How far does our understanding of curriculum and learning prepare students for the challenges of the twenty century?
The challenges we face today will be different tomorrow and what we learn today affects who we become tomorrow.
One of the challenges that we have faced within our learning in the last 30 years is the arrival of technology. Technology is present throughout our lives, impacting upon our places of work, private lives, and education, giving endless possibilities in communication and opening up new learning environments. My question is: how can young people prepare for a future where learning through technology may become a dominant feature in education and society? Following this question I will explore and evaluate what new skills, knowledge and social values today’s students will require, in order to adapt to new challenges and become lifelong learners, in a world which is changing faster than education itself (Dryden and Vos, 2005a).
The world we live in is vast and full of questions for young minds who from a birth are seeking the answers. We have become reliant on schools to provide a lot of the skills and knowledge needed to become competent adults and valued members of society and life. However, do our current curriculums restrict the growth and natural curiosity to learn? (Abbott, 2010a). I will review this question then conclude by consolidating my findings and ask myself: If we have a clear understanding of effective learning, how can we implement the change needed to provide a meaningful education for all, and meet the challenges of the 21st century?
The term lifelong learner is a new concept, however, humans have always been lifelong learners, questioning existing knowledge, learning new skills in order to survive and develop and expand within communities and society. Learning takes place every day. We encounter new situations developing new ideas, all of which stimulate our minds in order to overcome problems and find solutions, thus evoking a new learning experience (Abbott, 2010b); (Dryden and Vos, 2005b).
Western society has the perspective that learning is a school-based activity, that it is from the school that learning takes place and that it is schools’ and teachers’ responsibility to educate young people with the necessary knowledge and skills to lead them into adulthood and help them become functional members of society ( Quicke, 1999).
In times past it was seen as the community’s responsibility within the whole village, to help raise and educate a child. Children from a young age had the opportunity to explore and observe the village they lived in. They had the opportunity to interact with other members of the community at work and socially, observing and internalising events and actions, constructing real-life learning models which built upon their understanding of the world around them and add true meaning to their learning experiences (Leme, 2002).
An apprenticeship was a form of coaching not teaching where adolescents were placed to work and study. They were then encouraged built on their thinking skills, problem-solving, and curiosity to see how things worked. The young apprentice was able to see and understand how all the subsections of a task fitted together to create whatever the product or service was. This form of education was seen as the intelligent and safe transition from childhood to adulthood, supporting the psychological growth of the apprentice and supporting the social and economic growth of the community (Abbott, 2010c).
Galileo said, you cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself. Some words which consider learning part of human nature. We have been learning new skills and acquiring new knowledge and understanding since the day we were born. Human babies have various inherited predispositions which help them adapt to new environments and internalise new knowledge which is retained thus helping them to face the next challenge and life experience (Abbott, 2010d). Given this inherited disposition and with support from caring adults, human beings develop at an amazing rate. In our first years, we learn to talk, walk and make sense of our emotions, making vast connections in our lives and in the environment that we inhabit. From this point on we also progress and develop through the observations of life around us. From such humble beginnings as observers of life, we make sense of ourselves and everything around us. After this time of self-discovery within our home and surrounding environments, it is the time to start our formal introduction to school where we remain for the next 12 years within this environment. A lot of who and what we are and what we will become is formed. School plays a significant role in our learning, however, learning is a highly complex activity and much contested amongst theorist (Mc Gregor, 2007a). What we understand about Pedagogy and the influence on learning within education has been shaped by three major theoretical approaches: Behaviourism, Constructivism and Social constructivism, all of which play an important role in education today from teaching through to learning, from the early years through to university level (Moore, 2000).
At the turn of the last century, the Behaviourist theory emerged and was a dominant force within teaching for most of the century. The major thinkers within the Behaviourism were: Ivan Pavlov, John B. Watson, Edward Thorndike and B.F. Skinner. These theorists were concerned with behavioural psychology, developing their theories around the idea that we can be conditioned into behaving and thinking in a certain way. Ivan Pavlov was first to come up with one theory through his research into the salivary response in dogs, called the ‘Classical conditioning’ theory. Later B.f. Skinner made further advancements and developed the ‘Operant conditioning’, which was based on punishment and reward (Mc Greger, 2007b). Mc Greger goes on to conclude that, the essence of behaviourism is centred around reinforcing “correct”, repetitive, observable behaviours deemed to illustrate that the learner has mastered a skill and can recite information thus has learnt sufficiently the new behaviour.
The theory of constructivism is based on the Piagetian theory which moves away from Behaviourism and brings forward the idea that children learn or encounter new experiences where they cognitively adapt to new stimuli. Piaget suggests that the child, through accommodation and assimilation, constructs new knowledge which builds on existing knowledge through the use of an already present internal framework. This will happen when the child’s experiences are in line with an internal representation of their world. Also, the child will alter existing information when false information is attained. The theory is also associated with what is known as active learning, learning by doing. Another aspect of Piaget’s theory and one that has shaped schooling the world over, and something we take for granted, the ‘Stage development’ theory. This is the idea that children naturally develop through stages and are able to build upon their existing knowledge when they reach the appropriate developmental stage (Moore, 2000b); ( McGregor, 2007).
Social constructivism is the theoretical approach to the development of children which derives from the research carried out by Lev Vygotsky. This theory is based on the understanding that children are affected by their historical, cultural and social background and this is the basis of their learning (Askew and Carnell, 1998). Another important aspect of this theory is the use of language which is seen as a tool and not just a system to represent the work but used to elicit the child’s ideas, extracting inner speech, making thoughts and ideas accessible to others. 'The zone of proximal development’ was another key theory of Vygotsky. He believed that a child could achieve more if assisted and supported ‘scaffolding’ by an adult, thus acquiring new learning experiences quicker than he would have if he had been unassisted (Moore, 2000c).
It is clear that most schools wish to follow a constructivist method of teaching especially in the early years of Primary education, however on reflection upon my present and past teaching, I am able to understand that certain areas of learning require a Behaviourist style of instruction. Reading, writing and numeracy are subjects that require the child to follow a pattern of study where they have to conform to a set format for acquiring the right behavioural abilities.
Knowledge age learning
We have reached a point where technology is playing a significant role in the structure of society and learning in the twenty-first century (Greenfield, 2004). New technology gives us the possibility to walk, talk and browse the internet, accessing it from any place twenty four seven, giving us an array of information, thus benefiting from its thousands of online teacher, artists, musicians, storytellers as well as teaching ourselves new skills and gaining knowledge (Dryden and Vos, 2005c).
With the World Wide Web at our disposal, with new technology used throughout society revolutionizing business, home life, employment and community, it is important to ask what new skills and knowledge will we need to teach young people, so they can become competent technology users at school through to their future careers?
Knowledge age skills and values.
Not only have we advanced in technology but also culturally, economically, politically and ecologically. With new challenges to our existing intricately connected understanding, we need to learn skills, new ways in order to exist, live and work collectively together in the future (Trilling and Hood, 2001).
Education, if to help meet the demands for the future, will need to equip students with traditional skills such as the 3 R’s as well as the development of further skills as the 7 Cs which have been developed through research on the future development of the workplace and society.
The 7-Cs: critical thinking and doing, creativity, collaboration, cross-cultural understanding, communication, computing, career and learning self-reliance (Trilling and Hood, 2001b).
A note on Curriculum
There are schools and educational systems globally who have succeeded in creating and maintaining a model of education which reflects the contemporary needs of students in today’s society. Finland and Denmark as well as New Zealand, have a structure of learning and curriculum, which has for a long time provided the skills and knowledge for lifelong learning (Abbott, 2010e); (Dryden and Vos, 2005d).
This is due to the fact that in these countries, curriculum planning is created by the people that teach and research education and learning and not by the central government as with other countries. Too many of the worlds curriculums are shaped by the governments that set standardized test to assess that everyone is competent or not. Teachers are stripped of the creativity to teach, becoming obsessed with league tables and learning objectives, key vocabulary, main activities, plenary, assessment and targets. Subsequently, the teachers and children have no chance to question, create, analyse or discover. Learning is a very complex process but educationalists feel it necessary to simplify and codify creating a highly directive, prescriptive curriculum that inhibits creativity and enterprises which are the very skills needed in today’s diverse society and skills we will need for years to come (Abbott, 2010f).
There are different reasons why education is considered essential to the structure of society. Education can help the individual to learn knowledge and skills in order to become gainfully employed, thus contribute to the economic growth of the society in which he/she lives. Education also helps to install the values acceptable to living in society, where we no longer live with one cultural reference but in a society which is culturally diverse, where the ability to coexist in harmony, be respectful of other people’s political, cultural, religious beliefs are essential (White 1997); (Trilling and Hood, 2001). So in light of what we know, we should be providing young people today with the best learning experience which will enable them to be capable and adaptable for a future in the 21st century, where instability and the unknown will require us all to become lifelong learners.
“We encourage children to act stupidly, not only scaring and confusing them but by boring them, by filling up their days with dull, repetitive tasks that make little or no claim on their attention or demands on their intelligence” (Holt, 1964). What John Holt said over forty years ago is still relevant today, where we are still stuck teaching a model of education which served the industrial age well but is not suitable for teaching in the knowledge age we are presently in. Throughout education, young people are being turned off learning because their school experience is uninspiring and irrelevant, where they are being trained to memories fact after fact, in limited subjects which have little or no meaning to them and their world. They are then required to regurgitate these facts and figures for the 'standardized test' for which their intelligence will be measured. (White, 1997); ( Dryden and Nos, 2005e). Children today are built differently, act differently and demand different things than they did last century. Today's child is exposed to technology from an early age, whether this introduction comes from the home or from the school giving the child the possibility to communicate globally, access information on thousands of topics and interact online in learning seminars. With such global interaction it is imperative that children along with building the core skill, the 3Rs, should be involved in a new learning practice where the teacher becomes a facilitator, guide and consultant, a co-learner helping the students direct their own learning, helping them discover new concepts, work in collaborative teams on open-ended projects that expose and challenge creativity through real-world inquiry (Trilling and Hood, 2001). We also need to make learning fun and exciting, so as to maintain the curiosity, to challenge our own perspective on the world we live in and carry on being lifelong learners who are able to adapt and navigate towards the future. With our understanding of learning and how young people learn best in school, why do we still not provide children with the relevant learning, skills and knowledge that are required for the 21st-century life? Have the powers that be misunderstood the requirements of young people, or given up trying to find the right environment for a real-life learning situation to accrue and work with the nature of their needs. Why is the teacher an instructor, someone who teaches for tests, who sticks to a prescribed format, which comes from a curriculum modelled and designed by a committee of so-called experts under the watchful eye of the politicians, reflecting past needs, not future needs (Abbott, 2010g)?
For change to happen in education, and for children to become able learners and face the challenges of the 21st century, we need to give the emphasis of education back to the discovery of learning for ourselves. Giving the planning and designing of curriculum back to the teachers and educationalists who have the real understanding of learning and curriculum, allowing them to create a curriculum which would cater for the different needs of the community and individual needs of the young people for whom learning to learn is at the heart of their lives.
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Justin teaches Art & ICT from Early Years up to Middle School