This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, to coincide with the publication of OPEN.
By Dan Haesler
Jack Andraka is just 16 and already he’s perfected his origami technique, designed a safety device for kayakers navigating dams and, just for good measure, he’s developed a revolutionary test for pancreatic cancer.
Andraka is a phenomenon. Described as “the Edison of our times”, the young American was 15 when he developed a test for pancreatic cancer that is faster, more accurate and a fraction of the cost of the existing test.
What’s even more remarkable is that he is largely self-taught; using what he calls the “teenager’s two best friends”, Google and Wikipedia, he formulated the theory behind the test.
“I found it nearly impossible at the beginning of my journey to obtain books containing up-to-date information that I needed in my public libraries,” he says. “But by using Google and Wikipedia I was able to educate myself about single-walled carbon nanotubes, pancreatic cancer and antibodies enough to be able to make the crucial connections in my mind.”
It wasn’t just access to knowledge that enabled Andraka to revolutionise the detection of pancreatic cancer – it was the ability to connect and collaborate with scientists all around the world.
“I would have had to spend so much money in copying fees and postage to send my proposal to 200 professors,” he says. “Instead, I just pressed the send button.”
Andraka believes online collaboration is the key to learning and innovation. “The internet doesn’t care about your gender, race or religion,” he says. “It’s a place where only your ideas count, and we can use it to help people around the globe to innovate and change the world.”
Sure, Andraka’s is an extraordinary case, but whether it’s learning to play guitar via YouTube, or mathematical theory through the Khan Academy, this is how teenagers today learn, openly connecting to what they want, when they want, with whomever they want.
Except, that is, when they’re in school.
In his call for a “back to basics” approach to education, federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne has called for “more didactic teaching methods, more traditional methods rather than the child-centred learning that has dominated the system for the past 20, 30 or 40 years”.
Although acknowledging that we “will not be able to do this overnight”, he is adamant that the curriculum should “deliver what parents expect”.
Mr Pyne’s stance has many in the teaching profession concerned that this will mark a return to the days of “chalk and talk”, the antithesis of an open approach to learning.
But visiting British educator and author David Price sees things slightly differently, saying that Mr Pyne is right – in part – when he says schools should deliver what “parents expect”.
“Most parents expect that school should, at the very least, prepare their kids for the world of work,” Mr Price says. But he’s concerned that parents don’t understand the nature of the workplace their children will be entering and that they “need a wake-up call”.
Mr Price believes that despite an awareness of globalisation and technological advances, most people still equate offshore competition with the manufacturing sector or call-centre work. That is not the case, he says.
“Parents should visit employment websites such as elance.com, oDesk.com, or freelancer.com,” he says. “You’ll see Australian graduates competing with graduates from emerging economies for short-term contracts in white-collar professional occupations like finance, legal, design, media and management.”
In researching his new book, Open: How We’ll Live, Work and Learn in the Future, Mr Price found that AMP, one of the largest wealth-management companies in Australia, predicts that within the next 10 years, 50 per cent of employees will be working freelance. “And many employers now recognise that graduates from India and South America have the same qualifications and are prepared to work at a fraction of the cost of Australian, American or British graduates. Ask yourself, as a contractor, who are you going to employ?”
Rather than going back to basics, he believes the solution is to create an education system based around “service learning” that fosters the entrepreneurial, creative and innovative skills needed to compete in an increasingly freelance world.
“Australia produces literate and numerate employees – more so than the UK or America – so it already has an advantage over Western rivals,” Mr Price says. “And those kinds of skills – demeaned by politicians as ‘soft’ – are exactly the skills that Asian and South American students don’t have – yet.”
As Australian politicians look forlornly to the top of the OECD tables, Mr Price says Pacific Rim nations are recognising that what got them to the top of those tables – drilling kids to pass English and maths exams – won’t invent the next iPhone. “So Australia has the edge, for now,” he says. “But with China radically changing its curriculum to foster creativity in its students, and Singapore and Korea abandoning rote learning in favour of project and inquiry-based learning, we haven’t got long.”
Although it appears politicians are yet to understand the need for change, individual teachers agree with Mr Price and are incorporating new technologies and teaching strategies in their classrooms.
Jenny Luca is director of ICT and eLearning at Toorak College. She teaches a year 9 elective called “language of our times”, focused on authors and the way they communicate with audiences today, the nature of viral videos, spoken-word poetry, the future of journalism in a digital world, crowdsourcing and coding.
“I think some teachers understand the implications of a world where easy access to information makes self-directed learning a much easier reality,” she says. “But there are probably many who don’t engage in online spaces for learning purposes and don’t yet realise the potential that exists.”
Ms Luca believes there is a steady shift towards embracing open learning, but it relies on more than individual teachers. “We need to see the input from leadership at all levels, both within schools and from larger government bodies,” she says. “We need to explore how the best schools loosen tight curriculum structures to embrace the potential of students exploring what interests them and reaching their potential that way.”
At Wooranna Park Primary School in Dandenong North, principal Ray Trotter says technology “should not just be a means to doing what we’ve always done”.
“Unfortunately, much of the ICT used in schools perpetuates traditional teaching practices by supporting teachers to impart knowledge to students,” he says. “The limited use of social media in schools also highlights this problem.”
Mr Trotter says social media is a big part of children’s lives outside school, but the dangers associated with it has prevented many schools from using social media to support children’s learning. “In so doing, these schools fail to avail themselves of opportunities to more effectively link students, parents, teachers and the wider community, in ways never before possible.”
Mr Trotter believes schools can match the expectations, interests and learning needs of students, but with a proviso. “This can only happen when governments cease to see school improvement, with its focus on accountability and high-stakes testing, as the panacea for good schooling. They must recognise that our educational system was built for a different time and if it is to serve our students well in the 21st century, it needs to be redesigned.”