This is an edited version of an article originally published on: Forbes Technology Council
Al Kingsley is CEO of NetSupport, chair of a multi-academy trust in the UK, tech writer, speaker and author of “My Secret #EdTech Diary.”
I have long thought about the interplay between knowledge and skills. Education systems worldwide remain committed to filling young brains with “knowledge” simply because that is how they have always been — and will be — graded. But I can’t help thinking that, with all the technology around us, aren’t we now living in a world where we’ve moved past this?
Is knowledge indeed “power”?
If we need to know a fact or how to do something, these days we can either just ask Siri, Alexa or Google — or find the answer online. There is simply no need for students to memorize reams of facts, some of which will almost certainly change over time. Knowledge becomes outdated; over the years, I have certainly seen some of the things I was taught at school become superseded: countries have been renamed, incontrovertible “facts” have been proved wrong (e.g., Pluto is no longer a planet) and I’ve yet to encounter, let alone utilize, my knowledge of oxbow lakes or dig out some matrices.
However, in all seriousness, with the internet’s wealth of knowledge literally at our fingertips, I believe that the notion of stuffing students’ minds full of information that they must remember and be tested on is archaic and needs an urgent review. For me, it’s about ensuring young people know how to find information, challenge it, validate it and what to do with it — so the focus should be on teaching those skills instead (and plenty of great teachers already do, I might add).
I recently watched a 2013 TED talk by educational researcher Sugata Mitra, and so much of what he said resonated with me. He explained his “hole in the wall” project, where he installed public computers in walls in deprived areas in India and the children came together to work out how to use them. His findings illustrated a clear point: If you give young people access to the right technology (or teacher), they will work together to find answers. I love that these children proved that, by being resourceful and inquisitive, they could achieve something positive — and their background had nothing to do with it. Indeed, young people today are some of our greatest innovators, and, in many cases, it is technology that is enabling them to do so.
Human Skills For A Digital World
There is one skill we all need, and that is to know how to work together. As humans, we are social by design, so understanding empathy, well-being and how we interact, communicate and collaborate with people is key. Take our experiences during the last two years: For many, the absence of face-to-face contact was detrimental — and the lack of social interaction, in general, has led to an epidemic of mental health issues.
We have always placed our trust in the education system to prepare our children for the future. The current model worked well in previous centuries, but it is falling short in today’s world. In this fast-moving technological age, we cannot truly know what the workplace will look like in 10 or even five years, other than it will be more digital-heavy and remote, with people working from anywhere and everywhere. The key to operating successfully in that environment will be human skills: dialogue, negotiation, adapting, strategizing and collaborating. This reinforces the question: Shouldn’t we now be focusing more on the skills than the knowledge?
What Needs To Change
As the world becomes more digitized, different skills are needed. We are already seeing this in society and on a global scale, with the need for creative solutions to all-encompassing problems such as climate change — and we could certainly drive more effective innovation with a greater emphasis on skills-based education in schools.
Schools should be conducive to learning, yet in many cases, despite our best efforts and intentions, for many students, it is not. With students’ mental health now at crisis levels in so many countries, it’s clear that changes are already overdue. We need to address the conflicts of celebrating students as individuals yet grading them against uniform standards — or asking them to be creative yet diminishing that by being compelled to teach the test. We also need to take a long hard look at exams. Developing fully rounded young people with confidence, self-esteem and resilience who can fulfill their potential is far healthier and more beneficial than producing stressed-out students who are so damaged by the relentless pressure to achieve the top grades that their futures may be affected in entirely the wrong way.
Innovation For A Better Future
The technology industry flourishes on innovation, and “learning facts” is not the driver. It follows that, for students interested in tech-based careers, it is so much better to be out there, hands-on and trying things for real, rather than studying it in books for qualifications that will be outdated as soon as they have been gained.
Apprenticeships or workplace schemes seem, to me, a great option. They are more immediate, practical and relevant — in fact, the perfect environment to, as Sugata Mitra said, “let learning happen” with colleagues of all ages and levels of experience together. I believe strongly in this path, and it is one that my company wholeheartedly supports by hosting workplace apprentices of our own.
Skills For The Win
So, is knowledge obsolete? No, but we need a different kind of knowledge now.
With every EdTech tool we introduce, we are duty-bound to provide students with an accompanying set of skills, such as being able to keep safe online, make the right judgments about situations, spot when something is wrong and know what to do about it. We need to teach investigative, critical and practical skills, and, alongside that, the knowledge of how to use them to develop, innovate and collaborate. These are skills they will need in the real world, where failure is an opportunity to learn and we embrace them simply as stepping stones to success.