Anyone that is involved in education knows about the prominence of 21st-century skills in discussions about the future of learning and that it should form an integral part of any education system which claims to prepare students for their working life. Initially the discussion was only about the 4 C’s (Critical thinking, Creativity, Collaboration and Communication) but these have now been expanded to include Character and Citizenship as well, with Computational skills perhaps waiting in the wings to be added too…
Although these skills certainly have to be part and parcel of any curriculum, there is an interesting trend associated with it: At education conferences and in interactions with teachers, when these skills are discussed, many people will – especially with reference to Critical thinking and Creativity – mention that we should no longer teach students content. The rationale behind this is that it takes away valuable time which could rather be spent on these 21st-century skills, and that it is an unnecessary given that students can simply Google for “facts”. In addition, there is so much new information created every day, the argument goes, that it is impossible to learn everything anyway – so why bother? In addition to that, the argument goes – how much do we actually remember of all the history, geography, science and mathematics that we have learnt during our school years?
Why let a human do what a computer can do better?
At first glance – as is the case with every other learning myth – this seems like a reasonable point of view – after all – why let a human do what a computer can do better? Also, when looked at from a classroom perspective, it does seem like an enticing option – given that the focus on critical thinking and creativity will make learning so much more engaging for students – and probably teachers alike.
Unfortunately it is not quite that simple, because this kind of argument ignores (or is perhaps ignorant) of how we process information and what is required of us in order to be critical, creative and collaborative communicators:
- The extent to which you are able to be a critical thinker is dependent – for a large part – on your existing knowledge and understanding of a field or concept and your ability to access that from your long term memory (we can call this foundational knowledge).
- In addition, the average working memory for humans is about 7 bits of information – which means that we have a limited capacity to juggle “new/unknown/fresh” information. This means that the less we know, the more we need to try to juggle things in our working memory, rather than use it to solve the problem we actually need to solve.
Foundational knowledge is essential
So if we try to prepare our students for the 21st-century by discouraging them to master and learn content – because they can Google it – we are actually doing the exact opposite of what we want to achieve. They will have such a poor foundational knowledge they will simply not be able to become the critical thought leaders and creative geniuses which we want them to be – not because they are incapable, but because we have failed to give them a properly grounded education. Many of us have experienced a situation where we tell a student to Google something, only for them to come back to us and ask for help because they cannot find the correct information (or worse they present the wrong information in an essay because they are unable to judge its validity). Why is this? It is true that this is partly because they are not yet skilled at searching properly, but at least equally so because they simply do not have the required foundational knowledge to do so (including the knowledge and know how to distinguish fact from fiction).
The human brain works and learns in the way that it does
Of course this does not mean that we should bore students to death with lists of facts, and we should definitely use new pedagogies and tools when we teach to ensure that we have students’ attention and that they are agents of their own learning. However, we should not be fooled into thinking that learning is always fun – it simply is not, and it does take effort. Also, we should not be too quick to equate project based education with “learning”. The human brain works and learns in the way that it does – and it actually “does not care” which particular pedagogy a teacher or school prefers. If our teaching does not take into account the limitations of working memory, and the role of prior knowledge, students will remain in the 21st-century but not be equipped for it…
ITSI offers a Professional Development course for educators on the 21st-century student. Visit the page to find out more.