What Is a 21st Century Education?

10 June 2016
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Ian Cunningham

First published in ABC Magazine, Spring 2016

Some people have suggested that the only change from Victorian schools to those of today is from black to white - blackboards have changed to whiteboards. We still have classrooms that are not much different from the 19th century with curricula that have progressed little since then and with lessons of standardised times delivered in (increasingly) large institutions. Indeed there is an argument to suggest that the school is possibly the only institution that would be recognisable to a Victorian who might be transported to the current time.

Factories now have robots and offices don't have clerks working in serried ranks. The world of employment has changed enormously. Surveys of employers always produce the same results - school leavers are not good enough at working in modern conditions that demand team work, self discipline and creativity. I attended a meeting in Brighton on education at which there were a number of recent graduates. None had a graduate-level job - half were not in paid work and half were doing low skilled jobs. They were clearly disillusioned with their situations and could see no immediate way out.

A week later I attended a meeting around the 'Fuse Report'. This research-based report showed that the major growth in jobs in Sussex is in the fusion of the creative and the digital sectors. Indeed nationally the creative sector in general is the fastest growing part of the economy. At the meeting a number of company owners and senior managers bemoaned the fact that they could not find people for the work that they had.  One managing director told me that he had 20 employees and that if he could find 20 more he could double his business. He couldn't find one. Others at the meeting commented that the work was often so new that they couldn't find a label to describe jobs let alone write job descriptions for them.

Apple opened its app store on July 10, 2008. A new word entered the language along with a new concept for mobile software. Since then it's reckoned that between 1 and 2 million people worldwide are working on apps. None of these jobs existed before July 2008. And it's clear that the early pioneers of apps would have had to work things out for themselves to create apps. This example could be replicated many times in terms of technological change. People have to be good learners to capitalise on such changes.  So one facet of a 21st century education has to the ability to learn rapidly and well in new circumstances. Qualifications are often irrelevant.

Another feature of the new world of employment is that the greatest growth in work is not in employment of the traditional kind. More people are self-employed and fewer are working in the large old-fashioned companies and public sector organisations. The emphasis in education has often been preparing people for jobs that don't exist any more. One structural change is that mid-level skills are less and less required. Most of the factory and office jobs of the past no longer exist. When I started work there were typing pools and machine minders; that work has completely gone. The trend is either to high skill or low skill work with not much in between.

Alongside the need for new skills are new ways of working. The need for innovation does not just demand personal capabilities; it also demands the capability to work effectively with others. In school if you help others in exams or with projects it's called cheating and you get punished for it. Yet cheating is essential in work - by that I mean helping others with their tasks. Innovation also requires stealing - stealing ideas from others. Innovation is often about bringing together disparate ideas to create new breakthroughs.  In academia the joke is that pinching ideas from one person is called plagiarism and you get punished for it. Pinching ideas from lots of people is called research and you get rewarded for it.

The individualistic orientation of schooling discourages the very qualities that are need in the new world of work. Instead education needs to assist young people to learn how to get on with each other as well as learning new skills. Both are needed.

In our College a key part of the daily work is about engaging with others. We start the day with a meeting of the students and tutors to sort out any collective issues. The meeting is chaired in rotation - it could be chaired by a tutor or a 9 year old (our youngest student). Students learn to run meetings and to negotiate with their colleagues through doing it. This also plays an important part in a meeting each week where students in groups of six meet up to discuss, with a tutor, how their learning is going and what support they need (from tutors or from other students). This leads into students negotiating with each other for the use of resources (including tutors) in the coming week. Each student then creates their own personal timetable. So we address the need to respond to the requirements of each student through students learning to work with each other to get what they want.

Educational organisations also need to recognise that young people learn in many different ways - and the classroom is not the best mode for many young people. In our research we have found 55 different ways that young people can learn - and the classroom is one of the least popular. What is needed is a focus on outcomes, not learning processes. The best example of this is the most important test in our society - the driving test.
The driving test has two important features. Firstly the person has to show that they can actually drive - passing an exam is not enough, they have to go out on a real road and drive correctly. Secondly the state does not care how the person has learned to drive. Some people will learn with family members, through using simulators and reading books. Others will go to a driving school. The learning process used by each learner is specific to them and the state has no interest in what that has been. The only requirement is to pass the test.
We need more of an outcome-based approach in schooling. If one person can learn everything while never attending a class, why should the school care? In our College students use a wide range of learning modes - but never the classroom. Interestingly not all young people want to use computers as a learning mode. Some do but others are happy to use text books and worksheets. Some want a lot of tutor help: others would rather be left alone to learn on their own and just get support when they need it.

As well as students learning new skills and subject knowledge they are learning how to learn for the future. This is the most important learning as those who can't manage their own learning get left behind in modern organisations. In an unpredictable world the ability to learn well is the cornerstone of a fulfilling and happy life. Not just at work but in our families and communities.

Dr Ian Cunningham, Chair of Governors, Self Managed Learning College,

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