Bringing learning into the 21st century

Our education systems are stuck in the past. It’s time to shake up the system with a bit of design and innovation, and build skills relevant to the 21st century
Public education was created back when the interest was on building skills for the 19th century: the industrial revolution. While this system includes skills that are still relevant, it’s no longer enough. Children’s doctor Dr Remo Largo puts it perfectly: “The children are living in the 21st century, parents and teachers are in the 20th century, and the education system is stuck in the 19th century.”

We've seen the digital revolution roll around (and we're only at the beginning); industry 4.0 continues to shape our role in the workplace; and the importance of design, art and innovation for the economy will continue to grow. So the question stands: how can we re-boot the way we teach and learn to widen students’ skillsets for the 21st century?

Let’s start by defining what exactly 21st skills are. There are a few different definitions floating around, but according to UNESCO, they involve communication, critical thinking, problem-solving strategies, team-work, creativity and creative thinking. This appears to be the general consensus.

In some cases, these skills are starting to be taken seriously; for instance, the use of the term STEAM over STEM is something many institutions are now adopting – that is Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Maths. But generally the restrictions of the tradition school system are too tight for change to really occur within the classroom. The challenge is to find ways to introduce schools to new learning techniques that embrace creativity and innovation, and allow for a broader educational experience.  

Understanding the stakeholders

When working and speaking with a lot of industry stakeholders; for instance, teachers, parents, children, school social workers, and headmasters, it’s clear that many want change to occur but there is a reluctance. This generally stems from the pressures of a demanding system and lack of time - these pressures hold progress back. 

One 8th grade teacher said: “I just think we breed robots... robots that learn by heart, and are very theoretically formed in the end. But I 'm not sure if these are the people we need today. In most cases, they are not team players. In general, I think that creative thinkers change the world, not super brains.”

A mother noted the need for more nurturing of varied talents: “Every child should be accepted the way they are. Encourage them where they are good and support them where they need it. This is happening far too little in elementary school. I feel that there is more focus on weaknesses than strengths.”

Prototyping the future

Through various school projects, we’ve been testing ways to address these issues and bring the teaching of 21st century skills into the classroom. We’ve come up with an approach that supports and encourages the development of creativity and creative thinking, by taking methods and processes from the design area and bringing them into a new (classroom-friendly) context.

Here’s how it works: 

Recognize and define the problem

Students are asked to identify a problem from their daily or school life. This can be anything from enabling better communication, creating efficient methods for recycling, or being able to play their favorite video games with friends in different locations.  

Collecting and analyzing

In this phase, teams conduct research into each individual’s problem. The groups then analyze what they’ve found and then decide as a group which topic they want to address. 

Develop and review ideas

Now it’s time to start thinking about possible solutions. Together the team members brainstorm ideas and see which technologies they can use as a basis for their approach – this is supported by our designers. 

Introduction to prototyping and technologies

Students gain a hands-on introduction to various technologies they can experiment with to further evolve their ideas. For instance, Arduino, an open-source electronic prototyping platform which allows you to create interactive electronic objects; Scratch, a visual programming platform for children and young people, which allows them to design games, animations and interactive stories; and Little Bits, electrical prototypes that help children understand the connection of actuators and sensors.

In addition to technical tools, students can use paper prototyping to visualize the idea, test it and make it tangible.

Prototyping - implementing the idea

Now the fun really starts. Pupils build and program their first prototypes, test them and evaluate the approach. At the end of this phase, they have created a multi-iterated prototype that makes their Ideas tangible and understandable.

Prototype presentation

In this final phase pupils prepare a presentation - an opportunity to tell a story about their idea. They create a poster, role-play, video, etc.,  with the most important information about their concept, and in their groups present this and their prototype to the class or even the whole school.

What we’ve witnessed is that through this process children learn through real experiences and thus expand their knowledge. They develop communication, critical thinking, collaboration and creativity skills, while taking on more responsibility for their own creative learning process.

The strategies they use can be applied to many situations and, through working collaboratively, each child learns about their strengths and recognizes that each individual has certain skills they can bring to the table. Overall, it supports the natural curiosity of children and encourages them to explore the possibilities of knowledge – exactly what 21st century skills are all about.

On the other hand, we’ve also experienced that there is still progress to make to change the attitudes of the educators and institutions. Often these classes are not considered to be as important as other subjects; therefore, teachers don’t want to make time for it, especially if they are not certain about the outcomes. We suggest that by introducing teachers and stakeholders to these concepts throughout their training, they will better understand the value and process involved.

Another point is that teachers need to trust children’s capabilities, and let them take control of the co-creation process. Our design approach requires teachers to take a step back and trust students to learn alone. This is something they often find difficult, but we are yet to come across an educator who isn’t surprised by the great outcomes and hidden abilities of students. Similarly, for the students, when given the opportunity to discover their strengths and capabilities it builds their confidence. They may not be the best in class for maths and science, but when working in groups, they naturally fall into a role that suits them – by using co-creation, they all find their strengths.

We hope that these tools and design methods can act as inspiration to educators and decision-makers and, step by step, we can transform school systems into something that prepares students not just for today, but for the future. The aim is that they become interdisciplinary topics that can be integrated into the regular curriculum.