Educating the 21st century child

Lessons from the science of learning
Steve Snodgrass, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
Steve Snodgrass, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

Active learning, playful learning, flipped classrooms, team-based learning – this plethora of new terms highlights an effort designed to align the way we teach with the science of how children learn. This signals a pedagogical shift that is no less than a sea change from the older, yet still prominent models where teachers stand in front of their classrooms dispensing knowledge to passive apprentices. Human minds and human brains best master content when it is delivered in active, engaged, meaningful and socially interactive ways.

There is little doubt that these new methods will boost test outcomes. But by implementing them without re-thinking our broader educational goals, we largely miss the point. In the new book I wrote together with Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Becoming Brilliant: What Science teaches us about raising successful children, we posit that the global world order has changed significantly and that the definition of educational success itself is still trapped in the equivalent of a horse-and-buggy framework. Simply adding new ways to ride the horse and buggy will not prepare the rider to experience the Tesla.

Traditionally, schools have been defined as places that teach the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. Teachers, as fountains of knowledge, endow their students with facts and figures that should prepare them well for the workplace.

“Students graduating from high schools will need to be information integrators and pattern makers who trade in social and creative currency.”

But that model may be insufficient in the current climate, in which information is doubling every two and a half years. Indeed, some say that we now read the equivalent of 174 newspapers a day, if we include our scans of Facebook, email and social media outlets. In this fast-paced world, business leaders tell us that mastery of facts, while important, will simply not be enough. Students graduating from high schools will need to be information integrators and pattern makers who trade in social and creative currency.

Several years ago, the province of Ontario, Canada, recognized that the educational system had to change to meet those new demands. In our modified version of their mission statement, we suggest that the purpose of a strong education should be to support happy, healthy, thinking, caring, and social children who become collaborative, creative, competent, and responsible citizens tomorrow. The challenge before us then, is to ask how we might craft learning environments that achieve these goals.

Distilling from discussions in business boardrooms and research emanating from scientific laboratories, we posited a solution built upon a breadth of skills – a suite of 6 interactive skills that could lead us closer to this vision of success. Each skill chosen has a foundation in the science of learning, is malleable and is measurable. The result was the 6Cs represented in the 6-by-4 grid below – a grid based on thousands of scientific articles.

Center for Universal Education at BROOKINGS / Skills for a Changing World. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek

Center for Universal Education at BROOKINGS / Skills for a Changing World

Collaboration refers to social relationships, the ability to form community and the ability to socially regulate or control your impulses, as when a child learns to wait to his turn on the swing rather than clobbering the child who got the first turn.

Communication speaks to language learning, listening and the lost art of rhetoric.

Content captures traditional subjects like reading and math as well as executive-function skills like memory, attention and planning – learning to learn.

Critical thinking represents the ability to navigate through content and to use evidence to support an opinion or a thesis.

Creative innovation occurs when we sift through content in ways that enable us to generate new solutions.

Confidence includes learning from failures, grit and the important growth mindset of believing that you can achieve by putting in appropriate effort.

These skill sets work in tandem and build on one another to create a dynamic learning system that is revisited in each new context and content area across a lifespan.

Taking but a snapshot of the 6Cs, we can create our own learning profile within this grid. Are we good communicators but poor collaborators? What about our children? How do we want to grow, or where might we want our children to grow? How can we design environments in and out of classrooms to foster these skills and to change our profile? A few examples illustrate our approach.

In our college classrooms, we begin each semester by introducing students to the 6Cs and asking students to do a self-evaluation of where they are at the moment and where they hope to be at the end of the semester. Our classes are carefully designed to give them opportunities to collaborate (discussions, group projects); communicate (orally and in writing); build content (they have to learn psychology 101 and how best to read the primary literature); critical thinking (writing to support their own thesis); creativity (developing their own theoretical approach or experiment); and confidence (to overcome any barriers and to try even if they are not perfect).

“Let us challenge ourselves to ask whether it is time to change the goal of education itself for a new era.”

Our approach can also be applied to museums and schools.  In a museum, for example, one can enhance collaboration by constructing exhibits that require children to work together. The Muslim Culture exhibit on display at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan allows children to load  “merchandise” onto a large ship through a pulley system that gently delivers the goods to children at the top of the ship who ready it for its journey across the seas.

This breadth-of-skills approach feeds a different model for success.  The collaborative child who must work with others learns to navigate the social environment, and to develop caring and sharing skills. When critical thinking becomes a priority, our children not only learn the content, but they also learn to transfer the content to new contexts. Learning occurs in and out of school and prepares children to be creators today and entrepreneurs in the workplace tomorrow.

It is thrilling to see our science sparking newer pedagogies that engage human minds.  It is a marvelous first step. As we embrace these newer techniques, however, let’s not be constrained by the traditional set of outcomes. Let us challenge ourselves to ask whether it is time to change the goal of education itself for a new era. “Becoming Brilliant” asks how our science might foster this new vision and its implementation.

Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells us About Raising Successful Children by Roberta Michnick Golinkoff PhD, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek PhD, American Psychological Association (APA), 2016

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