Abu Dhabi: Everyone can easily ‘Google’ information, but it is knowledge of content that makes an expert out of a novice, and helps individuals become innovators and leaders, a renowned education expert has said in the capital.
In addition, it is content knowledge that allows children become active participants of society, said Michael B Horn, co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation think tank.
Speaking at the Majlis Mohamed Bin Zayed on Thursday, Horn, therefore, called for reform of traditional education systems so that numerous children are not left behind academically.
“People often say you don’t need to learn anything because you can Google it. But you won’t know what to Google unless you have the knowledge. The ability to be a problem-solver, to think critically, and to communicate relies on content knowledge. The content base is what helps you move from being a novice to an expert in a field so that you can problem solve and think critically,” Horn said.
Horn’s lecture was attended by Sheikh Hamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, member of the Abu Dhabi Executive Council, along with several dignitaries, educators, and officials.
Content knowledge is also key to enabling children’s societal participation.
“Content is important so that children can [actively] participate in society. In the UAE, children knowing the history, religion, and language is important so that they can [engage with others around them]. There is a real importance of a shared foundation of content knowledge for children to become leaders and valuable members of society. So while it is absolutely true that we don’t need to memorise nearly as much, having coherent content knowledge is still important,” he added.
Urging education reform, Horn, who has authored multiple books on the subject, said traditional education systems are ‘zero-sum’ because they limit the time for learning something. In their place, he called for education models that allow children to learn something until they master it.
“The traditional education system is zero-sum [because it is fixed-time], and it systematically undermines collaboration, cooperation and interconnectedness. This limits the social and academic development of our children. Around the world, there is no country [at the moment] in which all students are able to fulfill their human potential. In the majority of countries, we leave countless students behind. And in this zero-sum education system, there are many more losers than there are winners,” Horn said.
As an illustration, he said that only one-third of twelfth graders in the United States are known to be proficient in Math and Reading. According to the education expert, this gap is occurring because traditional education systems teach concepts for a fixed-time period to students of similar ages, then assess them. A grade is assigned based on the child’s performance, and all students then move to the next unit or concept. This doesn’t allow children who haven’t grasped the concept to spend time learning it.
“The good news is that we know how to fix this, and make education a positive-sum experience. The secret is to start with a ‘guarantee of mastery’ for every single child,” he suggested.
Guarantee of mastery
Horn explained that the ‘guarantee of mastery’ system works on the basis of variable learning speeds. Children who need to plug gaps in their learning can choose to spend more time ‘mastering’ a concept, while others can move on to the next unit so that they do not get bored.
“We have known for decades through anecdotal evidence that every individual learns at different speeds. We have jagged profiles, learning needs, different times. Over the last twenty or 30 years, cognitive science research has caught up to [this fact], and there’s mountains of research for why we [learn differently]: we have different memory capacities, aptitudes, and strengths. Despite knowing this, we have built throughout the world an education system that a teacher will deliver the same content every single day to every single child based on their age. And then we act surprised when [later], children come out with what educators call the ‘Swiss cheese’ problem, [with gaps in their learning],” Horn said.
“If we move to a system in which it is the learning that is fixed, and we guarantee [that every single child ‘masters’ each concept by allowing children as much time as they need], we can start to move to a positive-sum system. Students can get to go through a learning cycle, and become self-directed learners. They set a goal, plan how they are going to realise the goal, do the learning themselves, show evidence through an assessment of what they have learnt, and then set another goal. They [can choose to] keep working on it, or if [they have mastered it], they can set a new goal,” he said.
Education systems that allow for this remove the unhealthy competition out of learning, Horn said.
“Once we do this, the collaboration and interconnectedness [between students] comes to life. This is because [students will] not worry when another student is doing well. They will not be in competition for scarce success, or scarce seats at the end of the line,” he said.
While the task of shifting to a reformed education seems formidable, especially for teachers, Horn said teachers can teach in teams to be able to better manage large groups of students, while also delivering based on their specific skills. In addition, technology can be used to make laborious tasks easier, and to deepen understanding of students’ needs and outcomes.
“Our nations’ futures, our societies’ futures, our global future, and the future of every child is what is at stake here. [I believe that] through a world of cooperation, collaboration and interconnectedness, and a new leaf to guarantee mastery, we can truly develop that society in which we can all make positive progress together,” Horn said.