Shaping Education for the 21st Century

One could hazard a guess on what the 21st century has in store for the children of today. Most of the current problems and opportunities are visible today and perhaps, will outlast a generation or two. With an exploding human population, the needs continue to rise and resources are fast dwindling. The generations of tomorrow will face substantial pressure for sustainable growth and existence. The technology of today provides glimpses for the shape of employment future generations have to face. Basic education can be reconfigured to prepare the youth to meet these challenges that await them. There is no question that education must be reformed. The remaining question, however, is how.

"Learning to learn" is one catchy phrase. It can be used to describe an education through which a student develops thinking skills. Certainly, this is an ideal objective. How one gets there, how this can be achieved inside a classroom is not as straightforward as it seems. "Critical thinking" is "expert thinking". Thinking does not happen inside a vacuum. A strong foundation of knowledge is a prerequisite. Take, for example, the following simple graph:

Above figure downloaded from Wikipedia
The above figure shows the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere measured above Hawaii. On the y-axis is the amount of this gas and on the x-axis is time (year, specifically). The red line traces how much carbon dioxide has been increasing over the past five decades. Within the main graph is an inset that shows and magnifies what happens to the carbon dioxide level within a year. Mauna Loa is in the northern hemisphere so the annual cycle observed matches the seasons. April heralds the arrival of spring and trees begin to show leaves once more. Carbon dioxide levels drop during this time as vegetation extracts the gas from the atmosphere for photosynthesis. This continues until late summer. October is the start of Fall. Leaves turn brown and fall off the trees, and photosynthesis is suspended. Carbon dioxide then rises through winter until the next spring arrives. Thus, the small blips seen in the main graph are in fact due to millions and millions of trees shedding their leaves for fall and winter, and growing them back in spring. Millions of trees and yet, their effect is so tiny compared to the overall trend in carbon dioxide level from 1960 to present time. Carbon dioxide levels have risen by as much as 25 percent during the past fifty years while each season of trees losing all leaves accounts for only 1-2 percent fluctuations in carbon dioxide concentrations. This graph provides strong evidence that the change observed in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere is mostly anthropogenic or man-made. How does one arrive at such a conclusion? How does one even begin to interpret the observations laid out by the graph above, without prior knowledge of what graphs are, and how graphs are interpreted? Surely, there is also quite a bit of knowledge, such as where Hawaii is in the globe, what the four seasons are, and when these generally occur in the northern hemisphere, that is necessary to interpret correctly the graph. This graph does not even tackle what must be done to address the issue. This is really the point where lack of consensus exists. Remediation as well as adaptations to climate change certainly require even greater critical thinking and a wider array of information. For instance, evaluating carbon-based fuels can begin by looking at each fuel and weighing how much energy is obtained per carbon dioxide produced:

Above table copied from 

This exercise will require division and a basic understanding of stoichiometry in chemical reactions. Methane produces close to 900 kilojoules of energy per mole of carbon dioxide produced. On the other hand, octane, which can represent what is present in gasoline, produces 5000 kilojoules, but at the price of forming  not one, but 8 moles of carbon dioxide. Thus, octane produces a bit less energy per carbon dioxide produced, about 600 kilojoules of energy per mole of carbon dioxide produced. Is methane, a main component of natural gas, a better fuel then for the environment? Yes and no. There are engineering, technical and even biological issues that need to be addressed to answer this specific challenge, for example.

The above are small specific examples of problems. It is true that not everyone needs to become a scientist to face the world of tomorrow. It is important, however, to recognize that these issues will affect almost every aspect of human civilization. Agriculture depends a lot on the climate and so does fishing. Communities especially in coastal areas are especially vulnerable to changes in sea level. Changes in our environment certainly command adaptation and better preparation is a must. Policies are drawn by politicians but the youth of today are the ones who will face these challenges head on.

Should basic education therefore be reformed to face the challenges of the 21st century? "Yes" will be a safe response. "How" remains unsolved. First, preparing children so that they can become productive and happier members of future communities requires both thinking skills and information. A reformed educational system that focuses primarily on skills without substance cannot provide the necessary preparation. Second, narrowing down options and designing specialized tracks in basic education start with a huge assumption of knowing what the future really holds. This is a gigantic assumption that may often be incorrect. Basic education forms the foundation. How this branches to various disciplines of human endeavor must stay flexible and adaptable to each individual student. "Learning to learn" captures this ideal. Yet, it is also knowledge or information that usually allows an individual to adapt to new problems or situations.

Thus, there is a lack of clarity of how basic education should be designed. It cannot be a simple preparation for higher education since not everyone is destined for college. It cannot be a simple preparation for employment since by the time students finish their education those specific jobs may not even be available. Even health care and the services sectors are changing rapidly. More than two years ago, the graduate school of education at Harvard published the report, "Pathways to Prosperity", outlining what needs to be done to prepare the youth for the 21st century:

to read the full report
The report begins by acknowledging major changes in educational requirements of employment. The jobs available for high school graduates and dropouts have diminished substantially from 62% in 1973 to 41% in 2007:

The most recent recession in the United States has a greater impact to younger people as seen in the number of job opportunities available to each age group:

The situation in the Philippines is not vastly different in this respect. According to the National Statistics Office (Philippines), most of the unemployed are young adults:

Above data from National Statistics Office, Labor Force Survey
The Harvard report maintains that not everyone needs a college degree to enter employment. What seems lacking is an alignment between high school education and employment opportunities. The report then looks at other countries to see how others have tailored their basic education program to meet the unique opportunities and challenges of the 21st century:
If you look at the U.S. secondary education system through a comparative lens, one big difference becomes immediately apparent: most advanced nations place far more emphasis on vocational education than we do. Throughout northern and central Europe especially, vocational education and training is a mainstream system, the pathway helping most young people make the transition from adolescence to productive adulthood. In Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland, after grade 9 or 10 between 40 and 70 percent of young people opt for an
educational program that typically combines classroom and workplace learning over the next three years. This culminates in a diploma or certificate, a “qualification,” as it’s called, with real currency in the labor market. In virtually all of these countries, vocational education also provides a pathway into tertiary education for those who
choose to take it.
The structure of basic education in these European countries takes the first ten years as compulsory and does not discriminate between vocational and college preparation. Thus, after ten years of basic education, a student chooses to either attend a technical/vocational school or a preparatory program for college. Vocational schools or apprenticeships in Europe involve a wide variety of occupations and it is only in the last year that the training is narrowly focused on a particular job.

The solution to aligning basic education to employment opportunities is indeed elusive. The Harvard report does not make a clear claim of finding the magic bullet. In fact, the first recommendation is about career counseling. There are apparently not enough guidance counselors for American high school students. According to the report, there are 500 students assigned to each guidance counselor and this counselor usually spends a great deal of time on social and emotional issues. There is not enough time and manpower for career advising. This shortage is likewise (if not more severe) present in the current Philippine basic education system.

The dropout problem and the low college graduation rates in the United States are partly blamed on a failure to engage students in their learning. It is therefore suggested that a closer link or alignment between the world outside and the classroom is made. One of the reasons behind a high dropout rate is loss of interest. A student who fails to master the basic literacy and numerical skills in the earlier grades either has the option to remediate or drudge oneself into subjects that are even more challenging and therefore beyond what this student could possibly comprehend. How can a student who does not know how to add, subtract, multiply and divide appreciate algebra? How can a student who has not been taught how to make measurements be interested in engineering? How can a student who does not know how to read enjoy reading a book? Critical thinking without substance is not critical thinking. It is simply hot air.

As in climate change in which the problems may seem distant in the future, education reformers tend to focus mainly on the later years thinking that the solutions are within this period. Senior high schools or whatever schooling that happens after basic education can only be reformed to a certain point to conform to the perceived challenges and opportunities of society but without addressing these problems earlier, the problems of a failing basic education system, none of these solutions will work. It is in the early grades that a student forms a general attitude towards learning. It is in the elementary years that a child gets introduced to learning. Failing at this point guarantees a difficult time in schooling in the later years. No reshaping of curriculum in high school can cure the ills of a poor elementary education. Shaping education for the 21st century has not really changed what basic education should be. The goals of basic education remain the same. Education in the early childhood years is still the most important step. Reforming high school without attending to problems in elementary school is a simple exercise in futility. It may be true that doing well in early childhood education and the elementary years does not necessarily guarantee a basic education aligned to the needs and challenges of a 21st century. However, it is with certainty that a poor elementary education will lead to a failure in basic education no matter what century.


  1. I thought I would share information I receive from a Facebook user about guidance counselors in the Philippines:

    "My mom is a Guidance Counselor in a National High School. with a population of more than 10,000 students.She's a psychology graduate, and have taken up masters in guidance counseling, and so many other courses, including human resource. She's been in the service for more than 10 yrs now, they act like principals and teachers, no summerbreaks, or what.

    yet she only gets about 7k per month, its because the Guidance Counselors has been neglected by the DepEd. while those who Master Teachers (III) would get to as far as 25k per month, handling 3-4 sections with 45 pupils each. summer break, christmas break, everything. bravo Philippines. from my mom, I swore not to work in the Government in my entire life.

    Additional work for a Guidance Counselor, my mom painted the whole office herself, part of our own money, part of the school's budget. They handle NAT reviews and other exams, while dealing with kids high on drugs and having a drug cartel beside the school's canteen. Aside from that is the monthly gang wars just outside (and sometimes even inside the school's gates). in her drawer are weapons confiscated from students, knives daggers, bbguns, an actual Glock 9 (but turned over to the police after a while), some marijuana, and all those shit. This summer, she goes to school to handle the summer class (AND SHE'S NOT GETTING ANY EXTRA PAY FOR IT) by 7am, and returns home at 8pm."

    DepEd is the most corrupt department in the entire Philippines, not even PagCor could come close(by ratio)


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