Student Skills for the 21st Century

Arizona State University Coor Hall Explore ProcessedOur current educational system is a relic of a bygone era. Rote memorization, a skill valuable in a time when access to information and reference material was far more limited, remains the primary component of learning in today’s classrooms. With the internet, widespread access to information makes finding facts, dates, and other trivium as simple as a Google search and a click. However, this new plethora of information presents its own challenge: the need to think critically and filter information.

A recent report by Project Information Literacy showed that many college students lack basic research skills. This is largely because our education system focuses on memorization of answers instead of how to think critically and find them on their own. While memorizing a monologue or a poem is good for your brain, too much focus is on teaching facts instead of skills:

According to How College Students Evaluate and Use Information in the Digital Age, students engage in “risk-averse” research, in which they “use an information-seeking and research strategy driven by efficiency and predictability for managing and controlling all of the information available to them on college campuses” — a method which, while it may allow students to earn passing grades, goes against the inherently exploratory nature of university level research.

From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Alison J. Head, a co-principal investigator for the project, said the results suggest that today’s students struggle with a feeling of information overload.

“They feel overwhelmed, and they’re developing a strategy for not drowning in all information out there,” she said. “They’re basically taking how they learned to research in high school with them to college, since it’s worked for them in the past.”

Ms. Head said the findings show that college students approach research as a hunt for the right answer instead of a process of evaluating different arguments and coming up with their own interpretation.

Take for example science classes at the university undergraduate level. Students in labs simply follow a recipe of instructions in an attempt to get a result that they already know. It is only at the graduate level that students are put in situations where they must solve a problem on their own and actually apply the scientific method.

These facts that schools have students memorize often fade beyond recollection as soon as the student completes their testing on that information. The skills of critical thinking and research are more likely to remain and serve these students their entire lives. It is a perfect example of the difference between giving a person a fish and teaching them how to fish.

There is a saying within academia that undergraduates believe everything they read, masters students believe nothing they read, and doctoral students learn to decide for themselves. This critical thinking ability needs to be acquired by students earlier than in a doctoral program.

Another skill that is currently being overlooked in our education system is the ability to work with data. A recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review discusses that shortcoming among reporters and its necessity in a data-driven world:

Against this backdrop, the ability to find, manipulate, and analyze data has become increasingly important, not only for teams of investigative journalists, but for beat reporters. It is hard to conceive of a beat that doesn’t generate data—even arts reporters evaluate budgets and have access to nonprofit organizations’ tax returns.

Even when universities have data courses available, the are relatively rare, not required, and primarily only graduate level:

At the same time, making database skills and training a priority can be tough for overburdened reporters and editors. Nor do journalism schools necessarily give such skills pride of place—in fact, many teach them piecemeal, if at all. At the graduate level, New York University requires students in its Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting (SHERP) concentration to obtain a solid grounding in numeracy. In other concentrations, however, these skills play a smaller role. The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism offers a handful of relevant classes, including investigative reporting, a course called Evidence and Inference, and a new addition, Digital Media: Interactive Workshop, which stresses storytelling through data and interactive presentation. But there is no data course that all students must take in order to graduate.

Journalism students are not the only ones who would benefit from these skills. As we progress deeper into the 21st century, more jobs will require the ability to analyze large amounts of data and draw conclusions from it. These skills should be taught much earlier than the university graduate level and to a much wider population of students.

If the United States is serious about educating a population that is ready to thrive in the 21st century economy, it needs to shift its education strategy from memorization of facts to acquisition of skills.