7 Things to do to prepare your students for the future

In times of change it isn’t the strongest, fastest, fittest or most intelligent that survive, it is those that can adapt to the new conditions. We are undoubtedly entering a period of unimaginable progress, driven by mobile devices, and as educators have a duty to equip our young people with the skills to do so. Continuing to do what we have always done is not an option.

Progress does not always necessarily mean improvements. When humans moved from being hunter gatherers to agriculturalists (described by anthropologist Jared Diamond as our ‘Worst mistake’ see here. there was a massive increase in time invested to feed ourselves. Difficulties such as overpopulation and the resulting aggression and social problems began to emerge.

A new skill set was needed, the ability to throw a spear was less important than being able to grow and store crops. It wasn’t enough just to grow things for yourself, you needed to be able to collaborate and trade with others. The concept of land ownership and settled communities were established wreaking havoc on the nomadic hunter gatherers.

Historically, before the Industrial revolution, the strongest man in the village had a real value and was capable of doing things others were not.The industrial revolution however removed the limitations of muscle power and soon the tractor driver could accomplish far more than the strongest man. Now the World’s strongest man is who? We don’t know because it is not important to us, unlike of course the worlds fastest man.

What value does he have?
What value does he have?

According to the likes of Andrew McAfee in the video below, we are now on the cusp of a digital revolution where the limitations of brain power will be overcome. Are we in danger of our education system missing this transformation? It undoubtedly cannot keep up with developments.

There is a lot of debate about the fine points of education, the value of direct instruction and evidence based learning. Is this comparable to fine tuning our strongman’s training program? Do we need to think completely differently?

Could we be educating our students to be the cleverest kid in the village only to have the one who knows how to use a mobile device and a personal social network effectively outperform them in almost every way?

How long will it be before our exam system starts to look like an anachronism, if it doesn’t already. Take some students, remove all digital support tools and personal networks, give them a pen and paper and see what they can do, isolated from reality. This is starting to look as effective a way of assessing what people can do as by how far they can pull a truck in a given time or lift a very heavy ball. How often does anyone in the ‘real’ world solve problems or create new things isolated from others. Most things are now mashups. The wide scale adoption of social media has transformed what I personally can do. I put requests out on Linkedin , twitter and Facebook and receive wisdom, collaboration and answers. Digital tools transform what questions I can answer even without asking others given my phone: with Siri I don’t even have to type anything.

Currently Exam questions tend to fall into one of three categories

The familiar – Students have answered similar questions before.
The procedural – Students follow a set of learned procedures in order to solve the problem.
The novel – A question presented in a new context that requires deeper thought.

The majority of questions fall into the first two categories and students can be effectively prepared for them by giving them lots of practise with past papers (this is how I passed my Physics degree ) When the exams unexpectedly have novel questions in them all hell breaks loose, for example 2010 AQA Biology paper had questions about shrews. The students came running out of the exam screaming at the teacher ‘you didn’t teach us about shrews!’ The teachers responded with ‘Shrews were not in the book or the specification!’ What was expected in the question was the application of ideas, but many students couldn’t do this as they had only been prepared for the familiar and procedural questions. The fault lies not with the students, nor the teachers, but a standardised testing system that judges performance only. Performance then becomes the focus instead of learning; teaching to the test and a risk averse system becomes the norm. The curriculum becomes the focus rather than developing the students themselves. What would happen if we just tried to create outstanding students through the curriculum rather than those who could just pass tests. Do we even share with our students what we would like them to be? The pressure is on us as teachers to be outstanding, shouldn’t we shift this burden onto them? Dylan Wiliam described schools as ‘places where kids come to watch teachers work’ is this true of your classroom?

The issue with the familiar and novel types of questions is that they are relatively easy to solve with now commonplace technology, such as my phone.

Wolfram Alfa has a series of algorithms that can solve most maths and physics problems. Given a tablet and Wolfram Alfa I can answer all the familiar and procedural questions.

Wolfram Alfa Algebra
Wolfram Alfa Algebra
Wolfram Alfa Algebra Solution
Wolfram Alfa Algebra Solution

I am not suggesting for a moment that we don’t teach our students how to solve maths problems manually. I believe that we need a sound base of knowledge and skills in order to make the connections to reach the state of Extended Abstract in solo taxonomy. To see how the subject really fits together. My argument is that it is no longer enough just to solve the problems an algorithm can solve. We need our students to be creative and independent problem solvers, to be able to apply their skills to solving problems, not dependent learners coached for familiar processes.

Digital devices and artificial intelligence will struggle to solve the novel and this I believe, should be our focus in order to prevent students being perfectly equipped for a world that no longer exists.

‘Sir will this come up in the exams?’ should be dismissed with a rant about the future. Siri , Watson and Andrew McAfee’s video shown. It might not come up in the exam, but may prevent you from becoming redundant as the droids take over! We are aiming to educate, not simply to qualify.

What can we do to try and future proof them?

(1) Embrace the use of technology where it can transform learning, and be aware of the SAMR model see and TPAK. I am a big advocate for the use of mobile devices in the classroom but only when they do something I or the students couldn’t do without them. We must set our students free to use tools that we might have little knowledge of ourselves. Our role is to instruct when needed, tools like socrative (@socrative) and Answerpad (@theanswerpad) give us an incredible insight into the knowledge and ideas of our students to allow intervention when needed. Mobile devices enable students to use tools like iMovie which gives them a fully featured video editing package to record, express and share their ideas. However only use the technology when it adds real value to the learning

(2) Use SOLO Taxonomy. In physics I cannot teach about electricity until my students understand forces. Most of electricity is pretty much the action of forces on charged particles and my students need a thorough grounding in order to see how simple the fundamentals of physics really are. Yet rarely, if ever, do we see schemes of work which connects topics and learning. For more information see Pam Hook’s work here  or David Didau’s here  . What might this look like in practice? Here . Ideally have your students understand and self assess using SOLO.

(3) Possibly more controversially encourage your students to make social network links and to set themselves up, as Steve Wheeler calls it, a ‘Personal Brand’. He argues that it will no longer be enough to send your CV and impressive batch of qualifications. The future is connected and digital so create your own youtube channel and twitter account; create an online presence.  Already people are not getting jobs because they don’t have enough twitter followers or their blogs are not read enough. Google are not looking at qualifications when they hire people, but on what they have done Shouldn’t we be preparing our students for this future where you are responsible for your own impact on the world. There are some great examples of school blogs here and here from @jbohistory. Please give me links to more so our students can use them as models.

(4) Make thinking visible in the classroom and encourage your students to move out of their comfort zones and challenge their own beliefs. Two blogs I have written Teaching your students how to think here and 9 strategies here with visible thinking outlined here

(5) Encourage problem solving using approaches like Dan Meyers 3 act maths outlined herehere  . Act 1 is the ‘hook’ that gets their interest and engages their curiosity. Act 2 is the ‘explore’ phase where solutions are considered. Act 3 is the ‘reveal’ . To see this in action see an example popcorn picker here  on this can be developed in most subjects.

(6) Use Thunks as a basis to answer and create abstract ideas and thinking here

(7) Get yourself using the tools such as twitter, get yourself blogging, use Pinterest in a professional capacity. Join the revolution that is about collaboration and freely sharing resources. If you know how to use these tools you can help your students build their own networks.

We cannot keep up with all technological developments, but need to develop the skills to be able to adapt.

Please feel free to comment and add ideas

8 thoughts on “7 Things to do to prepare your students for the future

  1. There’s some irony here in that in advocating that we teach students to think you haven’t thought critically about what you are writing. This is full of edu-cliches that you should have questioned before repeating. Let me highlight a few.

    Firstly: “We are undoubtedly entering a period of unimaginable progress…” Undoubted by you, perhaps, but not by others. Much has been written about how the rate at which technology changes has slowed down. It has even been labelled “The Great Stagnation”. I wrote about this here: http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2012/07/17/the-future-part-5-are-we-living-in-a-time-of-unprecedented-technological-change/

    Secondly, your exam categories miss some key points. The difference between what is novel and what is familiar depends on who is answering the question. What seems novel to one person might not seem novel to another. Even if the person setting the question was trying to be as original as possible, those answering it are still going to make links to what they have seen and heard before because that is how people think. There are no neat categories here, our prior knowledge will be important for anything we put our minds to because that is how people think.

    Thirdly, and this is a related point, what we know has a direct bearing on our thinking even when looking things up is an option. Again I wrote about it here: http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2012/07/25/the-future-part-6-does-new-technology-mean-we-dont-need-to-know-anything/ I usually like to illustrate this with an example like the following. Ask students how many 2 pint jugs can be filled from a 6 pint barrel. Then with students of similar ability ask how many 1 3/4 pint jugs can be filled from a 5 2/3 pint barrel. Now, even with students who can divide fractions on a calculator you will find a huge difference between performance on the question. It is not just the calculation though, more students will realise they should divide on the first question than the second even though the problem is identical. The ease of the mental calculation affects the abstract thinking as well as the calculation. Our problem solving skill, our abstract thinking, is not independent of our knowledge. We cannot simply look everything up if we want to think effectively. Thinking effectively involves having knowledge in our heads not on our phones.

    Fourthly, SOLO taxonomy (like many other approaches you link to) is without a sound scientific basis. We don’t actually think like that. Even one of the writers you link to has, over time, rejected SOLO because it does not match how we actually think: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/learning/know-oh-hang-know/ Problem-solving approaches to learning are famously ineffective. “Thunks” are just a joke. Teaching critical thinking beyond a few heuristics is not something we can really do except as an extension of subject knowledge.

    It’s a lovely idea to think that in the future we’ll be able to be really smart without all that hard work involved in knowing stuff and knowing it well. Unfortunately, it’s just not true. More knowledge is still the only effective way to improve one’s thinking.

    1. I will write a blog in response to this. I’m not advocating not knowledge nor that we can learn without effort. I simply don’t believe that knowledge is the only way. This belief is supported by Einstein and Feynman. Hardly lightweights in terms of what they have achieved as opposed to what they have researched.
      If we compare changes pre-industrialisation to now I can see that you can argue that it is stagnating. My point is in terms of communication and activities my youth was similar to my parents. I played football and hung round on street corners waiting for people to come by and for something to happen. Pornography and exciting things were very difficult to come by. My own children’s lives are incredibly different to this and will continue to become more so. Barclays use androids to answer most telephone banking enquiries taking out of raft of the job market and technology shows no signs of slowing.
      Thunks are a joke? Maybe, but I have jokes in my classroom. I teach children and my classrooms are primarily places of learning , but there is always a place for fun.

      1. Einstein was certainly an educational progressive, but he was writing decades ago from a position of no actual experience of progressive education which hardly makes him an obvious authority on the matter.

        As for changes in what young people do, do you really think nobody plays football or hangs about on street corners any more? Sure technology has changed, but far from change being new and sudden it has been pretty continual and always less revolutionary than people thought. I can find you sources which claimed the transformative power of the internet, CD-Roms, VHS, micro-computers, television, radio, film reels. Almost all of these sources argue for the same sort of educational agenda that you are pushing. Edison predicted the death of text books before 1920.The original Bloom’s taxonomy argued for less emphasis on knowledge because of the rapid change of the 1950s. And while we might worry that children have easy access to pornography, previous generations worried that children might have easy access to video nasties or even (in the 50s) horror comics.

        Thunks are a joke because they are the sort of common sense defying thing that only those *in* education, who have absorbed particular bad ideas, could ever think served any useful purpose. Try explaining any educational benefit for them without referring to one controversial educational theory or another. But then this comes to the heart of my critique of this blog. You assume a lot of controversial and unsupported ideas as if they are true. While we all make assumptions, I think it jars when this is done in a blogpost arguing for “deeper thought”, “creativity” and “independence”.

  2. Thanks Neil. Love the reminders of old and the intro to new. Trying to implement several of the seven at present to ensure my students are equipped to flourish beyond their exams.

  3. Hi Neil
    Loving your work. Thank you! I am wondering about your ideas around collaboration and “groupthink” in general….the rhetoric around this is that the best ideas etc of course must come from collaboration with others. I completely agree with the idea of collaboration, sharing ideas. making them stronger, listening to others and so forth but am wondering about the place in this for quiet individual thought, doing and reflection. I am currently reading a very interesting book about this ….”QUIET. The power of introverts in a world that cant stop talking” Susan Cain. In it there is a chapter “when collaboration kills creativity…the rise of the new groupthink and the power of working alone”. She asks the question…is solitude an important key to creativity…and talks through well known examples eg Stephen Wozniak. I know for myself I need quiet time to process, think, play with ideas and so forth before I can be ready to share and collaborate and find it difficult when I am required to work with a model where this aspect is not prevalent or available. Transferring this to what happens in schools I am wondering whether this aspect is taken into consideration in the “busyness” and noise of what we do. Interested in your experiences and what you think about this.


    1. I’ll write a full reply to this when I’ve read the book. I have found it very interesting that digital tools like puppetpals sometimes gives a voice to those quiet students who seem happy to express themselves through puppets. Some students who do not participate in class are happy to create videos explaining their views (particularly some cultures who hate ‘losing face’ by being forced to answer questions without sufficient preparation. Thanks for the book idea

  4. Thought provoking.

    One thing is certain we will not be able to predict what the future holds and we will find immense difficulty keeping up with the pace of innovations and technology and the Knock-on changes in life-style.

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