Education in the 21st Century


A baby born today will be thirty-something in the year 2050, nobody knows how the world will look in 2050. What should we teach that baby to help him or her flourish in the future?

A thousand years ago, there were many things unknown about the future but the basic features of human society wouldn’t change dramatically in a lifetime. In England most people were working on the land as serfs or villeins, only a small number of people could read, parents taught their children how to work the land, and wealthier parents taught their boys to  read or fight on horseback and taught their girls to be modest and obedient housewives. They were taught skills that would be needed in the near future.

The pace of change is ever increasing. Much of what kids learn today will likely be irrelevant by 2050. Too many schools focus on cramming information. This made sense in the past when information was scarce, and heavily censored,  but now we have a wealth of information at our fingertips. We are flooded with too much information, some agencies keep us busy by spreading misinformation and distracting irrelevancies.

Many pedagogues argue that what we should be teaching in schools are the four Cs:

  • Critical Thinking
  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Creative Thinking

In many schools the current methodology comes from the industrial revolution, a production line theory of education, where a group of children born in the same year are taught in groups of around 30 by a succession of adult teachers of various academic subjects.

I have been teaching English as a foreign language since 1994, sometimes in schools, sometimes with adults, sometimes with children. I have colleagues who use the new technologies for teaching students in China and other countries via Skype or other video chat applications. There are many apps useful in language learning like Duolingo and Memrise.

Language translation apps are getting better and better, it may be that in 10 years time we don’t need to teach or learn foreign languages, as we might all be using our smartphone or some new gadget, which will automatically translate our native language to the language of our choice.

This is me teaching in a traditional classroom in Opiza School, Tbilisi

Harari (“21 Lessons for the 21st Century” by Yuval Noah Harari) tells us the only constant in education is change and that the most important life skill will be the ability to “deal with change, to learn new things, and to preserve your mental balance.”

We may soon have computer implants to improve our knowledge, prospective parents might be able to request intelligence genes spliced into the DNA of their future offspring.

Through the centuries human life was divided into two parts: a period of learning followed by a period of working. Accelerating change plus longer lifespans will make this traditional model obsolete. Change is stressful, and after a certain age most people just don’t like to change. But if we don’t change we risk becoming  clueless fossils.

The adult brain is more flexible and volatile than was once thought, but it is still less malleable than the teenage brain. Reconnecting the neurons and synapses is a struggle, believe me, I am struggling to learn the Georgian language and it is proving far more difficult than the French I learnt in my teens and twenties.

As strangeness becomes the new normal past experience will become a less reliable guide. To survive and flourish in the new world, you will need a lot of mental flexibility and great reserves of emotional balance. Resilience can’t be learned from reading a book or listening to a lecture.

Technology isn’t bad. If you know what you want in life, technology can help you get it. The philosophers like Socrates and Laozi told us we must know ourselves. We have competition, the algorithms are watching us right now. They are relying on Big Data and machine learning to know us better and better. They watch what we buy and who we interact with, and feed us with suggestions of what we might like to buy in the future.

There are new schools like AltSchool in California, which takes a more personalised approach to learning, (here is a clip about their method: alt school) where each child is seen as an individual and has a playlist each day of what they can work on, the child has input into what is on the playlist and the order in which they tackle the tasks. The cost of this is initially very expensive but comes down with time and better technology.

Higher education is also expensive, the cost of university has risen by 1200% since 1978, a rate higher than any other service industry. Higher education is a massive industry reluctant to change. In 2015 the accountancy firm Ernst and Young dropped the degree requirement for its hiring programme, stating they had found “no evidence that success at university was correlated with achievement in professional qualifications.”

Here is a link to a TED talk about higher education on YouTube: The future of education is not what it used to be by Jack Delosa

Education is tremendously important but we need to take more responsibility for what we learn. So we can grow into the people we can become and contribute to the world and its many challenges in the future.

I would appreciate any feedback as education is a subject close to my heart.


One thought on “Education in the 21st Century

  1. Pingback: “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” by Yuval Noah Harari : Book Review – Blog #2

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