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Old school or new school? Teach future skills and traditional subjects together

How should we teach our kids so they’re prepared for the future? Old school image from

There has been a high profile debate recently about the merits of teaching so-called “21st century skills” in the new Australian Curriculum.

The national curriculum, some argue, has too much focus on these “general capabilities”, which include skills like critical and creative thinking, ethical behaviours, personal and social skills and intercultural understanding.

The critics argue that teaching these skills comes at the expense of content like English, mathematics and history. They say having to focus on generic skills and content curriculum is confusing for teachers; that it encourages a “tick the box” approach to teaching; and, perhaps most naively, that the generic skills are simply educational “fads” that suck precious teaching time.

Bundled into this debate have been arguments about the content of the history curriculum in particular, which has been labelled by the Coalition as biased towards left-wing values. This is a separate debate to which others have made very useful contributions on this site; but suffice to say becoming too bogged down in the detail of content misses the much bigger point about how we best prepare our young people for life after school.

Adapting education to the 21st century

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 reorganise their timetables. There is a need, however, to broaden our focus and embed these skills in traditional discipline areas.

Traditional disciplines remain important. But we no longer need an education system that helps students simply remember facts and figures. We need them 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 there 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 or how it should shape the education students need. The following from American economist Deidre McCloskey’s book The Economic History of Britain since 1700 is worth noting.

In the eighty years or so after 1780 the population of Britain nearly tripled, the towns of Liverpool and Manchester became gigantic cities, the average income of the population more than doubled, the share of farming fell from just under half to just under one-fifth of the nation’s output, and the making of textiles and iron moved into the steam-driven factories. So strange were these events that before they happened they were not anticipated, and while they were happening they were not comprehended.

We are going through change, not unlike the change that occurred during this shift from the agrarian to the industrial age. But we don’t seem to be aware of the importance or the scale of this change 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. Sure the 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.

We all now enjoy the opportunity of producing information and knowledge. As producers we need to know how to create information (wikis, blogs, Facebook, YouTube etc) and how to organise 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 skills become even more important and schools and curriculum developers can’t afford to let them pass us by.

It’s not what you know, it’s how you learn

Technology has taken us further already than we might be aware. So strange might these events be that before they happen they won’t be anticipated, and while they are happening they won’t be comprehended. Such is 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 will hurt them and the rest of us.

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