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The Global Education Revolution

Preparing Students for an Uncertain Future


Preparing Students for an Uncertain Future


Countries around the world are in a mad dash to figure out the best way to give students the skills needed to cope with a rapidly changing world. There are plenty of trends Taiwan could learn from.



Preparing Students for an Uncertain Future

By Rose Sheu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 536 )

Early autumn at the kindergarten affiliated with FreieUniversität Berlin. A group of four- and five-year-olds bravely disassembles and explores an old computer in one of the class's work stations, experiencing a process of "destroying and rebuilding" that constitutes "an important part of learning."

Mid-September in Shanghai, just after Teacher's Day (Sept. 10) at Shanghai Daning International Elementary School. Young students eagerly raise their hands to speak or ask questions during a class. The teacher has not spent much time going over the meaning of specific vocabulary, instead jumping right into a discussion of the lesson, because thinking, asking questions and speaking out are more important parts of the learning process than the subject matter itself.

Then there's "King's Highway" in Silicon Valley. At one end a wealthy school district; at the other end a privately managed charter school in the Rocketship Education network where 80 percent of the students come from low-income families. Young students sit in front of a computer, taking a customized online course.

In the Rocketship school, students have their own learning curriculum, and their performance surpasses that of children in higher socioeconomic communities. The secret of their success lies in using technology to create a personalized classroom.

'Flipping' Education, 'Flipping' Destinies

Back in Taiwan, Yeh Ping-cheng, a ponytailed, skateboard-riding associate professor in National Taiwan University's Department of Electrical Engineering, tells students at the outset of his first class of the semester: "I hold class but I don't lecture. You have to prep for class by first going online and getting the class material by watching a video."

Yeh spends class time discussing questions with students and having them answer questions and solve problems. In August, he was one of Taiwan's first group of professors to put their courses on the "Massive Open Online Courses" (MOOC) platform Coursera.

Yeh's application of digital technology has turned the traditional classroom, in which professors first give their lecture and then have students go home and do homework, on its head. Under this "flipped classroom" model, students first take the initiative to get instruction online outside of class and use class time to discuss and raise questions about it,do homework, and get individualized guidance.

These examples of revolutions taking place in classrooms around the globe are not isolated sparks but part of a massive wave sweeping education systems from elementary schools to university campuses, and digital technology is a major engine of this worldwide upheaval.

Online Education Bringing Change

In 2006, the founder of the Khan Academy, Salman Khan, put the non-profit educational website's first video tutorial online. Seven years later, students from 30,000 classrooms in 216 countries and territories are using his online course materials.

The MOOC concept took off in 2011 when 160,000 people registered for the artificial intelligence course offered online by Stanford University computer science professor Sebastian Thrun.

Elite American universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Yale and MIT, are now posting large numbers of courses online, launching an era in which instruction from world-renowned professors is available for free to students to access and study at their convenience.

Education has been made cheaper and more accessible because of the high speed and low cost of computer, mobile phone and Internet transmission, with personalized learning growing more universal as a result. The process of innovation in teaching and systemshas also changed the classroom landscape.

Shanghai, whose students ranked first in the world in math, science and reading in the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment in 2009, has absorbed lessons in education from countries around the world, including the United States, Japan, Finland and India. Germany's dual-education education system, which stresses hands-on learning and combines apprenticeships with formal schooling, has emerged as an antidote to high youth unemployment. It was described by the Economist as the country's "latest export hit" and the source of a "new deal" for Europe.

Taiwan itself is introducing a new 12-year education system, but questions abound over whether it can adequately prepare students for a changing future and the structural problems that exist in the global labor market.

Competitiveness Starts in Schools

From Europe and the United States to Japan and Taiwan, the world has entered an era when young adults struggling to find work co-exist with companies having trouble finding the right people to fill positions, and the solution to the dilemma may have to come from education.

"Global competitiveness is no longer decided in factories but in schools," says Chen Kuan-ting, a section chief with the Institute for Information Industry's Digital Education Institute, identifying the catalyst behind the new wave of education innovation.

Schools must adjust to this new reality and prepare students to be more adaptable and willing to learn new things.

"The world is also no longer divided into specialists and generalists," declares a 2012 OECD report titled Preparing Teachers and Developing School Leaders for the 21st Century.

"What counts today are the versatilists who are able to apply depth of skill to a progressively widening scope of situations and experiences, gaining new competencies, building relationships, and assuming new roles. They are capable not only of constantly adapting but also of constantly learning and growing, of positioning themselves and repositioning themselves in a fast changing world."

A survey by economic forecaster Oxford Economics identified four broad areas where skills will be in greatest demand over the next five to 10 years: digital skills, agile thinking skills, interpersonal and communication skills and global operating skills.

The Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills research project, which started with more than 250 researchers from 60 institutions worldwide, also classifies the skills needed in the future into four broad categories: 1) Ways of thinking – creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving and decision-making; 2) Ways of working, – communication and collaboration; 3) Tools for working – ICT and information literacy; and 4) Skills for living in the world – citizenship, life and career, and personal and social responsibility.

Five Major Global Learning Trends

Fueling the global pursuit of education innovation is the need to prepare students with the skills and capabilities needed in the 21st century. Here are the some of the major trends currently in vogue:

1) Stimulating a Desire to Learn

Schools now put a priority on guiding students to uncover problems and find answers on their own. The focal point has shifted from teachers and teaching to students and learning by getting students into the habit of learning independently.

The main theme of Shanghai's second round of curriculum reform was to "return the initiative to learn to students." In the city's classrooms today, teachers rarely spend the full length of a class speaking; instead they are far more likely to be leading discussions on the subject matter and answering students' questions.

Similarly, when Singapore was considering reforming its education system in 2004, Prime Minister Lee Hsien-loong advocated a "teach less, learn more" approach to ease the city-state's pressure cooker environment. The approach stressed the idea of touching the hearts and engaging the minds of learners.

2) Encouraging Collaborative Learning

By connecting people around the globe, the Internet has made collaborative learning across different sectors more common and innovation and problem solving more dependent on the power of cooperation.

The system prevalent at the end of the last century was an isolated learning style that ranked students by test scores and intensified individual competition. But growing numbers of countries and studies have discovered that collaborative learning is a more effective way to learn and better equipped to foster communication and cooperation.  

At Ernst-Moritz-Arndt-Gymnasium in Bonn, Germany, for example, most courses are taught in small groups. The students must work together on specific problems or projects, and once they've completed an assignment, they have to share their work with students in lower grades and teach younger schoolmates.

The learning communities advocated by Tokyo University professor Manabu Sato place an even greater emphasis on peer-to-peer learning. His research has shown that "the power of children learning from each other is five times as great as when teachers instruct children."

3) Stressing More Personalized Instruction

The ideal of "teaching students based on their aptitude" advocated by Confucius 2,500 years ago has been given further expression today because of the evolution of digital technology.

In an interview with CommonWealth Magazine, Salman Khan described the transformation that this learning revolution has engendered.

Back in medieval times, he said, only kings and nobility were educated through personal tutors, who would personalize the lessons to make sure their students could master the concepts. But with mass education today, people are massed together to all learn the same things at the same pace. Inevitably, some children who do not grasp concepts quickly get left behind, and the gap only grows.

To encourage personalized learning in this environment, teachers need ways to keep track of every student, Khan said.

"Where we hope Khan Academy help, is that we can take care of that for teachers. We can give recommendations to every student that are (based on) their level, and we can give teachers indications of where those students are," he said. "So it's customized for each individual learner."

4) Effective Learning

As the core focus of education shifts from teachers to students, classroom objectives should no longer be tied to progress made by the teacher but rather to how effectively students have learned.

The two main concepts behind Khan Academy reflect the changing educational landscape. The first is that courses must match the progress of individual students. The second is that basic concepts must be mastered before moving on to more advanced subjects.

In an interview with CommonWealth Parenting, another magazine in the CommonWealth Magazine Group, professor Sato said, "The responsibility of teachers is not to keep up with the textbook. As learning specialists, teachers are responsible for making sure that every student learns."

5) Equitable Participation in Learning

In the current wave of education reform sweeping across the globe, substantial attention has been given to making education equitable and democratic and ensuring that each child has a fair opportunity to participate and learn in the classroom and is not treated like a guest.

The Knowledge is Power Program network of public charter schools in the United States, for example, relies on the use of technology to create a learning environment completely different from traditional public schools. Instead of simply standing in front of a blackboard, teachers work with students in groups based on their comprehension levels, leading to more personalized attention that successfullyturns around weaker learners.

Taiwan's Looming Crisis

Looking closely at education systems from around the world does not imply that Taiwan should simply transplant the methods of other countries or accept their systems in their entirety. Rather, many of these countries are similar to Taiwan in that they face serious crises and challenges in cultivating talent. Their responses to these difficulties are worth studying, analyzing and using as a reference.

Like many economies, Taiwan suffers from high youth unemployment even as companies struggle to find the talent they need. But the crisis in Taiwan is even more pressing than in other parts of the world because its current generation of students will be hit with the huge burden of a rapidly aging society.

That's because while in 2012, there were 6.7 people of working age supporting one senior citizen, there will only be 2.7 people of working age to support a senior citizen in 2030.

According to a Ministry of Education white paper on talent cultivation, students who graduate from universities after 2028 (today's first graders or second graders) must be more than twice as productive as today's graduates for Taiwan to continue developing and avoid becoming poorer.

"The scale of the global economy and the changes the world is experiencing are things we have never seen before. But our current education system is incapable of giving young people the self-confidence needed to face the future," says Yeh of National Taiwan University.

"We have to change the way we teach and give students self-confidence so that they believe they will have the ability to deal with an uncertain future."

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier