Am I a teacher of content or a teacher of skills?


Am I a teacher of content or a teacher of skills?


Thursday, July 09, 2020

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There is much debate about teaching in the 21st century and what it should look like. Most are clamouring for science-centred (STEM) education to meet the demands of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, while others are saying, “Let us mix the arts with science and have a STEAM-focused education system.”

Be it STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) or STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics), there is one fundamental question that should occupy the minds of teachers as they prepare students for life in the 21st century: Am I a teacher of content or a teacher of skills?

If we are preparing students to be lifelong learners then we must shift the paradigm in how we educate. There must be a shift from content/factual knowledge to more problem-solving. The movement must be from hard skills to soft skills.

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF): “Today's job candidates must be able to collaborate, communicate and solve problems — skills developed mainly through social and emotional learning (SEL). Combined with traditional skills, this social and emotional proficiency will equip students to succeed in the evolving digital economy.” It is therefore clear that we should be focusing on more experimental learning, learning with students at the centre, and learning where students are finding solutions to problems, not just regurgitating facts.

The WEF argues that students require skills for the 21st century. These skills are categorised into three main sections:

1) Foundational literacies: How students apply core skills to everyday tasks, this would be characterised under literacy and numeracy;

2) Competencies character qualities: How students approach complex challenges, we are looking at critical thinking, problem-solving and collaboration; and

3) Character qualities: How students approach their changing environment, curiosity, perseverance, initiative, and adaptability.

How can teachers say they are focusing on these three major categories in our practice?

The WEF, in its report 'The Future of Jobs', identified the top 10 skills that are important in 2020. These skills are:

* complex problem-solving

* critical thinking

* creativity

* people management

* coordinating with others

* emotional intelligence

* judgement and decision-making

* service orientation

* negotiation

* cognitive flexibility

For us to foster and nurture these skills we must adjust our approach to teaching. We already know what to teach. The focus should be on our approach. Teachers will have to rethink their approach to teaching; we will have to learn how to learn.

We must explore more of the constructivist experiential concurrency of learning. Simply put, do more progression from simple to complex, allow for more freedom of expression. There should be room for the students to question because there is power in students' voices. Foster more inquiry-based learning. Lesson plans should be designed around the five E's — engage, explore, explain, elaborate, and evaluate. Teachers should engage in thoughtful, deliberate, and adaptive planning. Far too often teachers plan because they must and not put much thought to their role in the classroom. The teacher should plan with this question in mind: Am I a teacher of content or a teacher of skills?

Twenty-first-century learning should not only be inclusive and accessible, but it must be designed to promote conceptual understanding. This is done through the development of local and global context, showing connections. The teacher must show and promote an appreciation for perspectives. Additionally, the teacher must understand that his/her place in the classroom is on the periphery observing the learning process. The teacher's job is to give students the tools that will help them grow.

The 21st-century teacher must be mindful of the approaches to learning. Teachers must be cognisant of the skills that are required from a lesson and how that skill will be achieved. We can borrow from the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme as they focus prominently on Approaches to Learning (ATL). The IB described ATL deliberate strategies, skills, and attitudes that permeate the IB teaching and learning environment.

Alec Peterson, a British educator renowned for helping to birth the IB programme, argues, “What is of paramount importance in the pre-university stage is not what is learned, but learning how to learn… What matters is not the absorption and regurgitation either of fact or predigested interpretations of facts, but the development of powers of the mind or ways of thinking which can be applied to new situations and new presentations of facts as they arise.” This is indeed where we need to be in Jamaica.

IB documents their ATL skills as thinking skills. This is encouraged through reflective teaching, communication skills through which students get to express themselves, and they learn how to be responsible users of technology. Social skills students have a better appreciation of others; they can learn how to respect and tolerate differences. Self-management skills encourage empathy and awareness and research skills. Based on the WEF these skills are at the forefront of the 21st century. These are the skills employers are looking for; therefore, these are the skills we should be fostering in our classrooms.

It is clear that rote learning is not serving us well as a nation. Shifting focus to STEM or STEAM without changing our approach to learning will not make a difference. Educators urgently need to embrace other ways of teaching and engaging students as we all work to contribute better to nation-building.

Lorenzo Smith is an educator with interests in social justice. Send comments to the Observer or to

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