World Class and 21st Century School Systems and skills

I am busy reading a book called “World Class” which is an analysis and discussion from one of the chief instigators of PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), the tests that many countries around the world do to measure themselves as education systems relative to each other and relative to themselves over time. When South Africa did the tests in earlier years, we performed very poorly and there was much cause for debate and analysis. We all know that within the SA education system there is such disparity that the results are skewed but they were poor nonetheless and it had very little to do with resources.

In the book, the author tries to define what it is that makes countries world-class in terms of education systems and what schools need to do to be relevant in the 21st century. I have always spoken about relevance and have started to speak to you about the future and what that will look like in terms of machines taking over traditional human functions. This paragraph caught my attention and is the basis of my message to you this morning.

“The algorithms behind social media are sorting us into groups of like-minded individuals. They create virtual bubbles that amplify our views and leave us insulated from divergent perspectives; they homogenise opinions while polarising our societies.”

 Let’s look at this statement – the first concern is the acknowledgement that we are being forced by machines to think alike. We are told what to do, where to go and the social media algorithms sort us into like-minded people with similar views, opinions and tastes. While this is comforting to us, it keeps us apart from others who don’t share our views and our taste. If we are suddenly in a situation where we need to work or be with someone different from us, we have been made socially inadequate.

Tomorrow’s schools will need to help students think for themselves and join others, with empathy, in work and citizenship. They will need to help students develop a strong sense of right and wrong, a sensitivity to the claims that others make on us, and a grasp of the limits on individual and collective action.

The second paragraph talks about what schools need to do – to teach content yes, to reinforce learning through repetition yes, but also to teach students to think for themselves. More importantly perhaps, school need to teach students right from wrong, good morals and values and a desire to learn about and be comfortable with those of different backgrounds, beliefs and opinions.

At work, at home and in the community, people will need a deep understanding of how others live, in different cultures and traditions, and how others think, whether as scientists or artists. Whatever tasks machines may be taking over from humans at work, the demands on our knowledge and skills to contribute meaningfully to social and civic life will keep rising.”

Some may think that there is a conflict here. To perform well in our current education system requires a great deal of rote learning and repetition and we all need to perform well in this system to be allowed access to the next path of education. Yet the world as it is changing requires us to think independently and rely less on rote learning because information is available so easily. Can we do both? I think we can and I think we have to. The best performing countries in the PISA studies on a consistent basis, countries like Finland, Canada, South Korea, Singapore and so on have a great deal of repetition and practise in their systems. They require students to learn a skill and to repeat it until it has been mastered. But they also allow for individual and collaborative problem solving – taking a challenge that has not been seen before and analysing it, working out what processes need to be used and trying them to solve the problem.

For us to do this will require two things – teachers who are willing to stretch you after they have taught the basic skills and a positive attitude from you, our boys. There is no use, if you want to be successful and relevant in the world you are going into, your switching off when challenges arise and when you are asked to do something that is perhaps not required in a rote learning environment.

But the second thing I want you to think about is that successful people in our future world will have to have a sense of goodness, right from wrong. They will have to be able to get along with people unlike themselves. They will have to step out of the comfortable place that social media takes us to and where we willingly follow. So – in the school space, stop hanging around with the same people all the time, stop sitting with the same people in class (unless you are required to sit in a certain space), stop seeking those who speak your language or come from your community. Seek difference and actively seek understanding of that difference. In your social world – realise that machines are manipulating your thinking – all the time. They are putting you into little boxes where they can force you to buy things and think in a certain way.

If we don’t do these things, we need to be careful because a machine may just replace us and we, just like machines then land on the pile of redundant items. We become the human equivalents of fax machines, chequebooks, BBM, Mixit, floppy discs, VCRs and so on.