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Educators as future makers September 18, 2011

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Education Policy and Politics, Educational Leadership, Social Justice and Equity through Education.
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from Adjunct Professor Greg Prior

Greg Prior reviews the place of education in a rapidly changing world and leaves us with many questions about how eductors, and schools and education systems, can respond to the complex changes and challenges society faces in the current century.

Education is a largely future oriented enterprise.  Amongst its purposes are preparing people to live well in the future: preparing them as future citizens and as future workers.  But more than preparing learners for the future, education plays a significant part in constructing the future.

What and how young people learn in school and tertiary education today very much influences what the world will be like in the future.  Education, then, is a future making process.  Educators are ‘future makers’.

Early in the 21st century we face a number of challenges or change imperatives. These challenges are numerous but five challenges stand out and are often discussed in the literature on 21st Century Capabilities.

We face a social challenge of maintaining and improving the health and vitality of a democratic society – sustaining decent democratic institutions across the many divisions that any modern society contains, and a strong role for fundamental rights protecting entitlements in areas such as health and education.

A major economic challenge is that globalisation and technological change are also placing an increasing premium on education, and skill development and the nature of jobs available to young Australians is changing faster than ever.  Skilled jobs now dominate jobs growth and people with post school qualifications fare much better in the employment market than early school leavers.

A major technological challenge is that the forces of globalisation entail major changes in all our lives: I refer here to the increasing power of and reliance on science and technology; the incredible connectivity that results; the enormous amount of information, often of dubious quality that is at our fingertips; the convergence of cultures in economic, cultural and social terms, and the incessant circulation of human beings of diverse backgrounds and aspirations.  Intimately and inextricably connected to others, we need to be able to communicate with one another, live with one another and make common cause.

Major health challenges include the high prevalence of mental disorders. In affluent countries such as Australia there is a high prevalence of mental disorders. One in five Australians aged 16-85 years had a mental disorder in 2007 and almost one in two (or 7.3 million people) had experienced a mental disorder at some point in their lives. Type 2 Diabetes, a lifestyle disease, is recognised as a serious global health problem.

Australia faces major ecological challenges.  A combination of increased human population, increased consumption, and refinements to technology and organisation of labour has contributed damage to ecosystems that sustain life, resource depletion and increased competition and conflict amongst humans for scarce resources. While these processes have operated for many centuries, the trends to greater harm have accelerated in the 20th and 21st Centuries.

So what capabilities are necessary for us to address these challenges in the 21st Century? The literature indicates that two broad and interconnected capabilities are pertinent:

  • the ability to think well and
  • the ability to live well.

The literature suggests that included in the ability to think well are the abilities to:

  • think critically, (that is the ability to examine, reflect, argue and debate) ,
  • think deeply and logically,
  • solve problems in ways that draw upon a range of learning areas and disciplines, and
  • be creative, innovative and resourceful.

Included in the ability to live well are the abilities to:

  • manage one’s emotional, mental, spiritual and physical wellbeing,
  • relate well to others and form and maintain healthy relationships, and
  • have concern for the lives of other living beings.

The literature on 21st Century Capabilities is very recent.  It raises various significant questions that have been discussed today and will be increasingly in the future.  These include:

What exactly are the 21st Century Capabilities?

How can they be assessed?  Pencil and paper/ tick a box tests do not seem sufficient.

How are 21st Century capabilities best learned?  How can teachers best support students in cultivating 21st Century capabilities?

Assuming 21st century skills can and should be taught within the traditional disciplines, are they different from one discipline to another? (For example, is creativity different in the arts to economics? Is problem solving in the physical sciences different to the social sciences?)

What are the implications for teacher education and professional learning of the imperative of 21st Century capabilities for all?

How can we validly and reliably evaluate education systems’ efficacy in developing students’ 21st century skills?

How do we build the capacity of systems to develop 21st century skills?

Greg Prior is the Deputy Director-General, Schools, in the New South Wales Department of Education and Communities. He is also Adjunct Professor in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. This post was drawn from his presentation to a group of Department of Education and Communities regional and state office directors who spent a day engaging with Professor Yong Zhao on 21 century learning.


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