Economies and marketplaces change quicker with every passing year. Around 50 BCE Vitruvius, a Roman engineer, created the vertical water wheel. The next breakthrough in turbine technology did not occur until 600 CE when the windmill was invented in the Middle East. It took 650 years from the advent of the turbine for a technological advancement to be made. Compare that to the modern timeline of the internet: In 1989 Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, in 1997 we had Wi-Fi, and in 2007 Apple introduced a revolutionary new touch screen cellphone called the iPhone. In just 18 years we went from the advent of the World Wide Web to the creation of the first smartphone.
Think about it: the people designing the latest best selling app went to school when the World Wide Web barely existed. The challenge of education is not to cultivate students who are ready for a static world, but rather the challenge is to help prepare students for a world with jobs, opportunities, and challenges that do not yet exist. We can’t even imagine what piece of technology will drive and change the economies like the smartphone has in the last eight years, which leads educators to the question of what should students learn in school.
In his final speech as President, Barack Obama warned that “The next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good, middle-class jobs obsolete.” This wasn’t an idea that he came up with while standing at that podium in Chicago. Rather, it was an idea that came from a study issued during his administration. “Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and the Economy,” the aforementioned report, projects that “accelerating artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities will enable automation of some tasks that have long required human labor. These transformations will open up new opportunities for individuals, the economy, and society, but they have the potential to disrupt the current livelihoods of millions of Americans.”
Educators should emphasize skills and attitudes over curriculum and rote memorization. The curriculum should aid in fostering skills like digital literacy, problem-solving, reasoning, collaboration, creativity, interpretation, and analysis to help the student in all the situations he or she encounters. Because technological advances, like the internet, have rendered skills like rote memorization unimportant students should learn how to retrieve, synthesize, evaluate, and think critically about the extensive library of information found online.
This does not mean that schools should depart from teaching foundational subjects like algebra and english. It will always be beneficial for students to know how to solve an equation and craft a thesis. Implementing 21st Century skills in a class means teachers should provide students, through carefully planned lessons and assignments, with opportunities to cultivate 21st-century skills within these important subjects. Schools should be committed to doing their best to make sure their students are ready to impact the world, no matter what that future holds.