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Lessons that shape-shift

Nitya Ram | Updated on May 11, 2018 Published on May 11, 2018

On her feet When encouraged to think critically about issues facing the world , and find solutions, students become equipped to deal with the unpredictability of life. Photo: R Ragu   -  The Hindu

Neither vocational training nor academic learning comes with lifetime guarantees anymore. That’s where new age skills come into play

February 14 saw the horrific massacre of 17 students at a school in Parkland, Florida. It was yet another mass shooting at a US school amid a spate of similar violence in recent times. Within days of the Parkland shooting, the students of the school began to speak at public forums — they articulated mature arguments and solutions to end gun violence. They garnered both awareness and public support — and action from the US President.

The students led such a well-constructed and communicated campaign, that many began to think they had been coached — they could not believe that young people were capable of doing what adults had not been able to for years.

The secret of the success, however, lay not in coaching students to repeat memorised arguments, but in the education they receive in school. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School at Parkland has a programme where students from a young age learn debating, extemporaneous public speaking, theatre and journalism. The themes are not anything esoteric, nor are the scripts dictated by teachers. The students choose themes that are relevant to their lives, they think critically about issues faced by the world today, identify solutions, write their own scripts and present these through debate, drama and journalism. This education equips students with the skills to transcend the challenges they face in moments of uncertainty, and, at times, this means dealing with unpredictable and terrible events.

Sometime in the 1980s, the word ‘skill’ began to acquire a meaning beyond the specialised capability to perform a (usually) low-paying, repetitive job. Back then, skill was associated with the ‘vocational’. The emerging meaning began to include abilities such as communication, critical thinking and problem solving, digital literacy and life skills — often collectively called 21st Century Skills or New Age Skills. These skills are generic and relevant to every vocation or career. Unlike vocational skills, they do not lock a learner to a particular vocation.

The reason for this shift in meaning is simple — we now live in a world where change is the only constant, where the unexpected is always around the corner.

Industrial-era vocational training got students to memorise a sequence of steps to be flawlessly repeated — a skill that would be relevant for a lifetime. The world has since changed drastically. A vocational course is obsolete by the time the ink dries on the curriculum printout, unless it is a dynamic curriculum, designed afresh by the employer for every new session.

However, before we discuss the role of New Age Skills in the Indian education system, we must first consider two deep-rooted perceptions.

The first is the belief that the skills that are relevant for students from marginalised sections must yield immediate results; they should prepare a student to become a mechanic, a medical worker, a computer technician, all of which would immediately lead to employment and an income.

Those speaking from a position of privilege believe that the less-privileged are academically incapable and (with all good intentions) feel that the vocational streams are best for them, even though they realise these are deadend jobs.

The second perception, which is almost universally held, is that the Plus Two academic stream is the path to higher-paid and high-growth careers.

The underprivileged understand that there is no growth in the vocational stream and aspire only for the academic stream, which they see as enabling them to cross over and gain social prestige through guaranteed professional success and affluence.

However, today there is growing awareness in educational circles that the academic stream is no longer the ticket to social privilege and affluence.

On February 26, union minister for human resource development Prakash Javadekar announced that the NCERT syllabus would be drastically shrunk. Students are, he said, “not just a data bank”. The idea is to replace a knowledge-heavy syllabus with a more holistic approach to education in which New Age Skills would be an important component. Javadekar’s initiative comes from the realisation that the academic stream can prepare students for success in an evolving world only if their education includes essential life skills, work, communication and cognitive skills.

Neither the academic stream nor the vocational stream is complete in itself — the acquisition of New Age Skills is required in both streams and will make both effective. These are the skills that will ensure horizontal and vertical mobility, irrespective of the stream chosen. If taught effectively to all students, no student in a vocational stream will get locked into that vocation. When her vocational knowledge becomes obsolete (as it will), she will have the ability to adapt and acquire the skills for a new and relevant vocation. She can use these skills to transition to an academic career, if she chooses. And, similarly, students in the academic stream would have the skills to move to new vocations of their choice and adapt to the world as it changes.

Nitya Ram is an educationist and the co-founder of Qube-Ed Education Services, Delhi

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Published on May 11, 2018
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