Our modern world has morphed from a mindset of producer to consumer. As we shift from industrialised economies in countries like Australia to evolve as knowledge economies, it appears some critical skills are at risk of being diluted in our youngest generations. If we consider the mantra of ubiquitous convenience, espoused and driven by commercial enterprise globally, it is shifting the need for an individual to do much at all in some aspects of life. Examples include the fast food industry, where businesses like UberEats now bring almost any food to your doorstep, on demand, day or night; another example is television on demand with Netflix, Stan, Kayo, and now Apple entering that market too and thriving; or, Airtasker.com, where you can send out for almost any job around the home to be completed and people bid on completing that for you to save you lifting a finger apart from ordering it on a smartphone; or the raft of apps available for smart devices that populate the online stores exponentially for our daily ‘needs’. These are just a few examples of hundreds or even thousands, where our daily routines have changed unrecognisably compared to some not-as-young generations.
The Great Depression of the 1930s set in motion by the collapse of the US economy and felt in many countries including our own, was a significant period of time in history where ingenuity and problem-solving was essential for survival in many cases, and imperative to improve the economic challenges of the day that burdened many families. The luxuries we have today were not options and people, including young people, were forced to think creatively for solutions to simple and complex problems. Ingenuity was core to everyday life and the concept of being a producer of ideas, effort and seeking out what you need was inherent. There have been other times of great need for calling upon such resourcefulness, not to mention resilience, such as times of war and episodic natural disasters. After all, necessity is the mother of invention, and in times of significant demand come creative solutions to problems.
I grew up in between these times, with parents and grandparents who lived with the above challenges of life, and where the shift in society was really commencing and being perpetuated. In my earlier years as a child, we still didn’t have a toilet in the house – it was a pan at the back fence; nor did we have colour television, nor remote controls for anything, nor digital technologies, although we did have the newspaper delivered by the paper-boy and milk delivered by the milkman, of which my father was one, and I recall helping him from the age of around four, for many years. I recall pulling the levers inside the truck which signalled your turn, in lieu of indicators. Even then, it was an era when, if something broke, you fixed it or went without. Now, if something breaks, we throw it out and get a new one. In fact, products are designed to break in time to leverage commercial strategy.
So, what has all this got to do with educating our youngest generation and what is the relevance to schools?
Working with young people for more than half my lifetime, and now being a school leader, I have noticed a significant shift in the skillset and drive of young people in some of these areas. The capabilities have changed, and the inclination has changed more so. If your pushbike broke down, you tore it apart to find the problem and fix it, whereas now we drive it to the nearest bike shop. As a parent, I am guilty of this with my children rather than finding the time to sort out the problem. This isn’t criticising younger people; rather, recognising that as educators, we have a responsibility to develop essential identified skills in our students, which once were more organic in society. Our younger people have inherited modern society, not created it, as that was our doing, and we have an obligation to pass on some of our skills, experiences and capabilities that we have developed over our years.
As educators, we need to embrace reality and actively create and teach a modern curriculum for today and tomorrow which serves the skills that will be in demand globally moving forward. My point is that we can learn something from yesteryear to guide the core elements, even though the fascia of what these skills look like may be different when context is applied. Ostensibly they are the same at heart as those which we can draw from previous generations. The skills our young people need are most certainly those that involve an ability to identify problems and solve them in creative ways; to work collaboratively with others to create synergy as well as work independently and reflectively, both of which enable understanding to deepen; to communicate effectively to ensure the core messages are delivered rather than lost in translation; and to develop emotional intelligence to sustain long-lasting relationships at work and at home, and certainly to acquire personal resilience over time. The latter of these is worthy of focus in another whole article, for another time.
Thus, our curriculum of yesterday, which still emphasises the value of rote learning models and rewards students who are adept only at this methodology of learning, are now outdated and ineffective. This learning type is geared for strong working memories, though others with weaker skills in this area have other tremendous abilities to offer but these are often not part of examination conditions. Yet in our wider communities, employers demand different skillsets and competencies, and we haven’t made the adjustment to our thinking in schooling, and our metric for excelling is skewed and myopic when we consider life beyond school. It is time to expand our thinking in schools to create more curriculum opportunities to develop the critical skills stated previously and to apply these to real-world contexts, not mere theoretical applications. This need starts in Kindergarten and continues throughout schooling and beyond. For now, schools must tread a fine line to service all students for today, and it is challenging to do this well.
Our young people do have ingenuity, but it looks different and is sometimes misguided or misjudged. As an example, I’ve worked in schools where students have worked out that they prefer their lunch delivered by UberEats from their favourite fast food establishment over school canteen food. To accomplish this, they arrange to get it delivered to the nearest residential home, typically next door, and move along the street at the delivery time, much to the ire of the home-owner and school administrator! Imagine if we could better harness this thinking and refocus it on their learning.
The rationale of the key points in this article is why we have recently created our new Academies program, where students can work with key staff members to co-create an extended personal project to establish a small business, or to design and build their own prototype model of something tangible with state-of-the-art coding technologies, or to immerse themselves in a service-learning project of significance and learn life skills while making a valuable contribution to the community. The program is in its early days and we aim to support students selecting this program through their journey. I applaud other schools who have also put similar opportunities in place for students as we work together to harness the creativity and ingenuity that resides in us all. We just need to shift our thinking as educators, parents, business owners and politicians to enable those skills to flourish in our education environments.