TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY SKILLS?

8 September 2017

Educators these days talk much about the pace of change that our young generation contends with.  Sometimes I am rather amused by the “headless chicken” approach of many of these discussions and publications.  It is important to teach our pupils the skills they need to succeed in a fast-changing world, general skills such as flexibility and adaptability as well as practical skills such as competence in digital technologies, STEM or multilingualism.   We do not, however, do our young people any favours by trying to outrun that pace of change, by hysterically jumping on every bandwagon or falling for every latest educational fad. 

To the contrary:  it is my firm belief that nowadays, more than ever before, schools need to be places that give children a firm grounding, both in general foundational knowledge and in ethical values.  Nothing concerns me more than pupils as young as 15 or 16 who already start their own LinkedIn profile, who uncritically follow fads, who strategically ‘like’ or ‘retweet’ posts of influential people and who, for political reasons or networking purposes, toe the party line and become over-compliant mini-adults.

I have always valued pupils who think for themselves, who have respect for, but at the same time a healthy dose of distrust against authority and who have the courage at times to challenge authority and campaign for values they hold dear.  Maybe that has something to do with the fact that I grew up as a teenager in the seventies and eighties, in very political times, and that my generation had to (and felt the need to!) talk to real people to make our opinions known.  We did not have the internet and the cosy opportunity to vent online instead. 

I have read some fascinating studies about the correlation of an increase in virtual campaigning and a decrease in real-life debate and courage.  It is almost as if the opportunity to have a rant online, to sign a virtual Facebook petition and to hide in online anonymity satisfies our inner rebel so much that it has removed the need to bring about real change.   In some of my blogs, especially my reflections on Moral Courage, I have highlighted the potentially disastrous consequences of unquestioning obedience and compliance.  It is sad to see it in adults who should model civil courage for their pupils.  But what hope do we have if it already starts in children who should have the idealism and the courage to want to change the world?  Maybe the most important 21st century skill to teach our pupils ought to be the skill to think for themselves and to communicate their opinions clearly, courteously and courageously.

I have often talked about these and similar topics with like-minded friends, and I am always heartened to find soul mates who share my scepticism (and it is informed and conscious scepticism rather than anachronistic conservatism) about the current trends in education:  the fads, the shallowness, the jargon.  Those who do try to swim against the stream can easily end up isolated and disheartened, and some committed and caring educators have been pushed out of a system that does not seem to allow any longer for individuality and diversity of approaches to education.

It is frustrating to know that those who write heartfelt applications for positions at schools are often not even short-listed because they have not used any of the buzzwords:  they have failed calling themselves ‘collaborative team players’ who are ‘results-driven’, who believe in ‘blue-sky-thinking’ or who ‘want to hit the ground running’ by implementing a ‘framework for 21st century skills’.  It is sad that nowadays, if you apply for a position in pastoral care, talking in a human voice about your real-life experiences in a wide range of challenging pastoral care scenarios is not nearly valued as much as subscribing to a particular ‘wellbeing framework’ and sprouting knowledge that you have acquired from books or LinkedIn articles.

It is strangulating that these days you are expected to use a ‘shared language’ so that pupils hear ‘consistent messages’.  Really?  I had a fascinating variety of teachers as a child, and a fascinating variety of colleagues in my own career in education.  Some were good teachers, some less so, some were fantastic teachers.  Many of the greatest would not pass an inspection these days – on the grounds of using their own authentic language rather than some ‘shared language’, on the grounds of forgetting to write the ‘teaching objective’ on the board at the start of the lesson, on the grounds of insufficient differentiation, on the grounds of not using technology in their lesson, and the list goes on.  There seems little room for mavericks these days – and aren’t they the teachers we all remember?

Differentiation is important, and to many of its objectives I whole-heartedly subscribe.  But every now and then, when I look back to my own childhood, I wonder whether I have really ‘missed out’ by not benefitting from differentiated approaches to education.  At my primary school, when I was first to finish a class assignment, my teacher would silently walk up to me and whisper in my ear that she could do with my assistance and that some of my classmates might benefit from my help. 

And so I walked round the class with her, assisting those who worked more slowly than I did, feeling rather proud to be the ‘teacher’s aide’ at the tender age of 7 or 8 and learning patience in the process.  My teacher told me that I had to be understanding of those who were not as fast as I was, and grateful that learning came so easily to me, and so I developed a sense of humility as well.  Conversely, these days it happens that a child who finishes first impatiently snaps her fingers and indicates to her teacher that she is bored and that she now wants and expects her extension work for the gifted and talented.  It can easily lead to a sense of entitlement.

Developing modern teaching strategies is a good thing, but it is important that we still allow for the human voice, for a diversity of approach, for individual authenticity, for the courage to be different and for some good old-fashioned virtues.

© 2013 by Astrid Seele