the scientist had acquired significant amounts of information within their field of study. Nowadays, that age is being pushed further and further back as more information demands to be learned before those first discoveries can happen. Therefore, more information doesn’t mean that we need less of it.
Once again, it seems that ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ is essential for continued progress as a civilisation. Modern folk have benefited from the centuries of accumulated knowledge from billions of people. The rapidity of achievement, in modern times, isn’t because people are getting smarter. It’s because of what has been passed down to us and the fact that we stood on the shoulders of these people of the past so that we could see further and do more. We know things that the greats of the past didn’t know, because they weren’t aware of it, however, we are throwing away that advantage when we don’t teach knowledge to our students. We can not stop passing down this accumulated inheritance to our children.
The historian, John Roberts says that civilisation is the result of ‘the accumulation of a capital of experience of knowledge’. If we stop passing on this accumulated knowledge to our children, what does this mean for civilisation? We are already able to see the beginning of that answer in our current society and schools.
Job-related knowledge and skills do change and outdate, but, the foundational knowledge and skills do not. Educators should teach this foundational knowledge and leave the job-related stuff to be learned on the job. One co-founder of Wikipedia said that it was better to learn history than computer programming. History will stay basically the same but programming will definitely change, probably several times. It’s also been noted that newer ideas tends to change or become obsolete more often than older ideas. Older ideas have already stood the test of time and will more than likely continue. Despite this, current education systems rest in the idea that education must remain constantly new and up to date. The irony of this is that this idea isn’t even ‘up to date’ or ‘new’. Educators at the turn of the 20th century were saying exactly the same things. They wanted 20th century skills to be taught to their students.