29 August 2022

What Does 21st Century Education Really Look Like?

Author: Miloš Račić, student of the Faculty of Political Sciences and Faculty of Mathematics in Belgrade

The coronavirus pandemic has raised many troubling questions about the way we run our world. National, international, and private institutions alike have grappled with the issues raised in many ways, but there are still important topics which have been left unaddressed. One such topic is education.

We’ve moved into the third decade of the 21st century, and yet it seems as if our education systems really haven’t meaningfully evolved in decades and even centuries. Not so long ago, we could simply dismiss the hard questions of education reform. However, I believe it’s now evident that reforming the way we think about education and the role of youth in our societies, in general, is actually a matter of life and death.

The cardinal sin of contemporary education is pervasive passivity. It’s considered a matter of common sense that education is something children and youth receive. They are not seen as their own unique individuals, as creators and leaders, but as those who can genuinely contribute to the development of society. No, they are instead reduced to products of a supposedly highly technical and complicated process. The very idea that children and youth be granted the right to control their own lives invites fear and hysteria. While it’s commendable that things are moving in the right direction here in Serbia and globally, too, the fundamental paradigm or the way we think about education and youth rights is still decidedly archaic. Take, for example, age segregation. In our schools, we separate children and youth into distinct generational groups, because it’s a matter of common sense that all learners need to know exactly the same things at specific times. But this segregation results in two quite negative developments. Firstly, it denies valuable learning opportunities to both younger and older learners and even valuable friendships which could aid both in their development. Secondly, age segregation introduces strong generational barriers, precluding the development of meaningful intergenerational solidarity. However, the lack of democracy and self-determination in schools is perhaps even more repulsive. Democratic backsliding has been observed all across the world, even in the most developed countries, and yet why we would expect anything different? Our children and youth are not allowed to experience democracy at all. So why would they put any value on it? This general lack of self-determination and a focus on suffocating academic busywork also stifles entrepreneurship and innovation at the time both are so desperately needed. The world is beset by all sorts of crises, and yet we refuse to allow our greatest innovators and creators to shine.

So what does 21st-century education really look like? Well, I would argue we need a new system of schooling which reimagines schools as democratic communities of learners and incubators of social entrepreneurship. Learners need to be empowered to govern themselves, not be subject to far away government bureaucracies completely detached from their needs. Most of all, a true 21st-century education would finally dispense with the idea that the learner is the mere receiver.

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