Opinion: Moving beyond the 'three R's'

Opinion: Moving beyond the

by Robert Kay

Despite almost all facets of our lives being redefined by the advances of the 21st Century, our education system is still firmly anchored to an era of steam engines and morse code. Instead of being equipped to function in an unpredictable job market that experts concur will be shaped by automation, students are still largely being taught the “three Rs”—reading, writing, and arithmetic. They are taught this by teachers trapped on their own treadmill. Burdened with expectations to comply with overly prescriptive and crammed curriculum, timetables, and testing regimes, teachers are reduced to functioning more as administrators relying on practices designed for an analogue world that will soon no longer exist.

If we are to address this problem with the urgency it deserves, one of the most effective ways to create immediate change would be to train teachers for the digitally disrupted world. Since students will have to perform the functions machines aren’t able to do better, there needs to be an emphasis on critical thinking over memorisation. The ability to analyse situations and create solutions will be more valuable than recitation of correct answers. That means we need to empower teachers to focus on how, not what, students should be learning.

The best way to approach this shift is moving away from the “three Rs” to what we think of as the “three Es”: experience, emotion, and evidence. This involves solving real problems that matter in a feedback rich environment. Students then build their cognitive skills to become innovators who can identify and create answers to problems that are currently unknown. By embracing the upside of uncertainty, we’ll be keeping pace with the changes we’re seeing in critical industry sectors.

Based on our research, only 8-15 per cent of Australia’s 280,000 teachers currently teach the way we now need them to. The other 85 per cent are still working under 20th Century assumptions, underpinned by the teacher lecturing students as the arbiter of all knowledge, and in turn grading them on their ability to repeat what was lectured.

Unfortunately, even among the few who are equipped with cutting edge teaching techniques, few of Australia’s 9,500 schools enable these new practices. Without acceptance, without social validation that these new methods are embraced, they will never be implemented by those who can teach them – and teachers will have little incentive to do anything more than they do now.

In this new role, teachers become facilitators, empowering children to take control. By challenging students with real-world problems, those that require lateral thinking and collaboration to find innovative solutions, students feel a sense of responsibility, of ownership over their education. As teachers guide the process, with intervention limited to continuous feedback or guiding ‘nudges’, students become immersed and true learning takes over. 

Importantly, this model works best when the problems aren’t from a textbook. When the problems are real, students realise that what they’re doing matters. Bringing education into the 21st Century is therefore not solely the problem of the education sector, but a concern that requires the support of all industries and communities.

The classrooms of today need to move to boardrooms, laboratories, data centres, and the outdoors, where students learn how to solve problems in an environment more dynamic and fluid than a textbook will ever be.

It’s not a far-fetched idea, it’s imperative if our schools are going to be able to properly educate our children for a rapidly changing world. Students, led by their teacher-facilitators, would not only learn how to problem solve, they would learn to work in a team, to communicate, to be leaders. They would learn the soft skills that are increasingly necessary in the modern world.

Critics might question whether this kind of system takes responsibility away from the teacher. It doesn’t. Rather, it changes what this responsibility is. Considering how the world we live in is changing, we do not know what challenges our children will need to face tomorrow. In the face of the unknown, we need a new kind of teacher, with the confidence and experience to teach our children not what to think, but how to think.

Robert Kay is the co-founder and executive director of Incept Labs.