Forget chalk-and-talk. We seriously need to rethink education for always-on digital natives
With the start of the new school year this week, some kids are begging to stay home while others are having tantrums and refusing to go back. Much of this has to do with forcing them to fit into set moulds of what’s considered normal. But with so many children hating school, isn’t it time to rethink our education systems?
In his book, Why Don’t Students Like School? cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham writes that it’s because teachers don’t present material in ways that appeal best to students’ minds. Many children don’t hate school as an idea – what they’re responding negatively to is the rigid structure that school makes them adhere to, forcing them into a “one size fits all” box. They don’t dislike what they’re learning; they dislike how they’re made to learn it.
The children in classrooms are part of what Australian demographer Mark McCrindle refers to as Generation Alpha, born from 2010 to 2025, they’re the first generation entirely born within the 21st century. 2010 was the same year the iPad was first released, that Instagram was born and that “app” was word of the year.
The children of the Millennials, Alphas are also known as the iGeneration. They are the first generation to be born into our constantly connected world where social media and screens are the norm. They’re growing up in the digital age and unlike digital immigrants, who have to acquire familiarity with digital systems as adults, they are digital natives. They’ve been immersed in technology for their entire lives. For many of them, back-to-school equals no more screen time.
Their futures will be shaped by Artificial Intelligence (AI), and already AI devices and toys such as Hello Barbie, Hatchimals and the cute little tank-like robot, Cozmo (who comes with emotions and a helluva personality) are specifically aimed at Alphas. These children will be learning the basics of AI from their toys, skills that will only become more valuable in an AI-powered world.
According to research by US demographer Elwood Carlson, with many of their parents choosing to have just one child, they’ll also have more resources available to them, especially when it comes to education.
EDUCATION IS SLOW TO REFORM
Jack Ma, the retired founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba and a former English teacher, has expressed concern that the younger generation will be ill-equipped to survive the digital era if education systems don’t change within the next 20 to 30 years. Calling education the “most important and critical issue” of our time, his concern is that the world is changing fast but education is not.
Speaking at an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development conference in December, Ma, who is now focussing on education reform, said students would need three Qs to succeed: EQ, IQ and LQ — the quotient of love. He believes in investing more in early childhood, when kids are building skills and values, and less in tertiary education.
“If you want to be successful, you should have very high EQ, a way to get on with people,” he said. “If you don’t want to lose quickly, you should have good IQ,” he added. But “if you want to be respected, you should have LQ — the quotient of love,” he concluded. “The brain will be replaced by machines but machines can never replace your heart.”
If that sounds clichéd, bear in mind that the World Economic Forum’s top 10 skills for the future are complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management,
co-operating with others, emotional intelligence, judgement and decision making, service orientation, negotiation and cognitive flexibility.
“Last century we won by caring about myself, this century we win by caring about others,” Ma said.
Research by Grant Thornton concludes that in the face of greater automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence, Alphas will by nature become specialists, each drawn to a niche, with very specific educational needs to serve. They will look at problems and say: “I love it. This is my world. I see a solution to this”.
As companies like Uber, Airbnb and Google have started to do, Alphas will make complexity seem simple. This will require a transformation of education to reflect the 21st century and its needs. As Grant Thornton’s Higher Education in 2050 report suggests, there will be greater use of online streaming and digital resources.
FOUR THINGS ALPHAS WANT
1. EVERYTHING ON DEMAND. From watching movies to learning a new topic, everything happens online. This generation doesn’t know how to wait. It’s just not normal for them.
2. IT’S PERSONAL. Alphas only know personalised feeds of information and entertainment suggestions. That’s how it’s always worked for them.
3. ONLINE SOCIALS. Alphas’ social life takes place online and social media is where they are most comfortable. E-mail? What’s that?
4. VIDEO IS BETTER. Alphas prefer video. They’ll read messages but will respond with video messages rather than text.
In his book, The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World, Jordan Shapiro, a Temple University professor whose background is in philosophy and psychology, made a somewhat surprising argument: we’re not spending enough screen time with our kids. To ensure Luddite-proof parenting he suggests: stop the hand-wringing about screen time and focus on educating children effectively in a connected world.
He compares this moment in time to other great technological revolutions in humanity’s past and paints an inspiring and positive picture of today’s children, recognising that they are poised to create “a progressive, diverse, meaningful and hyper-connected world that today’s adults can only barely imagine”.
HOW TO INTEGRATE TECHNOLOGY INTO THE CLASSROOM
Embrace personal devices: iPads, smartphones, apps and digital learning platforms are integral to forward-looking classrooms. Stop worrying about digital distraction and encourage learning through online resources and chatrooms. Digital technology is already the infrastructure of their learning and it needs to become the infrastructure of the classroom too.
Personalise learning: There’s nothing more effective than crafting challenges that require children to take on exciting knowledge quests and engineer real solutions to real problems. This allows teachers to challenge concepts and delve more deeply into topics that elicit enthusiasm.
Transform the classroom environment and regular activities into a game. This requires creativity, collaboration and play. There are many ways to bring games and game playing into the content area classroom to promote learning and deepen student understanding. Games have elements that make them powerful vehicles for learning. They are commonly structured for players to solve a problem, an essential skill needed for today and tomorrow.
Be an early adopter of teen tech: Let’s say the kids are learning about the birth of the ANC in 1912. It’s a key event in our history but it could be dry. With Tik Tok, a short form mobile video app beloved by teenagers around the world, you can give students a fun way to show what they know, in their own language and their own way of speaking.
Online presentations: Getting kids to publish their work online – whether it’s an essay or a video presentation – adds some extra motivation while also creating opportunities for peer-to-peer learning and assessment.
Alphas have an intimate and productive relationship with digital technology that makes it possible for them to learn anywhere, at any time, in any way. To get kids to stop dreading school our education systems need to embrace the digital revolution to draw them into the learning process instead of keeping them at arm’s length.
EXPERIMENTS IN FUTURE LEARNING
Billing itself as “a place of joy”, it has no walls and is said to “ignite the natural curiosity of children”.
Founded in 2008 by an English-American couple in Bali, it’s based on ideas of sustainability. They’re opening a South African campus in the Paarl-Franschhoek Valley in 2021.
THINK GLOBAL SCHOOL
A travelling high school with students and teachers who move to different countries together every three months, encouraging lessons in real-world exploration. There’s lots of modern technology to support it.
In 1921 AS Neill started a school focussed on giving children the right to play. All lessons are optional and there’s no pressure to conform to adult ideas of growing up. It’s still based near Suffolk, England.