How do you educate students of today for a world that is changing so rapidly that we don’t know what it will look like tomorrow?

It is perhaps one of the most fundamental and challenging questions facing those involved in education, from our teachers to managers to policy makers and parents.

Of course the idea of change is nothing new. I, like many, still recall conversations with my father and grandfather that begun “when I was a boy…” But while change itself may be acceptable, the rate of change that our world is currently facing is unprecedented. Economically, environmentally, ecologically, technologically our society is transforming at a rate that it is becoming increasingly difficult to anticipate where we will be next year, next month or even next week.

So, how do you educate students under such circumstances? How do you equip students to take their place in the 21st century when we are unsure what the 21st century will be like?

Shift Happens

A well-viewed YouTube clip entitled Shift Happens presents a series of facts and figures outlining how such change is impacting on our society. It states that “the Top 10 in-demand jobs in 2010, did not exist in 2004”. If, as a child, I had told my parents I wanted to be an ‘information designer’ or ‘web analyst’ for example, they would have stared at me blankly. I recall with a sense of amusement that in the mid-1990s when delivering a lecture to a class of 250 students, I asked, “How many of you have been down to the computer labs and looked at this thing called the Internet?” Two hands went up. That was not very long ago, and yet seems like more than a lifetime.

Research shows that the amount of new technical information is doubling every two years. That means, “for students studying a four-year technical degree, half of what they learn in their first year of study will be out-dated by their third year of study”. As described by creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson: “Our children are living in the most intensely stimulating period in the history of the earth. They are being besieged with information and calls for their attention from every platform – from computers, from iPhones, from advertising hoardings, from hundreds of television channels.”

So, how do we keep their attention in the classroom, and how do we ensure what we are teaching them is relevant, useful and necessary for the world they are entering?

There are two strategies that I have seen at play in the classroom – neither of which I think is the answer. One is for the teacher to become a performer. This is where the line between education and entertainment becomes blurred – sometimes referred to as edutainment. This is not to say that all edutainment is bad and education cannot be fun. But, we need to be careful to not view learning as a bitter medicine that needs to be sugar-coated. The danger with the edutainment approach is that it can assume that education is unpalatable or inherently unpleasant. In my view, education is vital for our changing world and it should be celebrated and respected for its role in preparing students to face the 21st century.

Dr Suzette Major

The second approach to keeping students’ attention away from the overtly stimulating world outside the classroom is to turn the teacher into a tyrant – checking attendance multiple times throughout the day and penalising those who do not focus fully during a lesson. I find this particularly odd at a tertiary level where students have chosen to come and paid money to attend. The danger with the teacher-as-tyrant approach is that learning is seen as a punishment that students must suffer whether or not they are willing.

Change the content, not teachers

Rather than asking teachers to become performers or tyrants, I would suggest that the classroom content itself is what needs transforming. To consider in what ways our education system needs transforming is to ask what skills we might need in the 21st century. Drawing on the galaxy of powerful thinkers who are contemplating this very question, such as Sir Ken Robinson, Richard Florida, Robert Fisher and Mary Williams, Ross Jackson, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, I would submit that there are three key skills that will serve us well to survive and thrive in our uncertain and changing world: creativity, multi-facetedness and collaboration.

A well-known adage says “as educators, we are preparing students for jobs that don’t exist yet, using technologies that haven’t been invented yet, to solve problems that we don’t even know are problems yet.” To cope with such extraordinary change, we will need to draw deeply on our human capacity for creativity and imagination. How exactly that creativity may manifest, however, is often unknown and less important than the process of creative thinking itself.

At the School of Arts and Design, for example, we teach painting, printmaking, sculpture, photography, design, graphics, fashion, film and music. While the outcomes may be stunning, it is the creative thinking, the conceptual development and underlying process that are the essential skills. It is the student’s ability to resolve a brief, think outside the box, reject the norm and embrace the unknown that will serve them well in the decades ahead.

Because we do not know where we are heading, having a multifaceted approach becomes paramount. It is unlikely that graduates of tomorrow will specialise in one area and focus only in that area for their entire working lives. Indeed, the US Department of Labour recently estimated that “today’s learner will have 10-14 jobs by the age of 38” (Shift Happens).

This is not to suggest that focusing only on one discipline is wrong, but specialisation without any general knowledge is an increasingly limiting and out-dated model. It is no surprise that degrees around the globe are stripping out majors or that education programmes worldwide are being increasingly delivered in a project-based learning manner, which allows students to apply multiple skills to any given brief depending on the demands of that ‘real world’ project.

Finally, as eloquently put by Sir Ken Robinson, “collaboration is the stuff of growth”. Students of tomorrow must learn to work together if our society is to prevent any further fragmentation and disjunction. It is such disconnectedness that has largely led to the problems of today, as clearly pronounced by the “we are the 99%” protest movement.

But working together is largely at odds with how our education system operates. Our teaching and assessment methods are often very individualised, where students are graded individually against each other in a competitive manner. Even worse, students that work together can be accused of cheating rather than collaborating. To truly embrace collaboration is to call for a change so profound that it may be beyond the current system’s capacity.

Looking ahead is part of the role of an educator. Our job is to prepare students for the future, not for the past. When it is so uncertain what the future might be, it can feel daunting to work out what we should do today to educate students for tomorrow. But like our students, educators hold the inherent capacity to imagine. And it is this imagination and ability to think creativity that will ultimately enable us to flourish and triumph through the dynamic, exciting, scary and changing 21st century.

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