Educating our children for the 21st Century
This is a phrase that I have seen bandied around at educational conferences throughout my career and, as a Head Teacher, it is something to which I must pay attention.
As I sit to write this, my first observation is that anyone considering an answer to this question might have come up with very different priorities twenty years ago. There were very few of us that would have placed the response to a global pandemic high on our list of priorities (very few…but I do remember that Mike Wilson, a friend and now retired headteacher, was already planning for just such an outcome). We knew that technology and the internet were going to become more important but were we expecting the death of the fountain pen? It hasn’t happened yet.
Some of the wisest observations that I have heard more recently have tried to address what will happen in the job market when technology replaces many of the skills that currently require human input. When the robots can do it all for us, will our learning start to become redundant?
That would, of course, imply that we only learn to prepare us for the world of employment. Education also makes us more interesting, attractive and happy people. If we do end up with more leisure time (as might be expected given that our own generation generally enjoys more than our ancestors whose manual chores were significantly more time consuming) then we will also have have to learn how to manage more information coming from a wider range of sources…and the stress that this entails. What would Reverend Charles Darnell have made of the nature of my working day?
Many people ask why, in an age where information is so easy to access, do we need to learn things? Nonetheless, knowledge remains important as a framework on which we can build our skills. How will we know what to look for if we don’t have a handle on the core information or recognise the terms of reference? Learning also develops the capacity of our brain and so much of our life requires immediate understanding and we cannot always be stopping to type in or dictate the questions.
Do I think that subjects like Latin or Greek will continue to play a part in a hundred years? Yes, I do. The cultures upon which we pin much of western democracy will continue to be of interest and the intellectual challenge of manipulating a language that is the root of so many other languages remains an exciting challenge for children. I believe that handwriting and mental arithmetic will still play their part and allow us to access the world as human beings – setting us aside from the robot or the computer.
There will be certain skillsets that will continue to set the human brain apart from the microchip (for at least the next eighty years or so). An ability to work in teams, to empathise, to debate or communicate with each other: these will remain important skills and must, therefore, be at the heart of our education, alongside a deeper understanding of how technology can be used to help us. And this pleases me because these skills are at the heart of a Cargilfield education, whatever the subject or activity.
And what are the immediate challenges for our children? In addition to the pandemic, our young people are having to navigate an increasingly challenging world where the behaviours of those who have come before them (including our own generation) have made it more difficult for them. They will have to make massive progress with the need to cut carbon emissions and to create a society less concerned by race, gender and sexuality, but more sensitive to complex and shifting values. Their education must equip them with the necessary emotional intelligence to navigate that world.
I came into teaching because I liked studying English and wanted to coach sport and direct plays. I continue to enjoy my role because I have come to realise how much more sophisticated a good education can be. I don’t have all the answers but the questions are exciting.