Friday, November 5, 2010

Education: Old answers to new questions?

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Ways of creating and diffusing knowledge, production structure, and social participation, have radically changed in the last 20 years; these changes have undoubtedly had a significant influence on the expectations that society has on school systems. The question of what quality education in the 21st century means is a perfectly legitimate, with the answer almost certainly being very different from the schools we’ve inherited from the 20th Century.

The great challenge of 20th Century education was democratization: that ALL children have access to the MINIMUM education that would allow them to function in society as competent workers and citizens. In general, Latin America was particularly successful with this effort, especially noted in the progress made during the 1980’s to 1990’s.

Nevertheless, we recognize this endeavor as insufficient. Today more children are in schools, but the educational results are far from settling. Not simply because those same international tests show us the enormous gap that separates us from developed countries, but because we have noticed that the school, in its current form, appears impermeable and too rigid to address the challenges that the 21st century presents.

The big question of 21st century education will be how we can continue to offer an education that serves ALL, but offers spaces and strategies to develop the MAXIUM potential in EACH student.

There are two trends that characterize this 21st Century education challenge. The first is that after the tremendous effort of democratizing education in the 20th century, quality has necessarily succumbed to the same diversity of schools. The educational systems that were elite and homogenous gave way to massive and highly heterogeneous systems. This condition is the root of the difficulties confronted by countries as they improve the quality of their educational outcomes.

The effort of personalization requires educational organizations that are very different than what we have today: much more flexible, open, and capable recognizing the abilities and interests of every child, collaboratively develop their potential, while staying connected with their social and cultural environments. This requires systems and practices for which today’s school is not prepared.

21st Century Skills
Ways of thinking
  1. Creativity and innovation
  2. Critical thinking, problem solving,
    and decision making 
  3. Learning to learn, metacognition
Ways of working
  1. Communication
  2. Collaboration and teamwork
Work tools
  1. Information literacy
  2. Digital literacy
Living in the World
  1. Citizenship, local and global
  2. Life and career
  3. Personal and social responsibility,
    includingcultural awareness and
Source: ATC21S Project (2010)
The second trend and challenge is how schools will prepare their students to face the future work and civic environments marked by constant change, where critical thinking, creativity, and lifelong learning skills are required.

These are called 21st Century Skills, to support the reorganization of educational systems so that they prepare students for what is most relevant. This involves developing better instruments to measure abilities, preparing teachers for new roles, identifying and extending new educational practices that strengthen the development of these skills, and providing educational resources that support these new methods.

These two trends represent the most important challenges for education systems, particularly in Latin America, where they must face the challenge of quality to advance competitiveness and economic development without abandoning the effort to expand coverage in contexts of high inequality.

It is unavoidable that these advances take advantage of technological developments. The use of technologies in education is not related to the quantity of digital devices distributed by governments without ways in which education systems can integrate technology holistically to promote and support changes that enable them to achieve learning that is relevant to the demands of society.

The educational policy decisions of the present are those that will be with us during the upcoming years. The current discussion about education is a good excuse to ask a more basic question: are we looking for answers to 21st century questions or are we still trying to mend the education of the 20th century?


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