The “3R’s” are outmoded in an age of technology. Here’s what should replace them. (Hint: it’s not those so-called “21st century skills”)
By Marc Prensky, Founder, The Two Billion Kids Project
Today, we hear cries from all over for educators to “go back to basics” for our kids. I agree that there are some basic things for kids to learn. But it is a mistake to think that “the basics” of the 20th century — when all of today’s parents and teachers grew up — are the same — or even anything like — the basics of the 20th century.
“THE BASICS” FOR KIDS HAVE NOW CHANGED — DRAMATICALLY
What those who want to “go back to basics” don’t realize is that for the 21st c. the basics have changed. The old basics (i.e. old curriculum and skills and the way we taught them) are no longer needed. In fact, I call them “EX-BASICS.” Here is why:
Reading, Writing and Arithmetic Are No Longer What They Were in the 20th c.
It is not that we are seeing a shrinking need for communication and calculation — both are increasing. It is rather that there is a shrinking need in the world for traditional literacy in reading, writing and arithmetic as those formerly human-essential tasks move to machines. Speaking and thinking are basic for humans; numbers are a universal human language. But humans have continually extended our capabilities in these areas over time as our technology evolves. It was useful, up until quite recently, for all of us to keep certain of these capabilities in our heads. In fact, NOT having our reading, writing and simple arithmetical power in our human heads, unaided, is something extremely hard for the Last Pre-Internet Generation to accept. They often express their concern by asking “What if the power goes down?” But in the 21st c. if it does, we fix it and move on.
Every human can take in information, store it, put it out, and understand the basic concepts of arithmetic. Every human can do, naturally, some combination of speaking, hearing, seeing, remembering, and conceptualizing. The methods humans use to actually do these things have evolved and improved over time — and it makes sense to use the most efficient and modern means one has at one’s disposal. Writing and then printing were for a long time our most efficient means of storage. Reading was needed for retrieval. For arithmetic, in the East the abacus was the most efficient tool, and it was taught in all schools — but never in the West, which preferred pencil and paper. Those were the basics of that time. Today the most efficient means for all of these are computers, which, for many things, are becoming trivially inexpensive (putting a 4 function calculator on any chip costs next to nothing). Once you have a computer, accessing information and arithmetical calculations of any size become trivial. The “basic” job is NOT to teach old means, but rather to get kids to understand when to do what, and why, and to move them to the new best means as quickly as possible. One hundred years ago every engineer used a slide rule, today none do. It is the most efficient means that are the “basics” of the times. Using more efficient means allows much more focus on meaning.
Up until roughly the year 2000, speaking in your native language was trivial, but being able to speak in every language was impossible — learning even one or two languages that you didn’t grow up with took years of study. Today, with the translation capabilities now in smartphones, speaking in any language is fast becoming equally trivial — all you ever need to do is speak your own. Reading is exactly the same — in the past reading fluently even in your native language unaided (e.g. by dictionaries) was hard, and doing so in any other language required a combination of either years of either translation by others or language study. Today a smartphone can take anything ever written in any language and read it to you in your own language. And it will write, in any language, what you say in yours. All you have to do is ask it to.
In the 21st c., all our kids either have, or soon will have, totally new human capabilities — which include far easier means of doing what were previously very complicated things. Yet few, if any, recommend letting go of — or even phasing out — the old basics.
Really? No more physical reading and writing?
In 5–10 years — as more and more of these skills pass to our machines, and more and more people have those machines — being literate (in a reading/writing sense) in any language — or even possessing many of today’s needed skills— will bring far less of an advantage to a person than it does now. Everyone will have the capability of doing these things a better way. Why should kids spend years mastering these old skills, when a machine can already do much of it for them, and do it better? For how long do we have to continue to teach the metaphorical equivalent of horseback riding in an age of bullet rains, supersonic planes and rockets?
The physical art of writing by hand is going away. Although some people still defend the value of cursive, it has already become a historical artifact. I, along with many people in the world, now bypass all physical handwriting (or even keyboarding — another interim tool) as much as possible with voice-to-text — as I am writing this article. A smartphone already allows voice input for almost everything. Anything, in any language, can be read into your ears — either “as created” or translated into your own or any other language on-the-fly. Today, when one of my writings is published in another language (or if I want to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak mine), I have Google translate and other tools at my disposal, which are trivial to use. Today I am privileged to have these, but they will soon be in everyone’s’ hands and pocket.
Reading and writing text, unaided, is a tremendously hard process. It takes years of work and practice — which is why we spent so much time teaching it in school, and why the world is still incomplete in providing it. But in possibly less than a decade or two, we will no longer have to provide it at all.
Today accessing knowledge — which was always a problem pre-millennium — can all be done just by speaking and listening — which almost every human can do without help (although help can make you better at it). Although much of our information was historically stored as written text, we no longer need reading and writing to access it — or to store more of it. Those are “Ex-Basics.”
What I now call our “Ex-Basics” includes teaching kids to read and write from paper (or a screen) — one can, today, read with one’s ears — one of the periodicals I read already offers all its article aurally. Ex-Basics also include, in an age of ubiquitous smartphones, precise arithmetical calculation in our heads or on paper. Estimation is useful. But one can already ask Siri, via voice, to divide a restaurant bill precisely into however many parts you need — and more and more do.
In an age where, with a smartphone, “any 10-year-old walking down the street can access all of human knowledge” about anything that may interest him or her (as Ray Kurzweil says), “ex-basics” also includes all the historical details we still teach about math, language science and social studies. What every kid really needs are the key nuggets and points — things that 20cE typically does not typically even offer in ways that are memorable for a lifetime. I now refer to the four once-important subjects of Math, English, Science, Social studies as “THE MESS” OF DETAILS. These subjects are NOT a mess in their essence — the concepts in each are important — but they are a mess in their extreme detail and historical approach, particularly to things like math and science.
Very importantly — there is a generational change in BELIEFS that this move away from the “old basics,” and once-necessary detail, is quite positive for humans.
Only those from the previous generation (i.e. today’s adults) see it as negative. Who really wants to go back to “Ex-basics” or a “MESS OF DETAILS” when they don’t have to? No kid I know — and I believe no kid anywhere.
SO WHAT ARE THE “NEW BASICS?”
Just as there were old basics to fit 20th c. needs, there are New Basics to fit 21st c. needs. In addition to the four “New Elements of Empowerment” that I have written about here:
- NEW, EMPOWERING BELIEFS
- REAL-WORLD ACCOMPLISHMENT
- APPLIED UNIQUENESS and
- TEAM & TECHNOLOGY SYMBIOSIS
I believe New Basics — not generally included in 20cE —also include:
- A “NEW ABC LOOP” (of Accomplishing useful, positive projects, Bettering your world & Becoming a good, effective, world-improving person, and Continuing to do so)
- L.E.G.O. (Love, Empathy, Gratitude, Optimism)
- T.R.I.C.K. (Trust, Respect, Independence, Collaboration, Kindness) and
- Preparation for CONTINUOUS and CONSTANT CHANGE.
Certainly NOT “new basics” are all the “new” forms of ICEing (Incremental Changes to Education) of laptops, social-emotional programs, arts programs, sports programs, enrichment programs and electives — although these are all nice to have for some. How do we know these are not considered basics? Because, as we see today in Covid time, they are quickly eliminated in any crisis.
What about “21st Century Skills? Are they “New Basics”?
Many groups, such as The World Economic Forum, are now promoting lists of so-called “21st c skills. The WEF’s list includes:
· Complex problem solving, Critical thinking, Creativity, People management, Coordinating with others, Emotional intelligence, Judgment and decision making, and Service orientation.
Are these “new basics”? How important are they? Will adding them on to 20th century Education (20cE) make 20cE better, and valuable again? Or are they really, just more ICEing (Incremental Changes)?
I say “more ICEing.” The skills on the list are not new — and most will be done symbiotically with machines in the future. All are clearly useful skills to have; it would be nice if all people had more of them. But although the list may please many from the Last Pre-Internet Generation — such a list completely misses the implications of the huge technology and belief changes that are happening. Adding them into 20cE as additional ICEing will make no difference at all to the future value of that education, because the actual 21st c. needs are for the new elements and basics I have mentioned.
But aren’t “Thinking Skills” what we need? — Doesn’t 20cE produce them?
Many — particularly academics — focus on “thinking skills” as what an “education” is really about. 20cE certainly tries to provide some thinking skills — it grew out of our academic “thinking-only” tradition. But it hasn’t done a very good job — except occasionally, for the very brightest kids academically. Tests show that most kids come out of college thinking pretty much the way they did when they came in. While there is a deep 20th c. (and a 20cE) belief that “thinking skills” are prime — almost certainly derived from academia — most people in the world are not primarily “thinkers.” Most people are doers and accomplishers — who, of course also think. Far too much of the time “academic,” or “critical” thinking, important for some, devolves for most in the world, in 20cE, into rote memorization and textbook problem-solving.
Historically, what 20cE has been most useful at doing is grouping those who are good at thinking skills with their peers. This is something the academic world had recognized for some time, which is why there is a hierarchy of colleges and universities.
Today many are trying to change that — and promote better “thinking skills” for all. So they have “re-branded” as “21st c. skills” a number of long-existing thinking skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, judgment, and decision making. The re-branding is necessary because 20cE did such a poor job of providing those skills to most — despite huge effort. I’m sure you’ve heard, as I have, a great many teachers and college professors proclaim, over and over, “I have to teach my kids to think!” (i.e. in the ways academics do.) Few succeed at this.
Hopefully we can do better. But a key point is that it’s not just “thinking skills” that 21st century kids need for their future. Effective thinking is only a part of what all kids need. Our future kids need a combination — unique for each person — of effective Thinking skills, Action skills, Relationship skills and Accomplishment skills .
The last three: Action skills, Relationship skills and especially Accomplishment skills, are important to almost everyone. Yet 20cE doesn’t even pretend to focus on these (except, perhaps, for the recent introduction in some places, of “social-emotional skills.”). Putting everyone though an education that emphasizes only thinking skills was one of the biggest mistakes of 20cE. 20cE’s other big mistake was believing that “thinking skills” could be effectively built outside of the context of doing and accomplishing.
Changing, Perhaps — But in the Wrong Direction
Many adults today DO understand we should begin now changing how we raise our kids, Some do see that the mid-to-late 21st century is when today’s kids will live, and that that time will be remarkably different from today. That growing perception of needed change — focused mostly on what isn’t working — is spurring all the “education reform” movements in the world, currently happening everywhere. The trouble is that the “reform” movements — and almost everyone in them — are taking our kids — and us — in wrong directions, because their assessment of needs are based on their old, 20 c. needs, and not on the needs of the future.
Now — when the great, valuable benefits of 20cE (text literacy and some historical knowledge of math, language, science and social studies) have begun to rapidly decline, it is really the time to leapfrog to something new. All 20cE offers, for most, is a combination of EX-BASICS and THE MESS OF DETAILS. Most of us know that kids memorize this stuff for the test and then forget it. Other than for purposes of ranking — no longer necessary in a time where uniqueness, and not rank is what counts — it doesn’t matter whether these are acquired or not, because in 10 or 20 years they will no longer serve.