A change in the educational paradigm is taking place, but many countries still fail to educate young people to be inspiring and contributing members of society. Countries that excel on international tests are changing the way they conceive of education and putting the emphasis on teaching skills that empower students, rather than calling for outstanding grades and qualifications. However, there is still a long way to go to achieve quality education for all in a world where 57 million children do not have access to primary education and many are excluded because of their social background, gender or ethnicity.
Top tips for educating the next generation of stem stars
Ong Ye Kung
Ong Ye Kung, Singapore's Minister of Education, has been implementing some changes in the way Singaporean schools approach teaching to make the system more flexible and diverse. Like many Asian countries, the small city-state excels in international tests – last year, it outperformed all other countries in the OECD’s latest PISA survey – but that was achieved as a result of a very strict and demanding education system. Ong is now transforming that model to educate motivated students and develop their talents.
Shift the emphasis
Singaporean students do very well on tests. However, the education system in the city-state is shifting the focus on grades and qualifications to give more space to teaching personal skills, sports and arts. “Today, information and knowledge are all on internet, and it is possible to Google everything,” Ong says. “But skills you only get from experience.”
Promote vocational education
Most parents in Asia want their kids to grow up and be doctors or lawyers, says Ong. Nonetheless, Singapore is starting to encourage young students to follow their passions and develop their talents. In that sense, many students might choose vocational training rather than going to university. Ong warns that there should be an alignment between how people are educated and the structure of a country’s economy in order to keep the unemployment rate among graduates low.
Foster lifelong learning
Education should transcend the classroom instead of being restricted to schools and universities. Through lifelong learning, people continue to develop skills up until retirement. In an era of rapid change, people have to keep on developing skills and continuously enhance their professional careers with education and training.
Maikki Sipinen was educated in the Finnish system, considered one of the best in the world. The Leader of Tomorrow focuses her studies on educational technology and, especially, on learning analytics. Sipinen is now working on an on-going project called EduFellow that harnesses the talent of Finnish educators to teach in other countries.
Use Big Data to learn how to learn
For years, schools have been teaching students and testing their outcomes afterward. By then, the learning process is over and it is too late to improve teaching techniques. But with big data, algorithms, analytical tools, and sensors it will be possible to understand the learning process while it is ongoing, “This is something exciting that will disrupt the learning world,” Sipinen says.
Sipinen says that there are two sides to technological learning tools. Technology is one of them, but it is not just enough to provide technology: it is also necessary to change the culture, the society and the way in which people think about technology. Sipinen explains that it is not completely possible to digitise education, unless other aspects of civic life – such as voting – are digitised.
Be more flexible
Industries, says Sipinen, are changing all the time. Therefore, education systems have to answer to that need and be more flexible. It should be possible to change the chosen academic path. “We are not going to work for the same company for 40 years, because we have no idea what the world is going to be like in 20 years, or even 10 or 5,” she says.
Foster an active dialogue
Sipinen believes that countries should keep their eyes open to see what other countries are doing. However, she warns that it is not enough to copy successful models: “Education systems take place within cultures and societies,” she says.
Guarantee quality of life
“It should not be the point of education to stress out young people so that they have to study sixteen hours a day,” Sipinen says. She recommends that students spend a few hours doing problem-solving exercises or group work instead of passively listening to long lectures. In her opinion, it is important that people have free time to explore.
As a law student in the United Kingdom and mother of two, 32-year-old Tanzanian Faraja Nyalandu could not be a typical student: after class, she would go to the library, borrow some books and rush back home with her kids. One day, she recalls, the librarian stopped her short. “You know what?” he said “All those books that you are always taking, I have them online.” Nyalandu didn’t know back then that it could be that easy to access educational content. She was struck with an idea: what if kids could access educational content that easily back home in Tanzania, where many young people do not go to very good schools?
After finishing her studies in the UK, Nyalandu returned to Tanzania and launched Shule Direct, a platform that allows more that 974,000 young learners and teachers to access quality educational content through the web and mobile solutions. Thanks to a partnership with internet.org, many students can use the platform for free, without incurring data charges.
Enable access to content
Regardless of their physical, financial or geographical circumstances, everybody must have an opportunity to learn. “A person from a low-income community won’t have access to a good teacher, to good textbooks, to a good laboratory or a good library,” says Nyalandu. The platform she created, Shule Direct, is a means to make educational content available to students and teachers alike. She adds that nothing replaces an actual teacher, “but at least you can have the content and learn.”
Facilitate collaborative learning
Nyalandu believes that a good educational system should emphasise collaborative learning among students and between students and teachers. “It is important that you have a system where you can feel like it’s open,” she says.
Teach content that makes learners think
The aim of education should be enabling young people to develop their personality and discover their interests, talents, and skills. Nyalandu says it is essential that the way kids are taught in schools makes them think: Educational systems should not only focus on core skills but also on “life skills,” like interpersonal relations and communication.
“My parents gave me freedom, and did not force me into excelling in all the exams,” says Rakitha Malewana, a 22-year-old Sri Lankan who was the first student in his country to obtain the approval to conduct medical research. He’s now using medical research and community outreach work to pioneer a new HIV nano-vaccine.
That wouldn’t have been possible, Malewana says, without the freedom to do extracurricular activities, like doing charity, participating in science clubs or practicing sports. He is confident that those extracurricular activities were the key factor to succeed in medical research and be a huge activist in the society.
Get involved in extracurricular activities
Academics are important. But if a person has good records and no personal skills or leadership skills, it is very hard to survive within the society,” Malewana says. For him, it is important that students explore and get to know the society and the people in it.
In Sri Lanka, Malewana explains, traditional mindsets make it difficult to teach sexual and reproductive health because those topics are taboo. “Most of the time, teachers are skipping those lessons,” he says. So one of the main steps towards a good and complete educational system, in Malewana’s view, is a classroom where no subject is off limits.
Make education interesting
“Kids in disadvantaged situations do not need more education,” Malewana says. “We have to make education more interesting for them.” He says educators should create new, interactive modules to capture students’ attention and conduct successful sessions. Though it is difficult in developing countries, he also thinks that introducing technology into the classroom is a way to engage learners.