A Whole New Way of Learning

By Seltzer, Kimberly | New Statesman (1996), September 27, 1999 | Go to article overview

A Whole New Way of Learning


Seltzer, Kimberly, New Statesman (1996)


Pay attention, children, because school will never be the same again. And the curriculum's just the start.

"In this world," the economists Frank. Levy and Richard Murnane point out, "you go to war every day, and short of being a millionaire, a very good education is your best armour." But what, these days, constitutes a "very good education"? In the new knowledge economy even the heaviest manufacturing jobs require employees to use the kinds of analytical and problem-solving skills that were once associated only with white-collar work.

Skill shortages in Britain have reached their highest levels since the recession of the early 1990s. Workers in more marginal forms of employment are finding it most difficult to access and plug into social, organisational and virtual networks, and the industries reporting the greatest shortages in skilled personnel are also those least likely to invest in improving the skills of their employees.

Our education system has yet to grapple with this. Schools and universities still focus on what students know and test for gains in knowledge without any assurance that these gains can be applied once students leave school. We must recognise that, in the new economy, it is how you use your knowledge and skills across a range of contexts that sets you apart.

This is not to say that qualifications have lost their importance - on the contrary - but in the war for employability they are an increasingly fragile form of armour. Today, we need to demonstrate that we are capable of more than ingesting information and performing well in examinations. We have to draw on our whole range of experiences and apply what we know in creative ways. And we have to update regularly.

The job of the education system must be to equip people with the necessary skills to thrive in a constantly changing environment. To do that, educators must recognise what the new basic skills are. For example, confronted with a staggering amount of information, we all now need to be highly skilled in information management. We must learn to apply knowledge across disciplines, integrating their terminology, concepts and underlying structures in pursuit of a goal. And personal and interpersonal skills will become more significant as horizontal networks begin to permeate the workplace.

We will also need the skills to adjust to uncertainty. From job-shares and project-based working to distance learning and single-parent households, the economic and social structures that used to organise our lives have given way to more complex arrangements. This requires self-organisation skills such as time management, financial planning, setting objectives and priorities, and decision-making. We are also faced with an ever greater expanse of choices about careers, families and health. So we need the risk-management skills to anticipate future scenarios and their possible consequences, cope with the stress that accompanies risk-taking and learn from our failures.

Finally, we must have the skills to step back and reflect on life. How do we add value to our own lives and to the experiences of others? What do we need to change about our goals, or our strategies for achieving these goals? Rather than relying on religious leaders, academics, employers and a few chosen others to assign value to our lives, more of us are expected to make value judgements for ourselves - to be able to distance ourselves emotionally and intellectually.

As the knowledge economy gains strength and influence, the demand for skills will continue to grow. In today's fluid environment, the value of these skills is determined by how we use them. The ability to apply knowledge creatively will be fundamental to success. …

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