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How effectively are we preparing our children for the 21st century?


31 May 2013 06:30 pm - 2     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


By Shalini Wickramasuriya

It is hard to know how effectively to prepare our children for the technologically advancing future. The future as we see it is ever changing. In the last decade many have at their disposal, the mobile phone, the personal computer, the worldwide web and countless apps, to name but a few. A group of educators on a wiki, Shift Happens ( feature the marvel of technology and the challenge we as educators face. Shift Happens indicates, to put us in perspective, with challenged and challenging statistics that the top jobs of 2010 didn’t exist in 2004, that our children will be using technologies that haven’t been invented in order to solve problems that we don’t know are problems yet, that the number of text messages sent and received everyday exceeds the population of the planet, that there are 540,000 words in the English language – 5 times as many as during Shakespeare’s time, indicating that the pace and manner in which we educate our young people has to be challenged. Emerging innovative technologies and resulting globalization additionally, provides unlimited possibilities for exciting new discoveries and developments such as new forms of energy, medical advances, restoration of environmentally ravaged areas, communications, and exploration into space and into the depths of the oceans. The possibilities are unlimited. Fundamentally, we need to assimilate knowledge much quicker and keep abreast of change that is happening.
Unlike the transition from the oral tradition to the print revolution, where access would have been a challenge, many do in fact have access to the change and the dramatic technological advancement. We currently live in a diverse, globalized and complex media-saturated society. It is fair to say that we are very much engaged in the revolution: there are 110 million monthly active users on MySpace, 800 million Facebook users and 12 billion Google searches a month. Technologically, many are engaged in the 21st century and are indeed ‘living there’, and so we question if our schools are there.

" we believe that authentic education addresses the “whole child”, the “whole person”, and does not limit our professional development and curriculum design to workplace readiness "

So what is 21st century education? It is bold. It breaks the mold. It is flexible, creative, challenging, and complex. It addresses a rapidly changing world filled with fantastic new problems as well as exciting new possibilities. Fortunately, there is a growing body of research supporting an increasing the paradigm shift and evidenced by a number of 21st century schools. We have living proof, inspiring examples to follow, in schools across the world. These schools vary, but are united in the fundamentals of 21st century education - and the challenge has been issued; how do we get our students from ‘here’ to ‘there’.

21st Century schools, recognizes the critical need for developing 21st century skills. However, we believe that authentic education addresses the “whole child”, the “whole person”, and does not limit our professional development and curriculum design to workplace readiness.As John Dewey states: ‘Education is not preparing for life; education is life itself’. We need skills which are real and applicable which are 21st century skills learned through an integrated and interdisciplinary curriculum, project-based learning, toward multiple literacies, media literacy, and the use of new technologies to design and deliver a 21st century learning culture. Tony Wagner, in his book, The Global Achievement Gap features the following skills as prerequisites; critical thinking,problem solving, collaboration, agility and adaptability, initiative and entrepreneurialism, effective oral and written communication, accessing and analyzing information.

So how would we begin to build a vision for education in the 21st century and how do we achieve our goal?  It would be relevant to review the history of education, critical pedagogy as well as the evolution of countries, their economies, governments, and industries. We must realize, and our students must understand, that we cannot move toward a vision of the future until we understand the socio-historical context of where we are now. Where are we? What events led us to be where we are? How can this inform our development of a vision for the future and how we want to get there?

A clear articulation of the purpose of education for the 21st century is the place to begin. Creating a vision of where we want to go requires us to ask the question - why? What is the purpose of education? What do we need to do to accomplish that purpose?

One might argue that it seems that as each new school year, there is an accompanying education trend that promises to revolutionize education. Over the years we’ve seen problem-based learning, project-based learning, active learning, child-centered learning, student-centered learning....the list is endless. And no sooner has one approach been accepted and implemented than some other group of academics have picked the theory to shreds and called for a return to a wide range of policies to raise education standards, and so then we are advocated traditional learning, introducing coursework, scrapping GCSEs, introducing longer teaching hours, shorter holidays, assessment for learning, a greater emphasis on rote learning and a return to the educational philosophies of the 1950s. While some policy makers are keen on change for the sake of change, others highlight that there is a serious need to re-evaluate today’s education systems. The actual structure of the modern education system has changed little since its conception during the industrial revolution of the 19th century and much of what is happening in some classrooms today is not very different to what has happened for the past 50 years.But, we live in a world that is rapidly transforming and our students deserve an education system that is relevant to the 21st century as some predictors feature an extreme scenario; that the skills they are learning in school today will be obsolete by the time they graduate, that many will have over 5 different careers during their lifetime and that many of occupations that our students will have are yet to be invented.

Well, the first thing I noticed was that this was an education framework developed by an American organization called 21st Century Partnership made up of academics, policy makers and prominent members of the business community. Now the idea of these collaborations between multinational companies and education policy makers generally fill me with dread ... some kind of Orwellian nightmare in which schools create fodder to feed an insatiable capitalist machine. So you can imagine my surprise (and relief) on discovering this 21st Century Framework is not only clear and concise but it actually makes good common sense.
This 21st Century Framework can be summarized in a simple and accessible manner. Today’s learners need to develop the 3Rs + the 4Cs

The 3Rs - Reading,
Writing & Arithmetic

These have been central to education allthough the 19th and 20th Century. In this Framework the 3Rs include all core subject knowledge and skills set, thus reinforcing traditional education.

The 4Cs - Critical Thinking, Communication,
Collaboration & Creativity

A review of these 4Cs reveals no surprises. These educational concepts at the centre of discussion, have been at our disposal from the dawn of Western education and indeed before. Philosophers and thinkers ranging from Plato, Aristotle to Socrates, from Rousseau to Locke and more recently Dewey and Chomsky have featured critical thinking and creativity.

And so despite a formula and recommendation which seems to match the skills required with the learning environment, we find it hard to fully grasp and apply such a new and abstract concept when we have been all through school and have all succeeded. “Why fix what’s not broken?” is a common refrain. But let’s be honest -- education is broken. The world is changing. The skillset needed in the world today is far different than the one needed just a few years ago. The challenge for us is to ‘redefine’ what has been successful in the past and apply those concepts to the new demands and expectations.Making the paradigm shift is not easy, after all many of us think of education of how we knew it, it is our comfort zone and we believe that it has served us well and will serve our children too.

On working on the paradigm shift an apt parody is drawn by James A. Belasco, Teaching the Elephant to Dance; a book written on creating change in organizations in order to cope with the changing world. Dr. Belasco explains ‘that elephants are trained to stay in one place, through conditioning, with nothing more than a bracelet around one ankle - attached to nothing. However, if the tent catches fire, and the elephant smells the smoke and sees the flames, the conditioned response is overcome and the elephant moves. He recommends that we find a way to get people to smell the smoke and see the flames - without actually burning down the tent’. The analogy of education being a slow ponderous, pachyderm which does not serve much purpose is rather harsh, but reality. Teaching this elephant to dance is going to be a major endeavour, and it would need to address matters such as teacher education, administrative education programmes, curriculum design and fundamentally accountability, and finally, to change the way people think about education. The challenges are real, but let’s be honest -- the future is now.

The challenge would to achieving 21st century education in a timely and effective manner and in line with comparable policies and curriculum of a global forum. So what of practice and the reality of application in the classroom? What would be our role as educators and how do we equip ourselves to support our learners? An education conference (EARCOS) in the Far East featured reality as a participant observer and was an eye opener for a number of reasons. Colleagues at the conference were tech savvy, working off ipads, notebooks and laptops, tweeting appraisals of the workshops and creating group work presentations online and uploading material and presentations to wikieducator instantly. The conference itself hinged on outcome-based learning, focused on synthesis, analysis and evaluation, was research driven, focused on active learning, collaboration and facilitation.

" While some policy makers are keen on change for the sake of change, others highlight that there is a serious need to re-evaluate today’s education systems. The actual structure of the modern education system "

As for the classroom, centres of excellence throughout the Far East are commended by the Knowledge Channel Foundation which recognizes unique ideas and best practices in school management and teaching, and learning innovations, with the aim of promoting and sharing them with other schools. Six learning institutions were recently recognized in May 2013, for excellence for their exceptional innovations in their school systems, which covered aspects like curriculum design, learning materials, learning methodologies, administrative systems and processes, and learning spaces and places.

Partnering for Global Impact ( Edutopia, the Innovation Unit  and ASCD www.ascd.ord are just some of the many not-for-profit organizations which work with schools and national policy units to engage students, teachers and schools with 21st century learning. The mass purchase of devices and IT support as a gestureis happening way too often without conversations with educators about what learning should be happening in the classroom. Engaging in 21st century learning ought to be strongly aligned with policy and educational standards. To ensure effective application and commitment, we need a public expenditure spend on education in excess of 2%. (

Our world is different and rapidly changing. What we are trying to do in education today is have our children prepared for that new world and to understand how to use these needed skills to be adaptable and flexible. Finding the time to reflect on what they have to do and then to step forward in a proactive way to solve whatever problems they may face is the key. It is an exciting time in education! We are asking far more of students and teachers than we have ever asked before, to avail of the global knowledge market and to be prepared for the 21st century, without losing sight of the fundamentals and rudiments of learning. Maybe then we can stop with the references to “21st Century Learning” and get on with the fact that this is just learning... period!


  Comments - 2

  • kithudugama Monday, 03 June 2013 10:47 AM

    Teach the teachers some basic English

    chrissy Friday, 07 June 2013 12:00 AM

    brilliant article. thank you. via DM Android App

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