That it’s crucial for our students to acquire 21st century competencies is something many teachers believe in. But what can they do to help students acquire those competencies? What teaching strategies should they use?
Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity: These four words were used by the Minister of Education Heng Swee Keat to describe the 21st century environment at the 2013 MOE Workplan Seminar.
The question of how schools and teachers can help students acquire the competencies to navigate this brave new world is being debated about not just in Singapore, but all over the world.
Representatives from 10 major cities in Asia and North America recently convened in Singapore to discuss this and other key issues in education. The meeting was organized by the Global Cities in Education Network (GCEN) of the Asia Society (based in USA), and the Ministry of Education and the National Institute of Education in Singapore.
As part of their activities in Singapore, GCEN invited renowned panelists to speak at the public symposium “Teaching and Assessing 21st CC: An International Perspective” on 9 October 2013.
The panelists are:
- Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Stanford University, USA;
- Ms Gen Ling Chang, Associate Director of the Toronto District School Board, Canada;
- Mr Wong Siew Hoong, Deputy Director-General of Education (Curriculum) of the Ministry of Education, Singapore; and
- Professor Lee Sing Kong, Director of the National Institute of Education, Singapore.
The audience of 370 educators and policymakers were treated to insightful discussions on how 21st century competencies should be taught and assessed. We bring you excerpts from the discussion on teaching strategies.
Professor Linda Darling-Hammond
There is knowledge that you need to master and understand, but yet, master it in a way aimed at using it to solve new problems, rather than to just forget at the end of the exam.
– Linda Darling-Hammond, Charles E. Ducommun Professor, Stanford University
I think there is some consensus that more of certain strategies can be helpful. Engaging students in productive and well-designed collaborative work, using technologies for finding, analyzing and synthesizing information aimed at solving problems – that is, empowering the use of technology.
But I do think that there are competing ideas in practice. There’s a lot of furore over technology, about how some people are really using it like an electronic workbook, where the students are controlled by the technology. You see a lot of this, and it’s called 21st century learning because there’s a computer involved. But it’s actually not really about critical thinking and innovative skills. It’s the student being managed by the computer to fill out multiple choice questions, to master bits of information.
So we shouldn’t be confused by the presence of technology and whether it automatically means we’re pursuing 21st century skills, which should be the fluid ability to use tools, text resources, ideas to solve problems in a new space.
We’re learning to learn. I often quote two of my colleagues at Berkeley who have been studying the growth of knowledge. They found out that between 1999 and 2003, there was more new knowledge created around the world than in the entire history of the world. Human knowledge was doubling every 2 years at that time. It’s now doubling every year.
What that means is you can’t just take a curriculum and make sure the kids master a certain number of facts from there every year. Then, at the end of 12 years, we’d be done. They would be working with knowledge that hasn’t been invented yet, to solve problems that we can hardly envision, using technologies that don’t yet exist. These need 21st century skills.
Computers are a way to access information. If you can Google it, the real question becomes, do you need to memorize it then? That’s a good debate and we should engage in it. I’m not saying, throw away the facts. There is knowledge that you need to master and understand, but yet, master it in a way aimed at using it to solve new problems, rather than to just forget at the end of the exam. So I think that’s one of the areas where learning has to be continually focused on: the use of that knowledge.
Ms Gen Ling Chang
Technology is a fascinating thing. We look at the use of technology as a learning device. You can use it as a substitution tool or you can use it to augment learning capacity. It’s two very different concepts. When we begin to look at that, we see a “participation gap”. A student could use social media forum to engineer and influence debate and discourse, while another student uses Twitter to talk about what Lady Gaga wears. Two very different use of a learning device: that’s a participation gap.
Technology is a fascinating thing. We look at the use of technology as a learning device.
– Gen Ling Chang, Associate Director, Toronto District School Board
So what is the role of our schools? We begin to develop what we call the general learning skills for kids, where we teach them how to harvest information relative to their purpose, how to curate, archive and use them without plagiarizing. That is a whole new set of skills.
There are kids who sit at the computer for 2 hours and they don’t do their assignment because they’re navigating YouTube which is so fascinating to them. They listen to one speaker after another and when the next assignment comes up, they do the same thing because they’ve not learned the skills or capacities.
I’m just giving you an idea of how far more complex the work of a teacher is as we move forward in developing the 21st century competencies.
Mr Wong Siew Hoong
What I’m very sure of is that we need to move away from very traditional pedagogies.
– Wong Siew Hoong, Deputy Director-General of Education (Curriculum), Ministry of Education
I echo Ms Chang’s view, which is that teaching has become a lot more complex.
What I’m very sure about pedagogy for 21st century competencies is that it can’t be didactic. The days of teachers standing in front and delivering a set of ideas and knowledge to students, that is no longer relevant. This is because of technology and also how knowledge is now freely available. So what I’m very sure of is that we need to move away from very traditional pedagogies.
And that’s where the whole array of different pedagogies might then be applied. That’s where the complexities of teaching have begun to complicate our lives as teachers. Because as teachers we have to think, “Which pedagogy is the most relevant to my subject area?” And it’s not just about teaching a set of ideas, but a set of skills related to those ideas that can bring students forward in the 21st century.
My proposition is therefore that our teachers, all of us in teaching, must be ready to apply within the classroom a wider repertoire of pedagogies.
Professor Lee Sing Kong
Teaching in the 21st century is not easy, it’s a very challenging task! For professors teaching in universities, the moment they begin to speak about a certain topic, the students are way ahead of them because they’ve already Googled the topic. In fact, they’ll be asking the professor questions which may stump him or her.
I believe many children in our schools are also like that. I describe the students in our schools today as EPIC learners (who learn in ways that are experiential, participatory, image-driven and connected to the world).
I think the key is, teachers must capitalize on the learning profile of our children. Teachers must understand who our students are, and how they prefer to learn. That’s why I totally support the idea that NIE continues to inculcate in our teachers the belief that we must teach our students to learn how to learn.
Knowledge is freely available. What you think you have given them, they can find it in many other places. We must facilitate their learning so that they know what knowledge to look for. That’s why one of the outcomes we want to achieve is self-directed learning.
I think the key is, teachers must capitalize on the learning profile of our children.
– Lee Sing Kong, Director, National Institute of Education
The other part is, students love to work as a group, either physically or virtually. So, in schools, we must learn to tolerate noise. In the past, when we talk about didactic teaching, the quieter the classroom is, the better it is. Today, I think it is the opposite. We must tolerate noise simply because we want to encourage our students to talk, to collaborate and in the process, to learn.
Teachers today are facing a very strong challenge when it comes to how to teach. But the greatest importance of a teacher today is to understand your students well. Different groups learn differently. Once you understand your students well, you can adopt an appropriate approach. It is really no more a one-model-fixes-all situation.