Only thing that's certain is change

3rd February 2006 at 00:00
Flexibility will be the watchword for educators as the skills needed by society evolve ever faster, says Ewan Aitken

s a fledgling minister learning my trade in Leith, I was often regaled with tales of life around the flourishing docks. I heard stories of exotic spices sold from the bag in the Kirkgate market and of extraordinary travellers making the city their home.

I was also given a glimpse into the harsh world of the dockers - the scramble on a Monday to be picked for work that week, the drinking - using much hard-earned cash - to keep in with the foreman on Friday in the hope of an offer of work the following week.

Theirs was a precarious living. It was a way of life that was difficult to break free from, and it had little certainty.

Times have changed, and yet in other ways they have not. New working-life predictions show that most of us, and certainly the vast majority of generations to follow, will face a different uncertainty at work. It's estimated that we will have on average around five different employers in our lifetime, often in very different industries.

This means that, for the world of education, the key phrases will be transferable skills and capacity to learn new technologies. We will have to develop capacity for lifelong learning to keep pace with the ever-changing face of society.

Industries will evolve, and we will have to be able to cope with the challenges that will bring. And so will schools. No longer will the choices made by pupils in the second or fourth year be focused on the trade or academic study aspired to. Such thinking will still influence these choices, but it will not be enough.

Schools will have to teach the skills of lifelong learning as well as nurturing the necessary personal qualities needed to achieve lifelong learning in a constantly changing world - self-esteem, analytical thinking, the confidence to take risks and to challenge assumptions.

The nurturing of these qualities is already being introduced into the curriculum of forward-thinking schools across the country. No longer is it just enough to teach facts or formulae, dates or diagrams.

More and more, teachers are having to ask: how will my lesson help the pupils in my class to become lifelong learners? What skills will I be teaching them that will be transferable, build confidence and develop their analytical minds?

Schools will no longer be focused on examination results as the definition of whether they are successful or not. As personal learning planning progresses, more and more account will be taken of a pupil's ability to improve in confidence, take risks, learn new skills and re-use old skills in a new context.

These outcomes are not examinable, but they will be key elements of any successful curriculum, enabling learners to have the confidence as individuals to be effective contributors to society as responsible citizens.

For some schools in Scotland, this view of where we are heading is a place they already understand. For others, it is the educational equivalent of another planet. There is no criticism in that statement, however, because this new world is not so much new as just never embedded in the expectations all of us have of education.

No longer will we assume that the task of the school is to produce some "finished product" filled with information and a set of exam results, ready for the next stage of work or education. Young people do need to be ready for the next stage when they leave school, but it will be a different type of being ready.

The next stage will constantly be changing and post-school life will have many more "next stages" requiring preparation, reskilling and new training.

The world is constantly changing. Who, for example, would have thought, 10 years ago, that people would shop for their messages online or make a living buying and selling junk on auction website eBay? Redundancy and re-employment will be the norm, not the exception.

This is not just about teachers and schools.

All of us involved in education - teachers, policy-makers and those who call us to account for the effectiveness of those policies - need to understand the nature of this radical change in culture.

We need to work together to ensure that our young people are ready for the next stage, whatever that next stage may be and that they leave our schools well-equipped to deal with the demands of modern society.

Whatever it takes, it needs to be the prize which we are walking towards together.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for children and families on Edinburgh City Council and education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

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