Learning in the 21st Century

November 21, 2012

It’s been a long time since I wrote a post inspired by a TED Talk and each time I do I make a mental note to do this more often. So here goes. This time around I am going to cover a bunch of talks on the subject of learning and education. There is some profound thinking done on these topics and here I would like to share some lessons that I believe call for a paradigm shift in how we approach learning in the 21st century.

The digital revolution has impacted many areas – from publishing to media to entertainment and more. One other area that does not quite make it to this list is the area of education. Why? For one the implications of the digital revolution on education are not so obvious. Digital pretty much forced itself upon any industry which could be digitized. With the inherent speed, cost savings and convenience of digital alternatives analogue players had no choice but to realign themselves or risk being marginalised into non-existence. The same cannot be said for education. Unless there is a conscious effort to adapt this paradigm for the betterment of learning change will not occur naturally. There is good news though! Thanks to some of these thinkers the implications of not changing are being brought to the forefront challenging us to re-think our way of approaching learning and education!

Lesson #1 – Experiential not Informational

Diana Laufenberg in her talk presented a strong case of how the teacher’s role is becoming irrelevant if they are not going to gear themselves to 21st century challenges. In a world of information scarcity the teacher was the key portal of knowledge, through them information was disseminated to the students. The paradigm of information has been transformed. We no longer need to depend on one source for our knowledge and information. With internet and device ubiquity a wealth of information is at our fingertips. The need to hold information in our heads is becoming increasingly irrelevant for real world success. Although this point is highly debatable I for one am choosing the uncomfortable side of device and network dependency for knowledge.

So what are teachers to do in a scenario like this? They need to evolve their role from information based learning to experiential learning. The scenario assumes equal access to knowledge by all and that would be the case for an overwhelming majority. Therefore, teachers need to build on this paradigm. Kids today will get to the information one way or the other. The challenge now is to structure learning in a way that inspires them to use this information and apply it to solve problems. This inherently also implies that standardized testing would no longer be applicable. Genuine problem solving means discovering a new way of doing things and therefore falls in a subjective realm that is hard to measure through a standard process. More importantly as anyone in the creative field can vouch, room needs to be given to try and fail, only then can a breakthrough be achieved. This is another paradigm that needs to be accepted. In a world of experiential learning failure has to be accepted as a norm to enable true innovation.

Lesson #2 – Conceptual not Computational

Conrad Wolfram also spoke on similar lines. Being a mathematician his point of view focused on the same point as above but from a math perspective. His point of view challenges our understanding of math to begin with. Mathematics is not about calculating. The role of math is far greater than what is taught in schools. The entire curriculum is focused on teaching computational skills and measuring this ability. Math is about solving real world problems. The computation is something machines can do far better and quicker than humans so why waste their time teaching them this skill. Apparently we have spent 106 average lifetimes teaching computation. That’s a lot of learning for something that has no real world implication.

In the real world computation is done using technology. The skill that needs to taught instead is the ability to conceptualize a problem. Most of the times people don’t get the question right and therefore ending up getting the wrong answers. Now with all the calculating skill in the world if the problem was not framed correctly the effort is wasted. And that is the point. Identify the problem, turn a real world problem into a math problem, then solve it using computers and finally take the solution back to the real world. That is what the world needs.

Lesson #3 – Divergent not Standardized

Ken Robinson in his very animated TED Talk tackled learning from an economic perspective using the eras and how the needs of the era defined how education was imparted. The education needs of the industrial area were driven by the factory mindset. Standardized production of students produced in batches ranking them in an intellectual hierarchy. The smartest became the drivers, the white collar workers and the lowest rung became the blue collar working class. This system worked because the social structure that this kind of education created is what the industrial age demanded.

The economic paradigm has changed. The needs of the 21st century call for a system rethink. The economic challenges demand a different skill set. This is the aesthetic age where sensory experiences and creativity hold economic value. With all the innovations in technology and media, value creation in this era requires creativity and divergent thinking. The ability to think creatively, to believe and come up with multiple answers to a problem, to break away from this mindset of “only one right answer”.

Unfortunately our current education system is designed to make us think in the just the opposite direction – to think unilaterally, to think standardised, to think that there is only one right answer to a problem and that they have to learn it to pass the test. In the same way working together in a system like this would be cheating. In the real world of today the concept of working together takes a whole new meaning. It is referred to as “collaboration” which is crucial to creativity and growth and that is something completely absent as a way of learning.

To conclude, looking at these viewpoints it is obvious that a lot needs to change in the education and learning sector to gear us up for the coming years. We need to move from being informational, computational and standardized to being experiential, conceptual and divergent in the way we learn and teach! And this needs to happen NOW!

What do you think? Feel free share to your point of view in the comments below.

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