Last Friday marked the fifth anniversary of the iPad, a device heralded for triggering the broad adoption of tablet computers and for further spurring our always-connected, digital lives.
Like the iPod and iPhone before it, the iPad significantly impacted a number of industries, with education touted as near the top of the list. Considering that the iPad delivers a thriving ecosystem of multimedia-rich apps and ebooks together with a design accessible to young and old alike, the device was targeted early as a boon to for learners. In fact, numerous studies have shown the benefit of iPads to students, whether at the kindergarten level or in medical school.
For decades, computers have assisted learners with skills taught early on, such as basic mathematics, spelling, and memorization. Today, web-connected devices are everywhere. The technology is cheaper, faster, more powerful, and able to instantly draw on the growing body of information available in digital form.
Students of any age now have access to encyclopedia-like articles on Wikipedia, tutorial videos on YouTube (from sites like Khan Academy), Q&A sites like Quora, and niche communities engaged in in-depth discussions on reddit, among other tools like peer-to-peer sharing. In fact, these same tools are helping some adults transition into new careers in lieu of investing massive resources to return to college to pursue another degree.
For entire generations of young students looking to educational systems to prepare them for their future careers, the ubiquitous nature of this on-demand, easily discoverable knowledge makes classic school subjects seem archaic, slow-paced and inapplicable to daily life. As a result, we must reform education to properly prepare students for life and careers in the technology-driven 21st century—but how?
Finland believes it has an answer.
Recently, the country announced it plans to replace traditional school subjects with a topical approach by 2020. Instead of students having a series of classes, like language, math, or history, they'd study cross-subject topics in groups over the course of a few weeks that include components of many subjects as part of the lessons.
"What we need now is a different kind of education to prepare people for working life," said Pasi Silander, Helsinki's development manager, speaking to The Independent about the pilot program. Citing the technology students have access to today, he added, "We therefore have to make the changes in education that are necessary for industry and modern society.”
Silander said about 70 percent of Finnish high school teachers have already received training in the "phenomenon-based" approach, which began testing two years ago. So far student outcomes have improved and teacher response has been positive.
Marjo Kyllonen, Helsinki’s education manager, who leads the initiative said, "We really need a rethinking of education and a redesigning of our system, so it prepares our children for the future with the skills that are needed for today and tomorrow."
The new approach aims to encourage different kinds of learning, shifting from facts to problem solving, individual work to collaboration. In other words, instead of skill-oriented instruction, this topical structure prioritizes the four Cs—communication, creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration—skills that are central to working in teams, a reflection of the 'hyperconnected' world we live in today.
Interestingly, this approach is similar to a homeschooling method called Unit Studies, a throwback to the one-room schoolhouse with students of multiple ages working together but at different skills and levels of understanding. Of course, this method is convenient for homeschooling families with multiple children and minimal resources, but modern workplace teams also consist of people at various skills levels with limited budgets. Additionally, U.S. homeschoolers don't always have access to the latest technologies beyond the Internet. Curiously, this parallels the Finnish school systems, which have relied on innovative teaching methodologies instead of educational technologies to consistently perform better than American students.
That doesn't mean that iPads in the classroom are a bad thing, but they're a tool—their mere presence doesn't ensure useful learning. The choice to reform Finland's educational system with new methods rather than new tablets speaks volumes to this.
Redefining education is critical to envisioning the future of work for the next generation, and that ultimately means assessing which skills are less prone to disruption from automation fueled by robotics and artificial intelligence. Skills that will take the longest for exponential technologies to replace, that is, still make humans useful, are in fact the four Cs.
Not coincidentally, the four Cs are also core skills essential to entrepreneurship.
So Finland is not just being reactionary to technological disruption in the education space, but progressively building the kind of future workforce the country needs—essentially, they're preparing a generation of entrepreneurs.
As powerful technologies increasingly make their way into the hands of the masses, and menial work is automated, it’s hard to argue against the Finnish strategy. Staying competitive in the coming years will require ever more flexibility and creativity for every country looking to raise their future workforce.
Technologies like the iPad are incredible to learners and nonlearners alike, but they are tools, not surrogates, of education. By focusing on empowering students with the four Cs, Finland's reform will develop a generation of entrepreneurs to build tools and technologies not even imagined yet.
[image credit: aerial view of Helsinki courtesy of Shutterstock]