Out of the box learning

Representational Image (Photo: Getty Images)


If Uber is a disruptive force with public transport, then
the drive for common sense as a skill set may make a university education a lot
less important. A small but growing number of employers, particularly
technology companies like Google, “now care less and less which university you
went to, or even if you went to university”, said Marc Tucker, president and
chief executive of the United States’ National Centre on Education and the
Economy, in an interview with The Straits Times.

Tucker, who was in Singapore on a study visit last month,
said those companies had been developing systems that were designed to find out
if individuals possessed qualities that were needed in the future economy.

These include the ability to quickly integrate large amounts
of information and put it together to produce specific results.

They also need to be able to lead and inspire others, be an
effective group member, to conceive a project and its goal and to organise the
project to achieve that goal. Tucker dubs these qualities “common sense”, a
necessary skill set in an age of automation, artificial intelligence and
machine learning.

“Interestingly enough, it turns out that common sense is not
at all that common… general purpose intelligence is very hard to come by, and
hard for machines to (replicate),” he said. Tucker also said that there was
little evidence to show that the knowledge and skills gained in university were
the ingredients for success after graduation.

“What is clear is that the top employers are trying to get
the products of the best universities — but that’s a different statement.”
Singapore had begun a “very intentional” effort to start thinking about these
common sense qualities that would be necessary in the future and how they could
be cultivated in students, he said. That was what he noticed over the course of
his five-day trip last month, which included visits to North brooks Secondary
School, North Light School and Xinm in Secondary School.

At Northbrooks Secondary — that has developed a niche in
applied learning through aerospace — he saw an aeronautics programme in action.
Each in a group of 15 students had a plane that was about 50 cm in length, with
its own unique design, and they had to determine how to add a weight to the
plane in order for it to go into a stall after being launched.

“It was pretty clear that they had studied, in their physics
class, the principles of aircraft design, and that what you needed to
accomplish a stall was to add weight — but they had to figure out how much
weight to add, and how far it was from the centre of gravity.”

 He also saw students on a climbing wall at Xinmin
Secondary, where they were given “the opportunity to tackle something difficult
and dangerous” and also learn “that you can’t accomplish a task without the
collaboration of others and trusting others”.

These applied learning programmes put into practice what has
been learnt in theory. With them, Tucker said that students would be able to
develop the skills that allowed them to know what kind of information was
needed to solve a problem. They would also learn how to integrate new
information with existing knowledge.

Referring to the requirements of the future, he said, “I was
watching all of this and thinking that this is exactly what Singapore needs.”
While some parents may worry that time spent outside the classroom will eat at
students’ grades, Tucker doubts it will lower the quality of the academic
system. “I see schools starting to find different ways to teach academics to
the same standards, but that will also allow the kids to develop a deeper
understanding of the skills that they need to be successful.” This realignment
of how students learn must apply to vocational learning too, he said. “For a
very long time, vocational education meant training people for jobs that did
not require a university degree,” he noted.

As secondary to university education embraced applied
learning, vocational education must include more theory too. He said training
students only for specific vocations — such as carpenters or mechanics — ran
the risk of putting them out of work if technological developments rendered
their occupations obsolete. Vocational training must now consider occupations
with much higher technological demands, which require higher skill levels and
academic accomplishments.

The way forward, he said, was an education that allowed
students to draw on both theory and practice to quickly synthesise new
information and solve problems through project-based learning. “The best way to
make sure that they can find new work is to provide them with a foundational
education that’s going to make it much easier for them to learn something new,”
he said. For that, schools in Singapore are changing assessment methods.

Questions that do not come with fixed model answers are
emphasised. Tucker said such questions nurtured creativity and innovation —
areas in which it is less likely for computers to replace humans. Singapore ,
he said, was in a good place to adopt project based learning, thanks to its
higher teaching standards.

“That doesn’t mean you’re going to be where you need to be,
but what I have seen Singapore do at each stage is to develop and figure out
where the world is going, and then to develop and get there,” he said, citingt
Switzerland, Denmark and Germany as countries with universities that had a
strong emphasis on applied learning.

During his trip, Tucker said minister for education
(schools) Ng Chee Meng had asked him how these 21st century skills could be
assessed. They can’t, he said. And that will require a mindset shift. “It’s a
question on the minds of a lot of people, certainly in the United States. And I
told him that in my view… I don’t think they can be measured and I don’t
think we should try. “We’re going to have to find a way of conveying to
parents, employers and universities how well an individual does in these
arenas.”

The Straits Times/ANN