“The illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”
This was the warning from American writer and futurist Alvin Toffler in his 1991 book Powershift: Knowledge, wealth and power at the edge of the twenty-first century. Toffler was imagining a possible future from the early 1990s.
It would seem that more recent predictive research would confirm his hunch. The Foundation for Young Australian (FYA) released a report in 2017 which predicted school aged children would likely hold 17 jobs and 5 different careers through their working life. Key ideas from this report state that that our young people will need to be “Smart Learners”, “Smart Thinkers” and “Smart Doers” in this ever-changing world.
This means the emphasis must shift from considering our students as containers whose heads are to be filled with skills and content, to one where students are taught to understand the learning process. Our students need to engage in the experiences, understanding not just why they are studying a particular topic but also understanding the purpose of learning as part of a bigger picture of individual development, rather than just getting good enough results to move onto the ‘next stage of life’.
This necessary shift in learning led me to reflect on my own schooling. One teacher in particular stands out in my memory. Mr Taylor was my History teacher every year from Year 9 to Year 12. He was a very traditional teacher. While I learnt under Mr Taylor through the first half of the 80s, Mr Taylor had been teaching in the same school since 1946. Some of the history we were learning actually happened while he held that same teaching position!
At that time, while we knew what a computer looked like, next to no one had one at home. We didn’t even have overhead projectors in the classroom, let alone a data projector. The Internet was a research project and the world wide web didn’t exist. It was literally ‘chalk and talk’.
While it sounds stone aged, we did have pens, and boy did we use them! Mr Taylor would open his exercise book at the spot where we were in the last lesson and he would dictate the course notes and we would dutifully copy them in to our exercise books. He had an exercise book for each topic. I couldn’t say for sure, but I think once written, they were never updated once compiled.
While it sounds terrible, and I certainly didn’t appreciate this in Year 9, over the years Mr Taylor instilled in me a deep love for history. This was a matter of the transference of his passion for his subject to his students. It was only my dismal essay writing skills and the despair of my English teacher that convinced me I was destined to be a teacher of Science and not of History.
Mr Taylor taught in a manner that was appropriate for the time, when the teacher’s job was content delivery and the student’s responsibility was to memorise this and reproduce this work in an exam. At this time the HSC examination was the only assessment task of consequence in Year 12 and it tested two years of content.
So much has changed over the past 30 years, though it’s not just the technology used in the classroom. It is how society has changed and the expectations of schools too. Recollection of content and skills is still important, but its singular importance is lessening. What is increasing is the valuable experience of learning how to learn.
When our students engage in building understanding of the learning process, they are becoming equipped for the world Toffler imagined and the FYA predicts. They are moving on from just being ‘knowers’ to becoming ‘thinkers’.
This is a big topic and so next fortnight I want to pick up again on this learning theme and discuss William Carey’s ‘Design for Learning’ framework and its role in helping clarify the learning process for our students.
I will finish with a quote from a recent opinion piece by Eddie Woo, Sydney Mathematics teacher and winner of multiple awards in recognition of his work in education.
“So what’s the point? Why bother with mathematics? The answer is because almost none of the subjects that we learn at school are learnt for their direct practical value. Instead, they’re learnt because of the way they sharpen and expand our capacity for thought.”