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Educating for the Future

Are the goals of education timeless? Or do they depend on the times we live in?

Certainly, some of the most important goals are timeless in a sense - attributes such as self-awareness, self-regulation, interdependent behaviour, and skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic. But there are many goals which are closely tied to the time and context – based on skill expectations from the workforce, the pace and footprint of technology evolution, levels of prosperity and peace, and the current state of human knowledge.

In 1780, John Adams, one of the founding fathers of the United States said, “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” The prosperity the US has enjoyed in the last 100 years or so did indeed ensure that thousands of young students had the opportunity to study the ‘finer and subtler’ subjects. Students in less prosperous societies like India and China were, of course, focused on Science and Engineering - in search of the jobs that would make or break them.

The wheel has turned full circle now, with the US embracing the ‘STEM’ mantra (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), as it has been losing its dominance in the last couple of decades. The implication of economics and jobs on what we want to be educated in, is inescapable.

The World Around Us is Changing, Fast

Technology has also been a game-changer, taking away many jobs and simultaneously creating new jobs we had never dreamed of. ATMs certainly (dramatically) reduced the number of tellers needed in a branch, but also made it cheaper to establish more branches. Further, technology also enabled a whole bevy of new services in retail banking offered by ‘relationship managers’ who didn’t exist previously. The work of researcher David Autor, Professor of Economics at MIT, shows that technology has not reduced overall employment. However jobs at the bottom of the skill band have grown (with a decrease in wages), jobs in the middle of the skill band have reduced in number and the growth in high skill jobs has also slowed down. Thus far, AI has not impacted high-skill jobs much, but with advancements in this area, this could very well change in the next couple of decades. These trends have huge implications for human society and, coupled with the issues of consumption and environmental degradation, require a new vision of society and development, which are beyond the scope of this column. What we will look at here though is what implications these trends have for educators and students.

21st Century Skills, including Critical Thinking

The much-touted panacea for this situation has been to focus on ‘21st century skills’ and ‘learning to learn’. There is merit to this argument – certainly it is not necessary to memorize facts in a world where they are a swipe away, and the need for critical thinking and complex problem solving is stronger than ever before. However this approach has led to focusing on ‘general critical thinking skills’ – the assumption has been that if one is able to analyze, evaluate and interpret information in one context, he will be able to do so in other contexts as well. Research shows though that such ‘transfer’ of learning from one context to another does not happen easily. Take the case of air-traffic controllers for example – their work involves a high ability for ‘situational awareness’; they need to keep large amounts of information in their mind in high-pressure situations that require high stakes decisions. We would probably expect them to perform similarly ‘keeping track of a number of things at once’ in other situations requiring such awareness. However, in an experiment with air-traffic controllers who were given a set of generic memory-based tasks with shapes and colours, the air-traffic controllers did no better than anyone else. Their exceptional cognitive abilities did not transfer beyond the domain of air-traffic control.

Importance of Context for Critical Thinking

Cognitive Scientist, Daniel Willingham has spoken much about this phenomenon and emphasizes the importance of learning ‘content’ to develop critical thinking skills. This is not a call back to rote learning of facts; rather what is being emphasized is that critical thinking becomes truly possible only when a context is understood, richly – when details, nuances and connections are appreciated. As Willingham says, “Thought processes are intertwined with what is being thought about. If you remind a student to ‘look at an issue from multiple perspectives’ often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives … critical thinking (as well as scientific thinking and other domain-based thinking) is not a skill. There is not a set of critical thinking skills that can be acquired and deployed regardless of context”.

Transdisciplinary Imagination for solving Wicked Problems

Thus developing ‘disciplinary’ or domain-based thinking is an important imperative. Further, many of the challenges facing humanity today are in the nature of ‘Wicked Problems’- problems that do not have a ‘technical answer’ from one domain. Mitigating the effects of climate change or the challenges AI poses to jobs, are some examples of such problems. The nature of wicked problems requires the collaboration of people from different disciplines who can bring to bear a ‘transdisciplinary imagination’ to addressing them. But transdisciplinary collaboration is possible only if disciplinary actors have an awareness of the limits of their own discipline and some appreciation of other disciplines.

What Can (and Must) We Do?

How can such an awareness and appreciation be built? It seems evident that one needs to start young with school-going learners. But how can we expect schools to provide the necessary environment given the rate at which knowledge is being created (many of the important discoveries in neuroscience have happened in the last couple of decades for instance), and the silos in which knowledge exists currently? This requires top-down curricular reform (the Next Generation Science Standards in the US are a good example of this) as well as an on-the-field collaboration of disciplinary practitioners and researchers with teachers in schools and colleges.

While this is a challenging task, our baby steps in this direction show that huge surges of enthusiasm and energy are unleashed when students are provided the right environment. When expert mentors and young students engage in working on authentic problems, learning both disciplinary methods as well as collaborating with other disciplines, learning is fun and relevant and is not ‘studying’ any more.