WHAT should students learn for the 21st Century?

Luminaries answer CCR’s seminal question


John Abele

John Abele

Philanthropist, co-founder of Boston Scientific Corporation

Collaboration, Robotics and More

As Alvin and Heidi Toffler wrote in their book Future Shock (1970) and Ray Kurzweil, more recently, wrote in The Singularity is Near (2005), the growth of advancements in technology and communication is accelerating.  This tends to happen when the tools for inventing and communication become more powerful, cheaper and more available.  The average individual today has access to more information and the ability to connect to more people than Presidents, Kings and Potentates of only 25 years ago. Life spans are longer, but cultures are changing more rapidly.  Power hierarchies are strongly influenced by the ability to understand and use these tools to survive and thrive. Students need the skills and competencies described in 21st Century Skills, but they also need to learn how to learn, learn faster and how to filter the important from the interesting in a fast growing mass of data and information.   They also need to have the technical, mental and emotional capability to adapt to new environments… which are also changing faster.

Designing learning experiences to develop these attributes and behaviors, requires innovation, systems thinking and game theory.

The inventor Dean Kamen started FIRST Robotics competitions in 1989 with the modest goal of changing the culture of high school students in America. FIRST is an acronym for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.” Dean was struck by the famous National Academies “Rising Above the Gathering Storm”  report of the 1980s decrying the decline in science and math literacy of America’s youth.   His solution was to create a sport in which high school teams compete with robots to accomplish various tasks.  Doing well in that sport was to be cool and celebrated in the school and beyond. Students would learn science and technology in order to win.  And winning was cool. He made sure to enlist celebrities of all sorts to endorse team accomplishments.  The games are designed new every year. Participants learn to work in teams to understand objectives, rules and constraints, design solutions, build, debug and compete…and collaborate…with teams from other schools.  Thousands of teams are involved.  Older students mentor younger students, older teams mentor younger teams.  The culture is to win by raising the bar, not by making your opponent lose.   It’s about a lot more than learning science and technology. Students are motivated to be good citizens because that’s how you get help from others, and it’s cool.  They learn how to raise support.  They learn how present their story to diverse groups.  They develop videos, dances, songs, mascots to reach broad audiences.

Over 140 colleges and universities with engineering programs provide over $15 million worth of scholarships to students who have participated and who meet entrance requirements. The school admission officers tell us that everything else being equal (SATs, grades, social and economic background), these students do better.  They are both confident and humble.  And their culture is infectious.

Citizens today need that balance of confidence and humility, of curiosity and commitment, sensitivity and thick skin, passion and perspective.  Understanding and expanding experiential programs like FIRST is a good start.

Copyright – John Abele