Why We Should Rethink the 3 ‘r’s of Education

Written by on June 12, 2020

By: Michael McQueen

Readin, writin’ and ‘rithmetic… I’m sure that if many of us Gen X and older were to return to our schooling days it may have resembled something like this. For generations, education has involved the rote learning of dates, formulas and quotes which are forgotten as soon as they are assessed.

If there is any industry prone to disruption, it is education. The fundamental place for future preparation, you would expect the schooling system to be ahead of its time with its eyes on the future, but as the world has changed rapidly in recent decades, it has proved itself prone to walking in the steps of the past.

In fact, the system on which much of our modern teaching patterns are based is actually the production line training of the Industrial Revolution.[1] Back in 1954, B.F. Skinner proposed that the best way to teach students was to give them only small, discrete portions of information in a predetermined sequence. The key to this approach was short responses that would be learned by rote with immediate positive reinforcement of correct answers. At its core was repetition, predictability and memorisation.

Our modern word ‘education’ is derived from two subtly but significantly different Latin words.

The first of these is the word ‘educare’ which means ‘to bring up, to train’, while the second, ‘educere’, means ‘to draw out’.[2]

Speaking at a recent education summit for Griffith University, I shared the stage with Professor Ian Lowe, who suggested that these two very different definitions typify the changes necessary in education today. ‘For centuries’, he said, ‘we’ve gotten very good at cramming content into our students. But the focus in the years ahead needs to be far more on what we can draw out of our students.’

I believe Professor Lowe is spot on. Our standing measure of being ‘educated’ has been the degree to which one absorbed the information deemed valuable and necessary by the system.

It goes without saying that the philosophies and assumptions that may have worked in the mid 1900s are far from appropriate when we consider the changes ahead. Central to the changes necessary will be a shift in paradigm from delivering content to students to building capabilities within them.

According to Paul Curtis, chief academic officer for the New Technology Foundation, what’s needed is ‘a new type of instruction that better reflects the goals we want each student to achieve, demonstrate and document’. Curtis suggests that the goal needs to move from the approach of ‘students learning from the teacher in lecture mode’ to students ‘teaching themselves with the teacher’s guidance’.[3]

Naturally, the nineteenth- and twentieth-century models of teaching did build certain capabilities in students. Chief among these were the capability to:

  • write fast. In the classroom, students became master transcribers. Does anyone remember the panic of copying the board before it was rubbed clean?
  • listen hard. The didactic age of teaching centred on students absorbing content accurately.
  • remember well. Much of learning in the past was about retention and memorisation. Closed-book exams emphasised the fact that regurgitation and recall were of critical importance.

Reflecting on just how little these three capabilities matter in a modern era, I remember the standard response of my grade 10 mathematics teacher when we would ask why it was so important we memorise pages of formulae for mental arithmetic in our closed-book exams.

‘Well, it’s not like you’re going to have a calculator with you everywhere you go when you get out in the real world,’ he’d say assuredly.

And yet today that is exactly what I have with me at all times – it’s called a smartphone.

Educationalist Ted Dintersmith suggests that school systems are still going to great lengths to ‘ensure that students can’t access the very resources they’ll have at their fingertips for the rest of their adult lives’.[4]

In a similar vein, Sir Ken Robinson points out that ‘Students spend 10 years in school being told there is one answer, it’s at the back of the book, and don’t look. And don’t copy because that’s cheating. Outside of schools it’s called collaboration.’[5]

The key areas of education that will best prepare students for the future are their interpersonal skills like empathy, intuition and negotiation, their critical skills like analysis, evaluation, interpretation and synthesis, and their creative skills including originality and design.

You may notice the conspicuous absence of technical skills such as coding. While many educators and policy makers have argued that an essential capability or skill will be the ability to code, most of the smartest minds in technology suggest otherwise.[6]

The reality is that a few brilliant coders with the aid of Artificial Intelligence will write the software we will all use in the coming years. As such, the aggregate number of coding jobs is very likely to decline rather than increase in the future.

In his book ‘Future Smart’, James Canton of the Institute for Global Futures points to the fact that the top tech companies including Google are not hiring people today based on their technical skills or the university or college they attended. Instead they hire based on ‘problem-solving skills, determination and perseverance as well as curiosity and the ability to communicate persuasively to influence others. They want to know you can think, gather ideas, make your case and solve problems that have nothing to do with the memorisation of facts and information.’[7]

When the future of work centres around collaboration, flexibility and originality, an education system based on silent work, predictability and rote-learning is problematic.

If you are an educator, how might your students reflect on their schooling experience in the future? Educators, workers and leaders alike, how are you prepared for the future of work?

Article supplied with thanks to Michael McQueen.

About the Author: Michael is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.


[1] Kelly, F. et al. 1988, Teaching The Digital Generation, Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, pp. 11, 12.

[2] Shirley, D. The New Imperatives of Educational Change, Routledge, New York, p. 121.

[3] Bellanca, J. & Brandt, R. 2010, 21 st Century Skills, Solution Tree Press, Bloomington, p. 120.

[4] Dintersmith, T. 2018, What School Could Be, Princeton University Press, Oxfordshire, p. 45.

[5] Madden, C. 2017, Hello Gen Z, Hello Clarity, Sydney, p. 197.

[6] Dintersmith, T. 2018, What School Could Be, Princeton University Press, Oxfordshire, p. 23.

[7] Canton, J. 2015, Future Smart, Da Capo Press, Philadelphia, p. 239.


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