What should our kids know and be able to do?

The art of reinvention will be the most critical skill of this century.

Yuval Noah Harari

This is a question that my current district is wrestling with (along with everyone else?). I wrote an article that appear in Choice Literacy’s newsletter today that briefly addressed this topic.

David Perkins describes a curriculum that is worth learning for today’s students as “lifeworthy”. Summarizing his book Future Wise for this Educational Leadership article, he breaks down lifeworthy learning into six descriptors.

  • Beyond content to 21st century skills and competencies.
  • Beyond local to global perspectives, problems, and studies.
  • Beyond topics to content as material for thinking and action.
  • Beyond the traditional disciplines to renewed and extended versions of the disciplines.
  • Beyond the traditional disciplines to renewed and extended versions of the disciplines.
  • Beyond academic engagement to personal choice, significance, commitment, and passion.

Yet Perkins holds short of making specific recommendations for what students should know and able to do. “I don’t think there is a universal answer for every school and society in today’s diverse world.” Fair enough.

Yuval Noah Harari takes the torch from Perkins and does offer specificities regarding what kids need to learn to succeed in the near and distant future. In his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Harari offers insights on what we might expect and what we as educators can do about it. He starts by delivering a hard pill to swallow for educators.

Much of what kids learn today will likely be irrelevant by 2050.

Harari is referring to many of the subject-specific topics and ideas about our world. Perkins alludes to this in his lifeworthy criteria, listing “competencies”, “perspectives”, and describing content as merely “material for thinking and action”. Harari agrees, pushing the reader to consider the larger, more intangible outcomes that we might expect of our students to acquire.

The last thing a teacher needs to give her pupils is more information. They already have far too much of it. Instead, people need the ability to make sense of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is unimportant, and, above all, to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world.

This shift from a “sit-and-get” approach to education to building knowledge and skills applicable to many areas is not new. The concept of constructivism (Piaget) has been around for decades. Maybe what is new is this sense of urgency we now feel in an age of complexity and not being able to predict even the near future. Harari himself concedes this reality.

Nobody can predict the specific changes we will witness in the future. Any particular scenario is likely to be far from the truth. If somebody describes the world of the mid-21st century to you and it sounds like science fiction, it is probably false. But then again, if somebody describes the world of the mid-21st century to you and it doesn’t sound like science fiction, it is certainly false. We cannot be sure of the specifics; change itself is the only certainty.

So if we had to focus on one thing for preparing our students for an unknown future, what might it be? For my money, I want to help kids develop a strong sense of personal identity within the context of a big world that has as many perspectives as it does communities and individuals.

For example, can students describe their beliefs and values and be able to revisit them over time in light of new information and different points of view? All while maintaining a strong sense of self? Being able to change one’s mind while maintaining our identify seems like a prerequisite skill for living and succeeding in this world.

To keep up with the world of 2050, you will need to do more than merely invest new ideas and products, but above all, reinvent yourself again and again.

Yuval Noah Harari

Final question: how can we foster this ability with our students? I believe it starts with ourselves. We need to model what it means to be a lifelong learner. For instance, students should see and hear us hold two different points of view at the same time and not succumb to bias or our emotions. This invites literacy and many other subjects areas to work together, an interdependence of ideas that our current curriculums have yet to address.

Six Credits Shy

As soon as I sat down for the session at an administrator conference, I knew I was going to be disappointed. The PowerPoint was all words and no visuals. The presenter, although a knowledgeable educator, informed everyone that he was going to “talk to us” about his experiences. There was no website or handouts in which to access the information being presented, either at that time or in the future. Within five minutes, I had left the session. The only thing I found out was the wireless in that room was pretty spotty.

I bring this up because I am undecided about going back to graduate school. I have been six credits shy of my Director of Instruction license for over a year now. There is nothing holding me back, except the concern that I will have the same experience as I did at the conference. Another textbook published by Pearson to read, providing a general overview of everything. A prescribed schedule that is not conducive with my personal and professional calendar. Slideshow upon slideshow to sit through, something that I could easily read online prior to the class on my own time. I think I can empathize a little with students in today’s world. Too many of them are 21st century learners still stuck in a 20th century learning environment.

Since becoming a connected educator last October, I feel like I have become spoiled. I can direct my own learning based on my interests and my current needs. If I have a question, I don’t have to wait until the next class to try and get it answered. Information can be accessed at a moment’s notice in resources that take a specific topic to a deeper understanding. This way of learning is in stark contrast to digging around in a textbook that is a mile wide and an inch deep. Yes, there will be times where I need to buckle down and read what is handed to me. At the same time, I can enhance these assignments by tapping into my personal learning network.

For your students lucky enough to have been immersed in instruction that is problem- and interest-based, that allows for direction of one’s own learning using the best tools available, how would they react if you told them tomorrow that you were going back to lecturing and the one-size-fits-all method of teaching?  It is not that I believe I have little to learn within the traditional method anymore. The university I attended had great professors who brought a wealth of experience to discussions. I just feel like the genie has been let out of the bottle and it is not going back in, even if I wanted it to.