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‘We are way behind’

Nov 13,2014 - Last updated at Nov 13,2014

At a European conference on education I attended several months ago in Lisbon, a world-renowned researcher spoke about the four most important skills university graduates need to possess if they are to be competitive in the global market.

These, ordered in importance and interconnected, are: information management, self-learning, teamwork and critical thinking.

This makes perfect sense. Since we live in an open world in which information is not just abundant but often overwhelming, the skill that is required most by people who are actively involved in the world around them, in both official and non-official capacities, is the ability to “manage” information.

So much is said about so many vital issues by so many people via so many media that one is in great need of the skills necessary to sift through the information, process it, pinpoint what is trustworthy, select what is relevant, etc.

We live in a very complex world in which “narratives”, often competing and conflicting, reign supreme.

To be able to survive, be effective and thrive, it is incumbent upon us, often with no assistance from anyone, to respond intelligently and make choices on the basis of the so much that we see, watch, hear or read.

A daunting task indeed, but one that cannot be shirked.

As for self-learning, yes, it is absolutely needed.

The days when students relied either solely or heavily on textbooks and teachers are — or should be — over.

Effective learning is one in which the learners themselves play an active role.

It is they who, on their own, need to take the initiative, to organise their time, to plan a course of action, to search and research information, to experiment, to deconstruct and construct, to produce, etc.

It is primarily learning through planning and doing.

In today’s world of learning, so much is tilting in this direction. At school level, home schooling — which relies heavily on the role of the learner — is not only a reality but a concrete choice for many families and their children in several parts of the world.

At university level, at least three worldwide trends have emerged. One is represented by open or cyber universities, in which either all or most education is offered to learners online and in which learners rely primarily on themselves, with very minimal technical or academic assistance offered them.

Another is the move by many traditional universities to boost the online dimension of many of their existing courses, with the aim of reducing physical contact hours and encouraging students to start to rely more on themselves.

The last is related to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

These are basically individual online courses prepared and delivered by both prestigious and pioneering educational institutions, or their consortia, for anyone anywhere in the world desirous of learning about any subject without being formally registered as a student and without necessarily seeking a degree.

They are proving to be both very popular and very relevant to learners’ needs.

In all these domains, and others, the most needed skill is that which enables one to learn by him/herself.

When it comes to teamwork, there is hardly need for an explanation. Correct, intelligent decisions in many realms and spheres are taken not by individual persons but collectively.

The same applies to chores, tasks, projects and products of all sorts. Most often, teams carry them out. It is a must in many workplaces today to be a good team player.

We all know the importance and relevance of critical thinking. It is, in a sense, the mother of all skills: embedded in and inseparable from the former three and other skills.

To manage information, one needs proper critical skills. And one needs them when one learns on his/her own and when one is working as part of a team.

I was immensely pleased by the presentation made by the Lisbon conference keynote speaker. He hit the nail on the head.

What displeased me, however, was where our educational institutions stand with respect to these core, crucial, skills.

At school level, they are almost entirely absent. It is still primarily, if not solely, the textbook and the teacher. And students do nothing but memorise.

No one is talking about these core skills. Some, to be fair, mention critical thinking, but without doing much about it.

Information management, self-learning and teamwork are almost unheard of.

We are so busy with basic, routine measures, such as preventing cheating during Tawjihi exams and teaching our pupils in elementary school their ABCs, and so content with our successes at these two levels that we see little else.

At university level, very little is happening with respect to these four skills; at best, in individual settings here and there.

The core of our higher education is still, with some small differences, a mirror of our school education.

Sadly, we are still way behind, and there are no serious initiatives to address that.

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