David Didau: what every teacher needs to know about 21st century learning

  • David Didau: what every teacher needs to know about 21st century learning

You’ve seen Shift Happens, right? Several years back this ‘inspirational’ video was on heavy rotation in school INSETs up and down the land. Although it’s fallen from favour more recently, there’s still an updated 2015 version doing the rounds (look it up on You Tube if you can be bothered). Among its many outlandish propositions we’re told that “the top ten in-demand jobs in 2010 did not exist in 2004” and that “we are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist using technologies which haven’t been invented in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet”. There may be a kernel of truth to such a claim but it’s slightly undermined by the fact that the top ten ‘in-demand’ jobs in 2010 included, according to careercast.com: actuary (at number 1), biologist, historian, mathematician, paralegal assistant, statistician, accountant and dental hygienist. All of which were – unsurprisingly – equally in demand in 2004.

I get the point: the future is uncertain, unknowable and ‘exponential’, so obviously we should, er… prepare for it. Right. But how exactly? Well, perhaps we should stop delivering rapidly outdated facts and instead teach students the skills they will need to thrive in the 21st century. And what are these futuristic skills? Typically they are considered to include critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration and creativity. Wonderful things, all of them – but attempting to substitute them wholesale for a more traditional school curriculum comes with problems.

Problem 1

Are these really ‘21st century’ skills? Or in fact, hasn’t this stuff always been pretty important? And if it was important for Socrates to think critically, Julius Caesar to solve problems, Shakespeare to communicate, Leonardo da Vinci to be creative and the builders of the Great Wall of China to collaborate – how on earth did they achieve what they did without a specific, 21st century learning curriculum? The point is, these skills are innate human characteristics. We all, to a greater or lesser degree, use them all the time. How could we not? Of course we can encourage children to be more creative, critical and collaborative, but can we actually teach these things as subjects in their own right?

Problem 2

How, exactly, do you teach someone to communicate or solve problems in more sophisticated ways? What is it we want students to communicate? What sorts of things do we want them to create? What do we want to collaborate on? The problem with attempting to teach a generic skill like critical thinking is that you have to have something to think critically about; if you know nothing about quantum physics no amount of training in critical thinking is going to help you come up with much on the subject that is very profound. Likewise, to be truly creative we need to know a lot about the form or discipline we’re trying to be creative in. Skills divorced from a body of knowledge are bland to the point of meaninglessness.

Problem 3

Is teaching facts really such a bad thing? Of course it’s true that we’re discovering new information at an exponential rate and that no one can ever learn anything but the tiniest fraction of what is known. Apparently, when Newton formulated the laws of force and invented calculus he knew everything that was currently known about science. This is no longer possible; as our collective knowledge grows our individual ignorance seems to expand. It might be the case, then, that the amount of new information is doubling every two years – but is it really true that half of what students studying a four-year technical degree learn in their first will be out-dated by their third year, as the makers of Shift Happens assert?

Maybe those studying highly specialised areas of computer science will find the programming languages they learn are quickly superseded; but that doesn’t make the practice and discipline of learning them in the first place totally useless. And in most other fields of human endeavour – medicine, engineering, law, teaching – new discoveries and practices build upon a settled body of knowledge. Depriving students of this foundation is in no one’s interest and will do nothing to prepare young people for an uncertain future. And to those who would claim we can always ‘just look it up’ if only we teach students how to use the internet, I’d say knowing you can look something up is a very poor substitute for actually knowing it. Knowledge is only knowledge if it lives and breathes inside us.

Whilst I’m sure no one sensible seriously objects to teaching subject knowledge, we are still easily seduced by the bright lights and glamour of the new (even when it’s not really ‘new’ at all, just packaged and lauded as such). In our enthusiasm for teaching collaboration, might we be missing the value and necessity of being able to do things individually? In our rush to teach creativity, might we be so busy thinking outside the box that we forget to look inside it? By focusing on generic skills we can easily miss the substance; we take for granted how much we as teachers know – we miss that we can only make use of the vast store of information at our fingertips because we know enough to make sense of it. We can get so excited about the future that we run the risk of neglecting the past.

About the author

David Didau is based at Swindon Academy as an in-house consultant. He blogs at www.learningspy.co.uk and is the author of several books including What If Everything you Know About Education Is Wrong? (Crown House)