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It's Not What You Know, It's How You Learn

This post is by Patrick Griffin.

In Australia, there has been an ongoing debate about the merits of teaching 21st century skills, such as critical and creative thinking, ethical behaviors, personal and social skills, and intercultural understanding. Critics argue that teaching these skills comes at the expense of content like English, mathematics, and history. They say that a focus on generic skills and content curriculum is confusing for teachers, that it encourages a "tick the box" approach to teaching, and that 21st century skills are simply educational "fads" that suck precious teaching time.

However, pitching the curriculum in terms of "traditional content" versus "generic skills" creates a false choice. They are not mutually exclusive; and providing both does not mean teachers need to change their disciplines or for schools to reorganize their timetables. There is a need, however, to broaden our focus and embed these skills in traditional discipline areas.

Traditional disciplines remain important; however, we no longer need an education system that helps students simply remember facts and figures. We need students to be critical consumers of information.

Technology has changed the way we live, the way we work, what we do for a living, how we live, and even how we think. Just look around any home, any office, any workplace. Technology is driving trucks, building cars, operating washing machines, delivering the news, helping us access information about almost anything through the internet. But some seem blissfully unaware of this change; how it shapes the education students (and the rest of society) need and what it means for preparing young people for life after school.

We can't ignore the effect that technology has had on every aspect of our social, industrial, educational, personal, and economic lives. Disciplines are important but, they are no longer the whole story. We need new skills to make sense of what we learn; evaluate and critically appraise both the information we are given and its source. As consumers of information via technology we need to be able to find out how to do things without direct instruction, to find an answer to a question using a tablet computer or other mobile device.

As information and knowledge producers we need to know how to create information (wikis, blogs, Facebook, YouTube, etc.) and how to organize that information to help others understand and share (or judge) our views. These new media have already demonstrated their power at a political level with the Arab spring and huge changes in political campaigning.

In education, we are learning how to harness technology to develop the collective skills of groups. As industry moves more to team based workplaces these collaborative skills become even more important and schools and curriculum developers can't afford to let them pass us by. We have to find ways that schools can help develop the social and intellectual capital of students working in collaborative groups.

Technology has taken us further than we might be aware. Technology has lead us to changes in our world that before they happened, weren't anticipated, and once they happening, weren't comprehended. Such can be the price of a content restricted curriculum. If we don't allow for the explicit inclusion of skills and prepare students properly to live and work in a new technologically driven world, then their lack of education may hurt them and the rest of us.


Patrick Griffin is the chair of education, the director of the Assessment Research Centre, executive director of the Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills Project, and the associate dean, all at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne, in Australia.
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