Meeting 21st Century Needs in Education

views updated

Meeting 21st Century Needs in Education

Problems and Intelligences
Reflecting on Our Educational Practices
Reflecting on Changes around Us
Global and National Agendas for Educational Reform
Learning in the Knowledge-based Economy
A Model for Curriculum Shift

Problems and Intelligences

Education in this 21st century is about developing intelligences.

A story was told about a prospective university student deciding which course to take. The student asked a college student adviser to recommend a course of study that would ensure “a job with a future”. The adviser told the student: “All jobs have no future; just study what you think you will enjoy.” Indeed, jobs have no future; only people have future—people with the intelligences to craft their careers and future by relentless pursuit and creative learning.

Professor Howard Gardner of Harvard University, one of the foremost psychologists of our times, described intelligence as the ability to solve problems in one's particular context and culture. Noted for his theory of multiple intelligences, Gardner (1983) argued for the notion of intelligence as a multiple reality and identified several distinct ways of learning and knowing reality that he described as intelligences. The seven commonly cited intelligences are verbal, logical—mathematical, visual—spatial, bodily—kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal intelligences. Nothing manifests the need for these multiple intelligences more than the challenge of dealing with real-world problems. Many educators support the need to develop multiple intelligences, but few realize that one of the best ways to draw forth these intelligences is to make use of problem scenarios.

Developing intelligence is about learning to solve problems. Problem solving in real-world contexts involves multiple ways of knowing and learning .

Intelligence in the real world involves not only learning how to do things and actually doing them, but also the ability to deal with novelty as well as the capacity to adapt, select and shape our interactions with the environment (Sternberg, 1985, 1986, 1990). The importance of understanding the many components and dimensions of intelligence and developing intelligence has been repeatedly emphasized by Robert Sternberg, IBM Professor at Yale University. It is therefore not surprising that Sternberg is also one of the strongest proponents for changes in the current educational practices.

In Singapore, a S$10 million fund was established in 1999 under the auspices of the Prime Minister's Office to provide “venture capital” for innovative and enterprising projects (the funding has since expanded). Known as the Enterprise Challenge, the goal then was to fund innovations that would create new value or significant improvement in public services in Singapore. It was a modest initiative to highlight new mindsets needed to meet the challenges of the knowledge economy. One of the first to win the award, in 2000, was an educational development project on problem-based learning, of which I was a co-pioneer (Tan, 2002d). When making our case for the award before the panel, I was quizzed on why such an educational innovation was important. One of my arguments was that it was not just about extending the spectrum of educational methodologies, but our innovation was addressing a change in paradigm—the way we look at knowledge and the way people should relook at learning given the accessibility of knowledge and the information explosion. Singapore had already invested heavily in creating one of the best information technology (IT) hubs and becoming one of the most wired cities in the world. Optimizing the use of the IT infrastructure, however, involves more than using e-mail and retrieving information.

Problem-based learning (PBL) is about harnessing the kinds of intelligences needed in confronting real-world challenges: the ability to deal with novelty and complexity (Tan, 2000c). This book is about the why, what and how of PBL.

Education in the 21st century is about dealing with new real-world problems. PBL approaches involve harnessing intelligences from within individuals, from groups of people and from the environment to solve problems that are meaningful, relevant and contextualized .

Reflecting on Our Educational Practices

Since PBL always begins with a problem, we should perhaps begin likewise. Consider the following problem:

In our current educational practices, are we developing students with the necessary intelligences and capabilities for the 21st century? What are the challenges facing your current education system?

You may like to jot down some of your reflections before you continue reading.

In many of my presentations, lectures and workshops, I often highlight that educators today need to ask not only the “how” questions but also the “why”. I would like to suggest that educators increasingly think in terms of the 3Ps:

  • Paradigms (What are our worldviews?)
  • Philosophy (What are our beliefs?)
  • Practicality (What do we do?)

Our worldview must be both telescopic and helicopter in nature. By telescopic I mean understanding the past (where we came from and how we arrived at the present) and seeing into the future (intelligent extrapolation). We also need a helicopter view of things: rising above micro and fragmentary issues and having a big picture of things. We need the appropriate paradigms with the right worldviews and the right assumptions. Kuhn (1962) was probably the first to use the term paradigm through his work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He was alluding to the existence of a conflict of worldviews where there was a need to shift our underlying assumptions about things.

As educators, we operate with many assumptions. For example:

  • What are our assumptions about knowledge and how it should be best transmitted?
  • How do we look at knowledge and information today?
  • We have many assumptions about our role as teachers. Do teachers see themselves primarily as subject teachers (content disseminators) or more?
  • How do teachers view their interaction with the knowledge milieu?
  • We have our assumptions about how students learn. What are our assumptions about student participation?
  • Do we see students as merely knowledge recipients?
  • What are our assumptions about empowering others to acquire knowledge?
  • What are our assumptions about how we should prepare our students for the future?

Both the end in mind (the desired outcomes) and the journey are important. We need to know the kinds of outcomes that we want in terms of competencies and intelligences needed to function in the 21st century.

Reflecting on Changes around Us

On a trip to Silicon Valley in California with a team of educators, we visited the headquarters of Oracle Corporation at Redwood Shores. An Oracle executive remarked confidently: “The Internet is great—but we create the software that powers the Internet.” Oracle is of course well known worldwide for its Web-based databases, tools and applications. In Singapore, we are often proud of the fact that we have invested much time and effort in planning for many aspects of life, including education. It dawned on me, however, that education is not just about preparing students for the future. An aphorism in Silicon Valley is that “we don't predict the future; we invent it”.

What kind of educational paradigm do we need so that our students will be equipped not just to cope with the future but also to power or even invent it?

Consider the following world trends and think in terms of how they might impact on our preparation of students for the future?

  • Worldwide economic competitiveness
  • Changes in the economic and financial scenes
  • New political landscapes
  • Changes in the social scene
  • Changes in industrial demands
  • Changes in business and services
  • New patterns of consumer behaviour
  • Globalization
  • IT trends
  • Proliferation of innovations
  • Changes in workplace demands
  • Changing expectations of employers

We live in a new millennium characterized by unprecedented breakthroughs in knowledge and technology. To cope with the changes in many aspects of life, we need to prepare students with a different set of intelligences to function effectively in a new world. Traditional notions of the transmission of knowledge, skills and attitudes seem inadequate to address this need. There is an urgent need for educators to recognize the implications of these dynamic changes.

Education is not just about preparing people for the future; it is also about inventing our future .

Global and National Agendas for Educational Reform

Most leaders and policy makers know that for a nation to succeed we need to encourage members of the society to achieve their educational potentials. The nature of education and its curricula has implications not only for the quality of life but also for the creation of national wealth (Tan, 1996, 1999). Many nations grapple with their national educational agendas to align curriculum practices with the need for national and global survival from social, economic and political perspectives.

In Asia, the need to refine education systems to foster creative thinking, entrepreneurial spirit and lifelong learning has been repeatedly articulated. The daily news is flooded with talk about the knowledge-based economy (KBE), the rapid proliferation of IT, information accessibility, new industrial and business challenges, and changing political and social landscapes. For example, the Straits Times on 12 November 2002 carried the headline: “Panel on workers wants school reforms”. The article noted a high-level panel advocating reforming the education system, starting at the secondary school level, in order to propel the Singapore economy in the future.

Faced with the choice of old and new, educators have a tendency to cling to the old. Some of us would often try to prove at the end of the day that we were right not to jump onto the bandwagon of unproven methods and paradigms. For some educators, change merely implies adding more new things without discarding the old.

Perhaps some of these behaviours are reinforced by previous experiences. The initial advent of computers, for example, led to the introduction of computer-aided instruction and computer-based learning, but these had little impact on the overall educational systems and processes. They were just advancement of educational technologies and, like educational television and video, merely broadened the repertoire of delivery modes and the range of instructional technologies. Their adoption was not a serious concern as their impact, when compared with traditional methods of classroom teaching, was not significant. These earlier waves did not have quantum-leap implications and did not call for drastic revamp of education.

Changes today are, however, of a different nature altogether. The Internet era has implications far beyond the realm of instructional technology. Information access and retrieval is at the click of a mouse. There is a serious need to relook at our assumptions of knowledge acquisition and participation in learning. The role of teachers as authority in specific fields of knowledge has been eroded. The dissemination of knowledge may no longer be of primary importance at some stages of education as the World Wide Web provides ready information anytime anywhere. The role of teachers will have to change dramatically if it is to remain relevant to a new generation of students. In fact, the Internet revolution calls for a revamp in curriculum content, delivery and assessment.

How should education address the issues of knowledge management and prepare our students for this knowledge era?

There are of course many things that educators are doing right, and we do not want to throw out the baby with the bath water. In Asia, schools are quite good at getting students to learn a mammoth amount of information and problem-solving routines through memorization and imitation. Education, however, needs to address issues not only of doing things right but of doing the right things right.

Figure 1.1 illustrates the shift needed to address change today. From “doing things right”, one needs to move on to learning to do the “right things right”. There is a need for creative destruction and innovation—discarding things that are efficient but are no longer effective in a new environment. In the 1970s when working as a military reporter, I was greatly impressed with the press typists. These ladies had great mastery and dexterity with their typewriters and their work was almost always flawless. They had to type on three sheets of a typing paper with carbon copies. They were so superb both in speed and accuracy that they hardly had to make corrections, unless my written draft was wrong or illegible. They were people who did things right. But what has happened to their highly efficient work? They may have had done everything right, but what they did then is now an obsolete process. The right thing for them to do now is of course to use the computer. The advent of the computer enhances productivity in writing and publishing immensely. Possessing word processing skills

is, however, still not good enough. The typist's role is obsolete and typists need to continually learn new software and creatively use these new capabilities to do multiple functions as administrative support if they want to be employable. Similarly, educators today need to assume new roles, such as being designers of the learning environment.

The Committee on Singapore Competitiveness observed that over the last three decades Singapore has had a successful education system that supported a production-based economy (Ministry of Trade and Industry, 1998). However, to “improve the longer-term competitiveness of Singapore, we should refine our education system to help foster creative thinking and entrepreneurial spirit among the young” (p. 86). It recommended that three major components of the education system should be addressed:

Educators today are not just disseminators of information or even facilitators. Learning has to extend beyond the physical boundary of the classroom and educators need to become designers of the learning environment .

  • the content of the curriculum
  • the mode of delivering this curriculum to students
  • the assessment of performance

The Economic Development Board similarly emphasized that for “our knowledge-based economy to flourish, we will need a culture which encourages creativity and entrepreneurship, as well as an appetite for change and risk-taking” (1999, 3).

Figures 1.2 and 1.3 depict the shift in preoccupation as we move towards a KBE. To cope with the shift, it is not good enough to have an education system that prides on developing people with strong competencies in analytical, systematic and systems thinking. The KBE calls for new competencies. In Singapore, for example, the concern

with “keeping pace with changes in the world” was repeatedly emphasized by the Ministry of Education (Straits Times, 31 July 1997, p. 1). The desired outcomes of education for post-secondary students were redefined to include characteristics such as the ability to think, reason and deal confidently with the future; to seek, process and apply knowledge; innovativeness; a spirit of continual improvement; a lifelong habit of learning; and an enterprising spirit in undertakings (Ministry of Education, 1998, 4).

The aim of Manpower 21: Vision of a Talent Capital, the strategic blueprint for developing Singapore's manpower, is to turn Singapore into a place “where people use their talents to create value; where entrepreneurs abound and thrive; and in which people can develop and multiply their potential through continuous learning and participation in meaningful jobs. It is a centre of ideas, innovation, knowledge and exchange; a place with a strong culture of continuous learning for lifelong employability” (Ministry of Manpower, 1999, 18). The report noted that the reasons for lifelong learning are strong, but it observed that “the majority of our working population do not pursue any form of training” (p. 24).

More revolutionary changes are thus needed in curricula and in education (Tan, 2000c). My observations concur with those of Dr Tony Tan, Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore, that education is in need of a major overhaul; in fact, he noted that incremental change is not favoured as it would just “aggravate the problem of perpetuating practices that should be jettisoned if a country is to move ahead” (Straits Times, 2002, p. H2).

Corollaries of the above concerns include changing the mindsets of both the present and the future generations in learning to learn, the need for continuous learning, assuming personal responsibility for one's own learning, and embracing new approaches of learning that prepare individuals with relevant competencies.

In a university survey, employers ranked as most important the following eight competencies: teamwork, problem solving, ability to take initiative, desire to learn, interpersonal skills, ability to work independently, oral communication, and flexibility in applying knowledge (National University of Singapore, 2000). To what extent do current modes of training, teaching and learning equip people with the necessary competencies and skills?

Learning in the Knowledge-based Economy

Education must foster the creation of a critical mass of individuals with greater creativity and higher levels of thinking skills. Education would fail if institutions continue to teach content to students without paying attention to how quickly such content knowledge becomes obsolete or irrelevant (Brennan et al., 1999). Educators need to ask if the skills imparted are really transferable to the workplace. Teachers would have failed if they use learning processes that do not impact on lifelong learning.

Figure 1.4 shows how changes through quantum-leap innovation differ from incremental changes produced using an existing process. The idea of innovation in the KBE is to discard something not because it is not producing results but because, though it may be efficient, it is not necessarily effective today (like typists and their typewriters). We are often caught in the paradigm of producing more of the same. Do we really need to reinvent our educational practices to meet the challenges of the KBE?

Earlier you were asked to reflect on our current educational practices. Look at the following practices and indicate the extent to which each of these practices is prevalent in your curriculum:

  • Student-independent learning
  • Information mining
  • Use of real-world challenges
  • Use of unstructured problems
  • Contextualization of content knowledge
  • Use of higher-order thinking skills
  • Students defining scope and issues of learning
  • Peer teaching
  • Peer evaluation
  • Teamwork
  • Multidisciplinary learning
  • Assessment of process skills

The challenge is indeed for educators to design new learning milieus and curricula that really encourage motivation and independence so as to equip students with learning, thinking and problem-solving skills. Knapper and Cropley (1991) observed that “to cope with the demands of a rapidly changing world we need an educated population, capable of taking the initiative for their own education, and motivated to continue learning throughout their lives and in many different situations” (p. 7). Schlechty (1990) observed that existing secondary school structures with single-subject, single-classroom, single-teacher formats lack generative and meaningful collaborative learning. Hargreaves (1994) noted the need for teachers and schools to educate young people in skills and qualities like adaptability, responsibility, flexibility and capacity to work with others.

Our paradigms may be correct, but if we do not believe that we can move on and succeed in that paradigm then we would again be stuck. Teachers need to believe that innovation in education is necessary and can work. Educators themselves—principals and teachers—must be more entrepreneurial in trying new approaches to learning.

Education in the KBE should involve:

  • encouraging lifelong learning (learning throughout life)
  • fostering lifewide learning (transfer of learning across contexts and disciplines)
  • assuming greater personal responsibility for one's learning
  • learning how to learn from multiple sources and resources
  • learning collaboratively
  • learning to adapt and to solve problems (i.e. to cope with change)

A Model for Curriculum Shift

The term curriculum refers not only to the intended learning outcomes but also to the environment for bringing about these outcomes. Looking at a curriculum thus involves consideration of all the experiences that individual learners have in a programme of education (Parkay & Hass, 2000) as well as the design of the learning environment (Tan, 1994).

Tan (2000c) argued for a curriculum shift of three foci of preoccupation as illustrated in Figure 1.5. Traditional programmes of education and training have an over-preoccupation with content. What is important is a shift towards designing more real-world problems as anchors around which learners achieve the learning outcomes through the process of actively working on unstructured problems. In many ways, this calls for a problem-based approach to the curriculum. It has been argued that by using “real-life” problems as a focus learners would really learn how to learn. Boud and Feletti (1997) noted that PBL is the most significant innovation in education. It suffices at this stage to say that by having real-life problems (rather than content) as focal points, learners as active problem solvers and teachers as mediating coaches, the learning paradigm would shift towards attainment of outcomes desired in a knowledge-based era. Margetson (1994) noted that a PBL curriculum helps promote the development of lifelong learning skills in the form of open-minded, reflective, critical and active learning. Furthermore, it has been observed that PBL curricula can better facilitate the acquisition of problem-solving, communication, teamwork and interpersonal skills—attributes that are sought after by industry.

Arguments dealing with what counts as knowledge are not new (Brennan et al., 1999; Tan, 2002e). Taking an overly simplistic approach, I shall define the need for content knowledge as “knowing what” and for process knowledge as “knowing why and how”, borrowing Schon's ideas in The Reflective Practitioner. The argument is for the teaching of processes and the use of real-world scenarios in learning. The implications for teaching and learning are that teachers should be:

  • designers of learning
  • facilitators and mediators of learning

It is not how much content we disseminate in our classrooms but how we engage students' motivation and independent learning that is important. In PBL, the design of real-world problem scenarios is crucial and the problems act as triggers for self-directed and collaborative learning. If we want to develop more entrepreneurship, students need to learn to take greater ownership of their learning—particularly the acquisition of facts. There are difficult challenges in such educational approaches: handling large numbers of students, students schooled with the mindset of dependence on digested information and didactics, and inadequacies of reading skills. Learning to learn and lifelong learning are important goals. There will be increasing demands in the future for workers to be able to read more prolifically and to write and communicate confidently.

As facilitators and mediators of learning, our role is to teach heuristics, provide scaffolding and connect students to the milieu of knowledge available in texts, various other sources and the World Wide Web. The design of the learning environment would need to include opportunities for the development of collaborative learning.

Methods of assessment will also have to change. Teachers and students are heavily engaged with examinations. Charles Handy (1994) described what he called the Macnamara Fallacy as something like this: We measure what is easily measured and disregard what we cannot easily measure. Then we presume what can't be measured as unimportant, and we assume what can't be measured as non-existent. He described this as suicidal. Many of the competencies and process skills cannot be easily measured. Examinations that primarily test content knowledge are deemed as most reliable and objective, but the assessment of content knowledge alone may lack validity in today's world. Eraut (1994), for example, highlighted that, whilst a written syllabus may acknowledge skills such as “communication” and “learning to work in teams” as basic and important, in reality the learning processes used do not cater to these developments. Writing a good essay on “interpersonal skills” does not necessarily reflect knowledge about people, working with people and real situations.

In the KBE, we need to learn to solve novel problems, to assume personal responsibility for learning, to learn collaboratively and from multiple resources, and to be able to transfer learning across disciplines and contexts .

In today's world of knowledge and participation, assessment should be more about learning rather than selection. Diversification of assessment appears to be essential to broadening learning, and implementation of more innovative learning methods such as PBL and project work must be complemented by more holistic reviews of the curriculum and evaluation.

We also need the practicality and the know-how—otherwise we will be caught up in plenty of discussions, seminars and workshops without translating things into action and without really bringing about change.

In this Internet era, how we learn is what we learn. Are we designing the learning environment and facilitating learning that motivate students to learn in ways that empower them for tomorrow? Or are we escaping the responsibility of tomorrow by evading changes in our practices?

In the chapters that follow, we will reveal how the infusion of PBL approaches into the curriculum, as well as its associated innovations pertaining to areas such as collaborative learning, cross-disciplinary learning and the use of e-resources, provides possibilities in the quest for educational reform.

About this article

Meeting 21st Century Needs in Education

Updated About content Print Article