The Malta Independent 17 May 2021, Monday

Education in the 21st century

Justyne Caruana Sunday, 18 April 2021, 08:00 Last update: about 30 days ago

'What is the upside of inequality? It is a deep pool of properly trained highly motivated talent that is endeavouring to create innovation that grows our knowledge-based economy.' - Edward Conard, American scholar.



The 21st century has shaken the very foundations of our society and has created challenges that up to a few decades ago were inconceivable. We are living in the new era of internet-powered innovation, Artificial Intelligence and Machine learning. Jobs that traditionally belonged to humans have now been taken over by machines and robots. Soon, any job that involves following instructions that can be mapped out on a workflow chart will become automated. This is happening right before our eyes.

Wherever you look, whether online or on TV, massive production lines that used to be run by thousands of workers are now automated. Robots and pre-programmed machines build our cars and equipment and are even programmed to feed our livestock! Most of the supermarket supplies sitting on our shelves have been processed and packaged with the push of a button. Rarely does one observe human beings hard at work on these production lines. At most, we see a few machine operators and managers making sure the end-product is ready for dispatch to the nearest transportation depots. This means that we will soon not be needed to work on routine repetitive jobs. Robots will do it.


Knowledge-based economy

Today, most countries, including Malta, are geared towards what is known as knowledge-based economy. It is defined as an economy that is capable of knowledge production, dissemination and use; where knowledge is a key factor in growth, wealth creation and employment, and where human capital is the driver of creativity, innovation and generation of new ideas, with reliance on information and communication technology (ICT) as an enabler.

In the near future robots will replace human beings in our factories and supply chains.  Nonetheless however, we as humans are unique. We are naturally curious, creative, and social. These innate capacities cannot be automated. Our sensory awareness, our creativity and social awareness cannot be replicated by robots or computers.


Our children

So how do our children fit into the equation? Globalisation and technological revolutions are transforming our economies into knowledge economy. This economy demands a new way to conduct any business. It demands a rapid development of skills, solid knowledge, and greater responsibility. These skills require from us innovative and creative ways to do business, enhance and control our technology and do so responsibly for the common good.

Contemporary methods of learning will not be enough. Our education systems need to help young people to be able to contribute to the development of their own competencies and to integrate fully into the socio-cultural environment in which they will be living, once the knowledge-based economy is in full swing.


21st century skills

For our educational system to keep abreast with the technological, social and economic changes, a knowledge-based economy requires that we focus on what computers are good at and what they are not good at. Computers and AI can never be as good as humans at abstract tasks, tasks that require complex contextual information and tasks that demand ethical judgements.

This is where humans take precedence. Therefore, there needs to be a better understanding of the nature of learning and creativity. Tony Wagner of the Harvard innovation Lab gives an excellent outline of the seven skills that will prepare our children for the 21st Century. These are: critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration and leading by influence, agility and adaptability, initiate and entrepreneurship, oral and written communication, accessing and analysing information, curiosity and imagination.


Research and innovation

Research and Innovation are key concepts that link in perfectly with the knowledge-based economy that we aspire to have in our country. The Research and Innovation Strategy that the Labour Government launched in 2014 aims at embedding research and innovation at the heart of our economy to encourage knowledge-driven and value-added growth and to sustain improvements in the quality of life. The role of our educators and education system is crucial at this stage.

As Minister for Education I am positive that the changes that need to take place in our education system towards changing our mind-set from traditional schooling methods to forms of teaching that encourage innovation and creativity in our young people will come to fruition. This is because we are blessed with talented, innovative and forward-thinking educators, facilitators and administrators. They all have the good of our children at heart.


The key to our success

The Austrian educator and management consultant had stated that 'success in the knowledge economy comes to those who know themselves  - their strengths, their values, and how they best perform.' In order to relay that principle to our children, we first need to conceive it ourselves.  It is a fact that for our children to be all-rounders, we as parents and guardians must also learn and try to open our minds to the new realities that surround us. Our aim and sole focus must be to help our children learn to adapt, thrive and shape our and their own future.

Knowledge and skills are crucial, but values and attitudes are of paramount importance. Our young people need to be guided to become ethical and responsible citizens. They need to be given the opportunity to develop their creative ingenuity to help propel the society they would like to be part of towards a bright future.


Our future starts today

Towards this end, German researcher Andreas Schleicher from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has defined today's education as 'no longer about teaching students something alone.  It is more important to be teaching them to develop a reliable compass and the navigation tools to find their own way in a world that is complex and volatile. Our imagination, awareness, knowledge, skills and most importantly, our common values, intellectual and moral maturity, and sense of responsibility are what will guide us for the world to become a better place.’

Malta and Gozo are blessed to have educators who have long embraced this line of thinking. They have successfully navigated towards adaptation skills and alternative methods during the pandemic.  Indeed, our innate resilience, combined with our adaptability to innovation, will always be crucial to the modernisation and upgrading of our educational system.


Dr Justyne Caruana is Minister for Education


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