WHAT should students learn for the 21st Century?

Luminaries answer CCR’s seminal question


Richard K. Miller

Richard K. Miller

President and first employee of Olin College of Engineering

Holistic, Multi-Disciplinary, Globally Cooperative Approach

Since each generation must start from a blank slate of knowledge of the world they are born into, education plays a critical role in the future of our species.  The fundamental job of education is to prepare the next generation for the challenges of their era, using the knowledge and wisdom that has been gained from all previous generations.  This job is rapidly becoming more difficult in recent decades due to many factors, but principal among these is the nearly explosive growth in global population.

Throughout recorded history, the global population has remained below one billion.  However, as shown in the figure above, in just the last few decades it has grown to seven billion and it is expected to reach nine billion before the midpoint in this century.  This rate of population growth is astounding and unprecedented.  Never before has our planet been called upon to provide a suitable habitat for so many people.  The projected demands for food, clean water, sustainable energy, affordable healthcare, security, and the joy of living are not only unprecedented—they are much more complex than in any previous generation.  There is hardly any aspect of life in the next generation that will not be dominated by man-made or engineered objects and environmental factors.  This explosion in human population and influence was largely enabled by technological innovations resulting from the rapid recent expansion of our understanding of the world we inherited (often including unintended consequences).

Technology has proven to be an amplifier on human activity.  In each generation, a smaller and smaller number of people are able to influence a larger and larger group of others through the amplifying effects of technology.  This influence may be beneficial, or it may not.  It may be intentional, or it may be unintentional.  However, in order to succeed in managing the Grand Challenges of the 21st century, the intentional and coordinated application of technological innovation is essential and must become widespread.

Furthermore, societal expectations continue to expand as we become more globally aware of the possibilities for the quality of life.  As a result, we should anticipate the expectation that the quality of life afforded to each generation will continually advance, in spite of the challenges ahead.

In addition, the complexity of the challenges faced by the next generation is far greater than anything we have faced in the past.  The basic problems they will face are inherently global, transcending time zones, political boundaries, and academic disciplines.  It isn’t obvious that the knowledge obtained in far simpler times will even be especially useful in meeting the challenges of the 21st century.  Today, we are unable to predict the major events of our world even a few days or months in advance, not to mention 40 years in advance—yet we must educate the next generation for the conditions they will face decades from now.

While it is implicit that knowledge will continue to play an important role in any education, a good case could be made that creativity and adaptability may become more important than knowledge in the 21st century—at least knowledge as we know it today.  We must be open to a complete rethinking of the purpose of education to provide the best preparation for these future challenges.

Because we have been conditioned to think of education as the accumulation of knowledge, we are naturally inclined to ask the question “what does every person need to know in the 21st century?”  This is because in simpler times, the rate of change of life was much lower and the world was a much more predictable place.  The rate of change of knowledge was sufficiently low that it could be treated as a static quantity that could be passed on from one generation to the next for the purpose of both understanding and predicting the world around us.  However, in the 21st century, things we thought were true only a few years ago are routinely shown to be completely wrong or inadequate every day.  So, a better question to guide the redesign of education in the 21st century may be “what should every person be able to do in the 21st century?”

In considering the basic goals of a reconceived education, it is important to address first and foremost the most basic of human needs.  It is implicit that the basic physical necessities (air, water, food, shelter, security, etc.) will be provided before education is attempted.  Then, every human has a basic need to know that s/he is the most important person on the planet to at least one other person.  Humans are inherently social and the need for a degree of unconditional love and social acceptance is universal.  In addition, every person has a fundamental need to be able to make sense of the world they live in; that is, they need a framework for understanding the events around them that is sufficient to predict the most obvious and basic features of life that they must deal with.  Finally, every person has a basic need to feel significant and capable of making a difference in their world.  The need for self-expression and creation are universal.  Unpacking these needs in an educational context is the basic task of framing the redesign of education.

What Does Every Person Need to be Able to Do?

It is hard to see how a public education can fully meet the need for personal, unconditional love.  It is implicit that this level of emotional support must come from parents and a home life that provides the foundation that frees one’s mind as a prerequisite for learning.  Assuming this family support to be in place, every person then needs the ability to feel empathy for others, express not only ideas but feelings, and tell their story in a way that draws to them the kind of attention that leads to lasting and meaningful relationships within a social group.  This should be the basic purpose of learning in the humanities and social sciences.  Obtaining a much greater ability to work together with others will be fundamental to developing the necessary global cooperation in addressing the complex challenges of the future, elevating the need for effective learning in this area to much higher levels than is present today.

Next, in order to make sense of the world around them and construct a conceptual framework that provides useful predictions about their world, they need a combination of knowledge, attitudes (including values), behaviors (including skills), and motivations.  It is important to note that education here is not strictly about knowledge, and it must involve learning how to independently construct understanding from direct observation as well as recorded information from the past.  The physical world is certain to present more challenges in the next century than in the past.  As a result, a more robust and authentic understanding of the STEM subjects is essential.  However, instead of framing these as “natural sciences” we need to emphasize the integrated system of man-and-nature and the role of man-made or engineered devices and systems, since most people will have far more experience of the human engineered world than the pristine natural world.  In order to achieve this, we simply must embrace experiential learning at an early age and expect higher levels of reasoning than memorization in math and science.

Learning how to learn will be critical in the 21st century.  This requires a firm foundation of attitudes, behaviors and motivations.  But motivations may be the most important of all.  To make a positive difference in the world, people will need to have a positive outlook on life and believe that they can each make a difference.  Without hope and a sense of self efficacy, it will not be possible to be creative and innovative in developing new pathways to meet the challenges ahead.  Research in innovation and creativity indicates that play is essential in young children to build the creative potential later in life.  When successful, this eventually leads to the discovery of a personal passion that fuels an increase in intensity of play to motivate the development of personal vision and goals for achievement.  This intrinsic motivation, coupled with the tools of independent learning skills, provides the perseverance needed to endure the arduous path to mastery or expertise in pursuit of the personal goals.  Finally, with maturity and experience and a desire to make a positive difference in the world, this mastery and intrinsic motivation are directed toward purpose.  Purpose-driven expertise is what it will take to solve the problems of the 21st century.

There are many pedagogies that may be successful in scaffolding this educational development.  However, in order to nurture the attitudes, behaviors and motivations required for this type of education, it is clear that rote learning will be of limited value.  Many forms of knowledge will become a commodity that is available online, freeing teachers to play a much more personal role in customizing the educational experience for each student.  Working together in teams on projects that help build intrinsic motivation together with the skill of learning how to learn through experimentation and experience will be much more important than in past generations.  Finally, learning how to develop meaningful relationships and eventually leadership through influence with groups of people that are from very different cultural/language/religious/geographical/economic backgrounds is essential.  Without the ability to address the Grand Challenges of the 21st Century in a holistic, multi-disciplinary globally cooperative approach, our species may not survive.

Copyright – Richard K. Miller