The #1 skill pupils need

Samantha Hawkins

Samantha is a consultant focused on improving the quality of education for disadvantaged children, particularly in developing countries. She has a background in teaching, both as a teacher and curriculum leader in Maths and Economics, but left the classroom to pursue a career in education reform. She has spent the past three years supporting educational charities at a strategic level, while completing a master’s degree in education & international development. Find her blog about living and working in Cambodia here.

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Image credit: Pixabay // Courtany. Image credit: Pixabay // Courtany.

Exploring student futures is imperative to developing a successful education system. It is a crucial part of answering the question: “What is education for?” - a question which, against all reason, often seems to get neglected. This is bewildering to me; after all, how can there be a hope of providing quality education to children and young people without being very clear on the end goal? This is akin to asking Usain Bolt to compete in a sprint race, without giving him an indication of the finish line or the time he is expected to complete it in.

It makes no sense. As a result, we have school graduates who are largely unprepared for the world they face, from the occupations they undertake, to the tax returns they will need to complete, to the relationship challenges they will encounter.

So, to successfully create schools which adequately prepare students for their futures, the first thing to establish is what these futures look “Schools play a critical role in the development of emotional awareness.”like, what challenges will be faced, and which aspects can be supported by education. I believe that schools play a critical role in the development of emotional awareness, mental health, and life skills - to name a few non-career related aspects of education. And, in some ways, these are arguably more important than schools simply operating as human capital creators. However, that’s a conversation for another day / article. For now, the question I want to consider is:

How can innovation in education be used to adequately equip students for their future careers?

A common response to preparing students for this ‘brave new world’ is to integrate more ICT-specific education into the curriculum. “Teach the kids how to code; that’s what they need to know for the tech-heavy jobs of tomorrow!”

This is, inarguably, an incredibly valuable skill, and one that remains in high demand across the working world. And we have seen the introduction of some incredible innovations in education in this regard, from Pi-Top computers, to LEGO’s creative technology-based projects, to Scratch (the online system which allows pupils to code and share projects). Young people have an exceptional capacity to learn, and quickly, picking up new technologies in a way that most of the baby-boomer generation could only imagine. Sugata Mitra’s ‘Hole in the Wall’ project illustrates this beautifully. As does the initiative, by One Laptop Per Child, which dropped tablets into previously technology-free village schools in Ethiopia, with no instructions, but preloaded with materials. In both cases, children were able to work out how to access this alien technology, to use it as a learning tool themselves, and even to teach others using the technology.

We don’t even have to look that far afield to see this. I personally watched, awe-struck, as an 11-year old pupil of mine used an assembly to show his peers a robot he had built entirely by himself, which was able to solve a Rubik’s Cube in under two minutes. This was a young man who most teachers regarded as lovely and polite, but had not achieved ‘exceptional’ results in any subject. It saddened me to think that he had this incredible skill, and it remained entirely un-nurtured by the school environment. So yes, technology education has an important place in formal schooling.

I would, however, argue that these examples demonstrate that preparing students for the future is even more fundamental than “We should be exploring more PBL and flipped classroom approaches.”teaching them how to use new technology. In reality, the number one skill pupils need is how to learn. This is by no means straightforward; it requires several complex components to be nurtured, including the ability to think critically, creatively and reflectively. This requires the development of self-confidence and, essentially, pupils learning to be comfortable with failure. The good news is that this will support pupils both in and out of the workplace in the future.

How can we do this? Well, it requires a major rethink in the way education is delivered, and I don’t claim to have all the answers. But when we consider innovation in education, we should do so with this as a focus, rather than just competing to put new forms of digital tech in classrooms. We should be exploring more project-based learning, and flipped classroom approaches where pupils research in advance of lessons. We should be using teachers as facilitators to guide and nurture pupils’ curiosity, in child-led classrooms. We should be celebrating mistakes, praising risk-takers, and allowing students to focus on what they are passionate about so each individual can flourish. Digital technology gives us an unprecedented opportunity to make this a reality, because pupils don’t need a teacher, a textbook or a library to learn. We should not simply be looking at these technologies as new ways to replicate existing systems of learning, we should be seeing them as a chance for real change.

Pupils currently in school are expected to have jobs we haven’t even imagined yet. So as educators we have to accept that we cannot equip them with all the content-based knowledge they need, or even the specific skills they might require in the future. New coding languages come out regularly, new technologies emerge every day, and new career paths are constantly created. So our main job in reality is to prepare these young people with the capacity to adapt to the changing world, to think critically and creatively, and learn as they go. That way, they will be able to negotiate their own way through their futures.

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