Our current education system was established to create employees from the manufacturing model of the 19th and 20th centuries, but the 21st century requires a rethink of this.
Much of what is taught in our current education system is either not relevant to students’ lives today, or can be googled. Being able to memorise the formula for working out the circumference of a circle has little value for most professions and if required can be googled. Thinking must therefore become the centre of our curriculum – not memorisation of information to be forgotten the day after the test.

Focusing more on the soft skills

Traditionally the ‘soft skills’ have been mostly avoided in schools because they are harder to measure. These soft skills include persistence, flexibility in thinking, the ability to listen with understanding and empathy, metacognition, resilience, creativity, communicating with clarity, self-management, and being open to continual learning.

Tony Ryan, author of The Next Generation, makes a strong case for developing empathy in young people. He argues that when artificial intelligence robots become more commonplace, the need to explore and deepen our empathetic connection with others as well as refine our social capacity and respect for different cultures and beliefs will be paramount to the human experience.

Our education system needs to change because whilst the system still holds an unofficial pass rate of 50 per cent the need for accuracy in the 21st century is much higher than this. What accuracy rate do you want your hairdresser, builder, mechanic, doctor or pilot working on? This new age sees the need for higher precision than that which is generally accepted by our school system.

After travelling to and presenting in schools on five continents, I see a huge trend towards personalised learning and ensuring students are prepared for the future world. Khan Lab School works on the bold premise that students work towards mastery, not test scores. Students stay on the same content until they demonstrate mastery in relevant real world contexts rather than working in three-week content blocks.

Our current NCEA system is a classic example of what Sal Khan calls “Swiss cheese learning.” If a Year 11 student passes with an average of 75 per cent at Level 1 (Merit) we celebrate their success. The challenge is the 25 per cent they don’t know.
Each year the curriculum builds on the knowledge from the previous years. Now a student enters Year 12 with one quarter of the foundational knowledge missing. This missing lack of foundation compounds as the student progresses through the system. Hence our students may experience failure and a loss of self-confidence in their own abilities. There are too many holes in the cheese to continue learning.

Individuality lacking

To pass the current system means being able to hand in assignments and pass exams which show little room for individuality. Furthermore, passing prescribed tests does not guarantee students have practical application in the world or workforce.

There are currently 150 schools in the USA which have negotiated to provide portfolios of evidence to top universities and employers, rather than a GPA: Grade Point Average which does not guarantee the skills required for success later on in life. Project-based learning is becoming more commonplace in schools as it provides a platform for students to demonstrate the knowledge and skills they are learning alongside the future skills.

To create a progressive and future-focused education system I believe it needs to be centred around the life skills required to be a contributing citizen of the world, have a focus on thinking, and practical applications of knowledge and understanding. This will require a rethink of everything we know and understand about schools.
Business consultant Peter Drucker says, “One does not begin with answers. One begins by asking questions.”

Here are some of my questions. Why is school 9am–3pm? Why do we split learning into subjects? What is the role of a teacher? How might the learning journey be personalised? How could the evidence of understanding be shown? In what ways might we show progress of understandings? How might we teach and reinforce the future skills?

Our students today deserve an education that will be an integral part of the potentially challenging lifelong learning journey of living in the 21st century and beyond. We are not there yet! If we are bold enough to do things differently it is possible.


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