The changing education scene — I

November 28, 2021

Diversity brings multiple individual and cultural perspectives into collaboration

The changing education scene — I

In today’s column, education is the theme we explore. Some clarity is sorely needed given the abounding confusion. What are the main objectives to be achieved through education?

What modes are available for equipping our youth with the knowledge that will make them useful and help create an egalitarian society in which material progress, social stability and harmonious relationship are ensured? To attain clarity on education and what makes it worth our while we have to delve into history.

In the manufacturing and agrarian economies that existed until a few generations ago, mastering the Three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic) was considered enough. In the aftermath of the industrial revolution, the production-line theory of education was conjured up. It was also replicated in the colonised world.

In the middle of every industrial town there used to be a large building divided into several identical rooms, each equipped with rows of desks and chairs, like those one could see in a church. At the sound of the bell, a student was supposed to go to these rooms along with thirty odd children who were all born the same year. Every hour, an adult came and talked to them. For this, he was paid by the government. This model long continued to regulate cognitive activity. By the 20th Century, the process had attained universal legitimacy.

In India, Lord Macaulay introduced these basic skills (Three Rs) as the first step to create “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect”. By instructing Three Rs Indians could be made into good, pliable subjects, a strategy that worked to a good measure of success.

In the modern flat world, the Three Rs are simply not enough. Youngsters of the contemporary era, 21st Century, are expected to acquire the Four Cs: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. If today’s students want to compete in the global society, they must be proficient communicators, creators, critical thinkers and collaborators.

Students need these skills to fully participate in today’s global community. They need to be able to share their thoughts, questions, ideas and solutions. Let us focus on these components of the modern education to acquire clarity about their importance.

Critical thinking teaches students to question all claims and to seek truth. Collaboration teaches students that groups can create something bigger and better than an individual can do on their own. Communication teaches students to efficiently convey their ideas. Combined, the four Cs empower students to become one-person think tanks. To become an employer magnet, they’ll need these essential qualities.

Critical thinking has been a much valued and cherished skill in almost every society. Today, for every student — not just the academically advanced — critical thinking is imperative. While critical thinking and problem solving had once been the domain of gifted students, now it’s critically significant for every student. It enables students to investigate problems in a new way and across different subjects and disciplines.

Learning critical thinking leads students to develop faculties like a higher level of concentration, deeper analytical abilities and improved thought processing. The solutions to international problems, such as global warming, require highly developed critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. How critical thinking can be cultivated among students in an ideological country like Pakistan is a very sensitive question.

In today’s world of global competition and task automation, innovative capacity and a creative spirit are fast becoming requirements for personal and professional success. Sir Kenneth Robinson, a leading thinker on creativity, once said, “Creativity is as important in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status.”

In a world in which good design is increasingly used as a means of differentiating objects of mass production, creative design skills are highly desired in the labour force. Howard Gardner calls for cultivating such a mind. He says we need education that features, “exploration, challenging problems, and the tolerance, if not active encouragement of productive mistakes.”

Creativity can be closely intertwined with some other skills, such as critical thinking and problem-solving. Innovation, today has a social component and requires adaptability, leadership, teamwork and interpersonal skills. Increasingly, today the capacity to innovate is linked to the ability to connect with others and with a facility for communication and collaboration. For creativity, critical thinking is a precondition. In Pakistan, someone will have to be bold enough to initiate the creative process predicated on critical thinking.

Fifty years ago, much work was accomplished by individuals working alone. That is not the case today. Now, most of all significant work is accomplished in teams, and in many cases, global teams. Collaboration is about working together to reach a goal and putting talent and expertise to work. As with communication, technology has made collaboration easier.

Actually, technology takes collaboration a step farther. It allows for types of collaboration that were not possible prior to technological advancement. As the world becomes more interconnected, collaboration is likely to become an essential skill.

James Surowiecki underscores the importance of collaboration by remarking that “a large group of diverse individuals will come up with better and more robust forecasts and make more intelligent decisions than even the most skilled decision maker.”

Diversity allows multiple individual and cultural perspectives to collaborate. Not only does a collaborative effort create more holistic results than individual efforts, it also creates knowledge for a greater number of people.

Skills like expressing one’s thoughts clearly, crisply articulating one’s opinions, communicating coherent instructions, motivating others through powerful speech have always been valued in the workplace and in public life. But in the 21st Century, these skills have been transformed and are even more important. Communication is about sharing thoughts, questions, ideas and solutions. In the technological age, it’s much easier and, at the same time, harder to communicate.

Technology has provided more convenient ways to communicate but sometimes the various ways can become overwhelming. Without effective communication, there’s no way to get anything done in a classroom or anywhere. This is why this is an essential 21st Century skill.

Teachers must be able to effectively analyse and process the overwhelming amount of communication in their lives today and prepare their students for a global society. Which ones are not? How can they be used or leveraged effectively? The power of modern media and the ubiquity of communication technologies in all aspects of life make teaching strong communication skills even more important.

Communication skills are especially critical in the expanding service economy — estimated to be 81 percent of jobs where relationships with customers and fellow employees are of vital importance. Linguistically and culturally effective listening, empathy and effective communication skills are essential skills for every person in the service economy.

While it is important to emphasise communication skills, it can be difficult to separate them from the other Cs, especially collaboration. As represented in the 21st Century skills framework, communication competencies, such as clearly articulating ideas through speaking and writing are closely related to collaboration skills, such as working effectively with diverse teams, making necessary compromises to accomplish a common goal, and assuming shared responsibility for collaborative work. The question remains: can we scrutinise our education system in the light of these criteria?

(To be continued)

The changing education scene — I