Imagine 150 Grade 8 & 9 learners in a hall playing a game they don’t know the rules to. They have to work together in teams to figure out the hidden rules of the game and then try to win it. There is minimal instruction. Learners have to do something, start somewhere, and risk experiment, so that they can bump up against the constraints of the game. They cannot learn without failing, but each time a new dynamic is discovered learners shriek in excitement as if they have uncovered a clue to a treasure. It looks like chaos, but in many eyes there is a spark. Learners taste the thrill of discovering knowledge.
Transferable Skills For a Changing World
The game with hidden rules is the beginning of a much larger conversation we had with Grade 8 and 9 learners at Sacred Heart in 2018 about the difference between the skill of memorising predetermined knowledge and the skill of adapting to change by becoming an agent of your own knowledge discovery and production. After playing the game there is a discussion: “What do you need to do to work out what is going on around you?” The reason that this question is so important is that thriving in the 21st century is all about being able to work things out for yourself, to actively engage the information around you with critical and creative thinking skills, to communicate clearly, to collaborate dynamically, to risk small, regular experiments, to persevere and to adapt to change with as little anxiety as possible. These are what we call transferable skills, because they are not limited to a specific context. They can be transferred from subject to subject, from language to language, from electives to the core, from informal learning in the community to formal learning at school, from working things out in class to working them out in your relationships, and so on. We decided that one of the transferable skills sets relevant to the Fourth Industrial Revolution was innovation. Innovation works by combining existing elements (ideas, media, materials, technologies, performances, etc.) in unexpected ways.
The idea that real innovations are disruptive is crucial to understanding all industrial revolutions. Project-based learning itself is subversive and disruptive, often challenging those learners who are not able to apply their usual strategies for achieving high marks associated with predictable answers. It is often the learners who participate less in class that shine when given more diverse opportunities.
The Idea Behind The Workshops
Increasingly, schools, like Sacred Heart College, are beginning to realise that completing the curriculum successfully and equipping learners with the transferable skills they need to meet the challenges of the 21st century are two quite different objectives.
In the first term of 2018, learners from Sacred Heart College embarked on a unique learning experience. For two periods of two hours each week, learners participated in an Integrated Studies (IS) programme, designed to help them reflect on how they can prepare for, adapt to and thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
We worked with teachers to integrate curriculum topics into a series of intense, immersive, project-based learning experiences in which, as in the game above, learners had to work things out for themselves – and teachers curb their desire to instruct.
Don’t Train Our Children To Be Poor Computers!
According to a 2017 World Economic Forum report, ‘The Future of Jobs and Skills in Africa,’ 41% of all work activities in South Africa are susceptible to automation and 39% of core skills required across occupations will be wholly different by 2020. Automation is already replacing humans in the kinds of jobs where the skill of memorisation or the replication of a predictable procedure is required. We’re not only talking about replacing long-distance truck drivers, miners, factory workers, farm labourers, domestic workers, cashiers, tellers and clerks who do menial tasks. We’re talking about machines that can do the work of telemarketers, bookkeepers, personal financial advisors, stock traders, paralegals, insurance underwriters, real estate sales agents, editors, printers and publishers, travel agents, pharmacists who fill prescriptions, sports reporters who follow formulaic writing, website designers, military pilots and soldiers. What should be sobering for us is the fact that while we are still teaching learners to become poor computers some machines are learning through trial and error, and can already perform many complex tasks better than human beings.
Many of our assumptions about the world of work, as well as our presentation of study skills, subject choices and career paths, prepare learners for an era that is coming to an end. We are not adapting fast enough to prepare learners for this rapidly emerging world. The way we teach and assess learners tends to be content-heavy and focuses on narrow criteria for success. This is not a great model when it comes to assessing the kinds of higher-order thinking skills necessary for the innovation that is valued in our knowledge economy. Graduating from school with the skills of a poor computer is not a strategy for thriving in the 21st century. How does a school culture, so used to rewarding the predictable, show that it values innovation?
It is not easy telling a young person that the idea of “working hard at school to get a matric that gets you into university that prepares you for a career that ensures your success” is fast becoming a myth. Many learners felt angry that they had been lied to, and that being emancipated to innovate their own future is much harder than following a predetermined path with predictable rules. A large part of the challenge before us is to give learners more confidence in their ability to engage this future.
Here are some of the activities the learners engaged in over the course of 13 weeks:
- In order to explore the way that traditional computer programming works (as opposed to machine learning), learners designed their own decision trees which functioned much like the execution of computer programmes. They were asked to develop a sequence of questions that could determine when it was socially acceptable for them to use their mobile phone.
- To explore machine learning based on trial and error, learners had to think about how they would teach a self-driving car to decide when to kill a passenger and when to kill a pedestrian if killing one of them was unavoidable.
- Values are the building blocks of culture and determine all the decisions we make. The learners played a game exploring the nature of values in which a player was assigned a value from a long list. Another player pasted the value on this learner’s forehead with a piece of masking tape so that the chosen player was unaware of what it was. That player then had 12 yes/no questions with which figure out which value they had been given. In the process of formulating the questions, learners are forced to think precisely about how values function, what their own values are, and how values can be distinguished from one another.
- After the values game, each group of learners selected five values important to them and used these five values to assess the impact of the fashion industry on our lives and environment (body image, eating disorders, international brand culture, pollution, human rights abuses, etc.). They chose an issue for a campaign that challenged unethical practices in the fashion industry and designed a slogan which reflected their chosen values and the theme of their campaign. They were then asked to illustrate their slogan, but in a twist were given a random set of Victorian engravings from which their illustration had to be collaged. This was an exercise in innovation, in working creatively within tight constraints in order achieve one’s values. At first, most learners said ‘This is impossible’ but most groups discovered a surprising way to make their random set of images work.
- Learners explored the idea of innovation as a disruption by working through a mindmap we created on the disruptive technology of glass. The mindmap followed the cultural and economic impacts of the technology as well how its invention led to so many further innovations. In the process, learners engaged different means of innovation, like the reappropriation of old ideas and the unusual combination of existing ideas. The learners then produced a similar mindmap around the technology of mobile phones.
- Learners explored evolution as a model for innovation by first discovering the rules of evolution by natural selection through a boardgame we designed to simulate the experience of evolving populations. Following this learners explored evolution as a way in which cultures innovate, replacing the concept of ‘genes’ with that of ‘memes’. Learners then asked what the limits of evolution are and how humans can overcome them. We saw how symbolic thinking and technology are powerful tools that allow us to innovate deliberately. This led to a conversation about deliberate design as a philosophy for life, giving learners a sense of agency in a changing world, full of uncertainty.
- To further explore symbolic thinking we faced learners with the challenge of nuclear semiotics. This is a field that design signs to warn future civilisations, without any of the predictable cultural and symbolic conventions we use, of nearby nuclear waste. We explored the idea of symbols that are not specific to any culture by demonstrating the Pioneer plaque of Carl Sagan, a message meant to be decipherable by an alien species. The learners then designed their own nuclear semiotics signs and installations. The abstract nature of this exercise proved very difficult for this age group but interesting results were achieved.
- Learners explored collaborative design (the most common form of innovation) by negotiating a social contract for a colony on Mars.
The series of workshops ended with an exhibition held at Sacred Heart for the learners and parents. At the exhibition the learners showcased their conversation walls. These were large pieces of chipboard peppered with materials that mapped a conversation the learners had been having for the past few weeks about a question they decided was meaningful for them. The process began with exploring what their conversations looked like online, and what the symbolic elements they used, like abbreviations and emojis, meant. We discussed what bullying looked like and how social media impacted on self-esteem. Going beyond this linear type of conversation to a layered conversation that grew in complexity as a dialogue was maintained over time was a challenge.
The centrepiece of the exhibition was a huge memory theatre. This was a vast mnemonic containing pieces by each group that captured the insights they had generated and the connections between them. This really served to highlight the integrated studies and multidisciplinary approach of the workshops for the learners. Each group formulated an insight meaningful to them and designed and constructed part of the memory theatre around that insight. They had three media available with which to implement their ideas:
- A corner of a 3D box, something like a mini-exhibition within the larger one
- A canvas, or
- An iPad on which to display a film capturing their insight
The groups individual pieces were then put together in a large structure we made in order to symbolise and capture all the knowledge that those 150 learners had generated over those 13 weeks.
The Future Belongs To …
The possible ways in which our learners can create sustainable livelihoods are no longer the predictable, linear and singular career paths that previous generations considered for themselves. While freedom is full of possibility it is equally full of uncertainty. The earlier learners discover this the better.
The future belongs to: shape-shifting, multi-disciplinary, highly adaptive, life-long learners; resilient problem-solvers who are not afraid of failure; risk-taking experimenters and entrepreneurs; technology-literate knowledge workers; maverick innovators who disrupt the habits of their society; critical consumers; active citizens; ethical hackers; and independent thinkers.