Towards a twenty-first century education

Why do societies educate their children? Is it solely to help individuals find their place in the labor markets? Is it to gear up our economies, to make them more productive? Is it to pass on our cultural and moral values to new generations, socializing them and creating responsible adults and citizens?

Most educators would argue that all discussions on the direction or the nature of education should have the concept of learning at their heart. How do young people learn? What motivates them? What type of educational approach suits them best? These are all questions that could be addressed individually. After all, education deals with human beings and they are all unique and different. However, when we consider educational reform or educational experiments we have to go beyond individual differences and search for common denominators. 

What is learning?

A dictionary definition of learning is to acquire knowledge of or skill by study, instruction or experience. People, and especially young people, all want to learn skills and become better at certain things. Every single person craves learning in its broadest sense. Yet, the institutions that society has designed especially for this specific human need -educational facilities – are not particularly liked by the majority of the young people. On the face of it, this seems puzzling.

One of the most common challenges that schools face is a lack of student involvement. Students do not seem to be proactive when it comes to learning and they rather position themselves as ‘consumers’ of whatever the teacher has to offer them. Also, in a lot of cases students seem unable or unwilling to use what they have learnt in school outside the school walls. In other words, a transfer of knowledge does not seem to take place. Could the problem be that what we teach them is wholly irrelevant in daily life? Do our curriculum based schools connect with the twenty-first century lives of our students?

Research has shown that learning is not simply the dissemination of knowledge, which is then stored and reproduced by the recipients. This traditional view of learning has dominated most of the twentieth century, but by now seems outdated. More progressive educational approaches have stressed the the concept of active learning. This idea focuses on the ‘construction’ of knowledge, claiming that the acquisition of knowledge only truly takes place when the new information is connected with existing knowledge or rather, ‘personalized’. This explains why literal transmission and reproduction of knowledge has so little impact. Learning simply doesn’t work like that.

Active learning relies on stimulating the student to construct his own knowledge and to connect this to prior knowledge as well. Collaboration can be an important ingredient in this process. Students are then put in a situation in which they are required to be active, explaining subject matter to fellow students, arguing their points of view or negotiating their position within the group. Schools need to facilitate this by creating learning environments that stimulate, encourage and inspire learners to construct their bodies of knowledge. Teachers are no longer the sole transmitters of knowledge in this situation, but should rather concentrate on coaching, assisting and stimulating the process of knowledge creation.

This is by no means a way of minimizing the role of the educator. On the contrary, the educator is transformed into something much more. Apart from being a primary source of knowledge, he becomes a mentor and a communicator, responsible for guiding the learner to the intended learning outcome.  The Dutch educationalist Luc Stevens identified three main pillars of this approach: competence; relationship; autonomy. All three of these refer to both the learner and the educator. An autonomous learner is more motivated to learn, and will thrive when he is confident about his relationship with his educators. Montessori schools, based on the theories of Rudolf Steiner, have long functioned along these premises.

A lack of learner involvement and motivation has other roots as well. One of the main demotivating factors is the idea that the things you learn in school will benefit you later on in life. In other words, the skills and knowledge schools have to offer, are not relevant today. This is especially problematic as children tend to be very much involved ‘in the moment’, caring about the here and now. Looking towards the future really is an adult trait and therefore this emphasis can be greatly alienating for young people. Learning for the future is an abstract concept and, quite frankly, simply not gratifying.

In our greatly stimulating information age, there are too many activities available at hand that are much more fun and relevant. Why choose to study dry and static school stuff when there is an exciting and fast moving world out there? Learning becomes a short-term memory exercise, effective to pass exams or other assessments, but hardly amounting to what educators like to call ‘learning’. Schools organised along traditional lines are especially at risk to become detached from the everyday reality of the twenty-first century learners.

These learners learn a lot at a young age. But this doesn’t necessarily happen in schools. They have responsibilities at home, helping out their dysfunctional family units, caring for their siblings or working Saturday jobs. Internet and television open up their worlds to new channels, possibilities and knowledge. Our learners are ‘streetwise’ at an early age. Whatever they might have to learn in school becomes isolated. Outside the school walls, it means little. Our learners have become consumers, constantly bombarded with advertisements asking them to make a choice. They are treated as adults, an economic force to be reckoned with. Can they really be expected to work from textbooks and listen to their teachers’ lectures in environments that do not resemble any of the other environments they move around in? The English educationalist Ken Robinson is very clear on this in this brilliant animation from the RSA.

Apart from stimulating active learning, schools and educational policies will have to aim at authentic learning as well. This refers to any type of learning situation that closely resembles other spheres of life or that has real relevance within communities, companies or organisations. An approach like this lifts the learning efforts of the learner out of the confines of the school and moves it beyond the simple premise of producing a particular piece of work because the teacher wants it to be done. Examples of this sort are vocational type approaches in which learning facilities function like ‘real’ restaurants or garages. While teaching the students the skills needed to one day be a restaurant worker or a mechanic, it also actually provides that service to the community. It becomes ‘real’.

This approach should however not be limited to the vocational level, but can be integrated throughout the student’s learning career. English departments can work together with local businesses or the city council, creating real memo’s, speeches or policy documents. Economics students can offer their services to businesses. Schools can also be proactive, creating their own events that are rooted in the local communities. Plays can be advertised in local papers, sponsors could be drawn in, local historical and geographical features can be explored and analysed. There are many options once one has an open mind and an increasing number of schools are treading these paths of experimental education.

It is however not entirely up to the individual schools. The movements towards a new approach from within the field are important and will guarantee a firm rooting and bottom-up growth model. This will somehow have to be paralleled with a similar development at the level of policy. It is here that we sometimes witness an opposite tendency, one that is increasingly about centralized testing, more rigorous assessments, more focus on the ‘core subjects’ of English and Maths. It is not uncommon for policy makers to equate these measure with ‘raising standards’, as if better grades necessarily point towards a more effective educational system. On the contrary, policy obsession with grading saps the lifeblood out of learning as we have just described it. We cannot predict the future and therefore we do not know for what type of society we are educating our children. What we do know is that knowledge is no longer static, it is no longer monopolized. Perhaps this means that educators should focus more on how knowledge is collected and how to deal with this knowledge. Education could be so much more fun. For everyone.