Training students for the 21st Century

Education is a hugely politically loaded issue. I want to write today briefly about education. I’ve two years of experience as a tutor and Teaching Assistant in a Northern Ireland Grammar School, and continue to tutor a range of ages while I undergo my Masters studies in Mathematics. I definitely will focus on STEM subjects, although some of the things I mention will be applicable to other disciplines.

Cal Newport who runs the excellent blog Study Hacks in his teaching statement on his professional page, talks about ‘insight centred pedagogy’. When I teach Calculus myself I feel this is also an important issue. It is impossible to really get a feel for calculus and not to get lost in the details of proofs, without for instance knowing that the tangent to a curve is the first derivative. Similarly in something like Differential Geometry, one needs an insight of what a Lie Derivative is for before learning a long and cumbersome expression.
Perhaps then the focus of lectures should be on the ‘big ideas’ and there is also a huge benefit of the usage of computers in this area. Certainly that sometimes means using Mathlab and Mathematica, perhaps to help ‘debug’ peoples ideas. The wonderful resources that students have including for instance ‘Wolfram Alpha’ and Wikipedia are certainly things that need to be used.
I’m going to think some more about this, and the importance of developing the insights first.
Someone like Cal Newport certainly sees the importance of Theory and Practice in the 21st century, and his blog which focuses on cognitive science supported and study strategies that work, is a very valuable resource to students.
My article today was inspired by a piece on the New Statesman website, by Peter Hyman:

The Tory answer is “students who know more facts”, but the answer from most teachers, students and employers would be “students who know how to apply their knowledge, who love learning, who are creative, analytical and flexible; students who can work independently and show resilience, who are moral and kind to others; students who are high-quality written and oral communicators”.

We don’t know what the jobs of the 21st century will be. It is possible that some of them will involve a huge STEM component, especially as the new Mc Kinsey report which shows that there will be a huge increase in ‘Big Data’ jobs, not to mention the growth industries of Biotechnology, Cryptography and Internet Security.

We don’t know what the jobs of the future will be, so we need students to be ready to change, react and adapt. And we need learning in the classroom to be based less on an outdated notion (disciplinarian teacher at the front) and more on what the neuroscience is telling us: that students learn best when their learning is active (not rote learning or overuse of textbooks), experiential (hands-on), in longer periods (not broken up into 50-minute chunks), developed over a sustained period, and connected to a big picture (making connections between subjects and to larger ideas

This certainly ties in with the ‘big picture’ learning, or inverted classroom approach that someone like Seymour Papert certainly encouraged people to cultivate. Or Robert Talbert’s comments on this inverted classroom approach.
A question I regularly ask is ‘do we teach the correct skills?’
A follow up question is what are the correct skills.
I’m not sure what the answer to that question is. But it is something which needs to be thought out carefully, and with respect for reality, not ideological bias.

2 thoughts on “Training students for the 21st Century

  1. The question of proper preparation of students for the future is so huge and important that it merits more than just a blog comment, but here are a couple of thoughts.

    First of all, in the US at least, the engineering community seems to have a better handle on this question than anybody else. I’d highly encourage people interested in these issues to read the document “The Engineer or 2020: Visions of Engineering in the New Century”: (You can read the full text online.) It was written in 2004 and was pretty heavily influenced by 9/11. The underlying thesis is similar to what you said above: We really have only a slight sense of what the real problems of the 21st century are going to be. If we try to train students for the problems that are known in full specificity right now, when these new problems cross the horizon, those students — now professionals — will not be able to respond in time. So we should be training students not only in the basics of the discipline (engineering, but it generalizes to anything) but also those skills that lend themselves to fast adaptations to emergent needs. The document goes on to lay out what those skills look like, and you can find those summarized in the most recent ABET accreditation standards. (For example, see here:

    Second, I would say that if you want to train students for the 21st century, you have to live and teach as if it were the 21st century. Most of us teach as we were taught, and we were taught in the 20th century before technology and globalization caught up with the classroom. Now we have to change. No more reliance on timed testing alone; no more hermetically sealing technology, especially mobile computing, out of the classroom; no more assuming that what worked for 100 years prior to now will continue to work just because it’s worked before.

    1. Thank you for your reply Professor.
      I ask mainly as a Masters student. I generally do get from older professors the reply ‘you have to understand this area of Mathematics’ but that certainly needs clarification. It is difficult with lectures for instance to have the courage to admit that one doesn’t understand something especially in front of peers. I personally don’t have such problems, but I do find it a bit overwhelming with a heavy course load to always know enough to ask questions.
      Understanding a topic needs clarification – one needs insights a la insight driven pedagogy and the skill to translate such insights into Mathematical proofs. Generally the Mathematical proof isn’t so difficult, once one for instance understands what the mathematical objects are. As Ian Stewart points out in his preface to ‘How to Solve it’ by George Poyla. ‘I had a student who I once asked ‘do you know what continuous means’ and he replied ‘no’ – and I could quite cheerfully strangle him for not asking me what continuous meant’. Clearly the question involved proving the continuity of a curve say.

      As a student I ask that I am taught and thought of as a rational and competent agent with control over my life, and that I am no dis-empowered by an inefficient pedagogical process.
      Lectures are clearly not the best way to teach for the 21st century.

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