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CHANGING EDUCATIONAL PARADIGMS – New Roles for Schools and Teachers in the 21st Century


by Paul Vadas

  1. Master of Arts in Political Science (California State University, Northridge), professor, lecturer, writer and consultant in education for higher education institutions in Brazil and the United States. Chief Education Editor of the Brazil Monitor

“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime,” is a well-known, centuries old proverb, the origin of which has been contested over the years. But that is not important. What is important is the meaning of the proverb. In it, in the context of education, we can surmise its meaning as: give a student an information and she/he will learn just that. Teach a student how to find the information and she/he will learn continually.

In an age of constant change, with a high degree of knowledge mutability, there are less and less correct answers to solve the myriad of problems and challenges facing humanity. All trends point to a future where critical thinking, information gathering, pro-activity, innovation and creativity competencies will become even more manifest then they already are in the present. And yet, teachers continually keep giving students the “right” answers to solve specific current problems with solutions formulated in the past. Schools continually teach students today with the knowledge of yesterday to face the problems of the future. Talk about being out of touch with realities….

Not that foundational, time proven knowledge is irrelevant. On the contrary. In the early stages of learning, in elementary and in middle schools, students need to learn and understand the basic tools of knowledge that will help them construct the knowledge and understanding that will guide them throughout their lives. Thinking (critical thinking), Basic Skills (doing), and Values (performing) in the formative years are essential competencies that each student needs to develop in the context of her/his natural talents and lifelong needs.

What we are proposing in this paper is that some fundamental changes are occurring in how we view the missions of schools and teachers, from “fish givers” to that of teaching how to fish. The changing paradigm is that formal education, up-to-now functioning in a quantitative, linear, uni-mediated, process oriented manner (credits, grades, number of students per teacher, class hours, etc.), will be functioning in a more qualitative, flexible, multi-mediated, results oriented manner (personalized, competency-based, mastery of specific thinking, skills, and values).

In the last two education articles published by Brazil Monitor (“Challenges of Teaching In The 21st Century”, by Maria Carmen Tavares Cristovão, published on Oct 20, and “What it Means to Be a Teacher In The 21st Century”, by Gabriel Mario Rodrigues, published on Oct 17), both authors approached the roles of teachers in light of the impacts of developing technologies on schools and on teaching.

Both authors questioned the role of the traditional teachers – that of being transmitters of information -, and both concluded that, given today’s technologies, where obtaining information is no longer centered on schools and teachers, the roles of teachers are, necessarily changing.

In essence, both suggest that teachers need to be in tune with the changing times, “which will lead us to an ongoing process of cognitive renewal, known as continuing education, in which the teacher will renew his knowledge throughout his career” (Cristovão), and where “the teacher will become an influencer of learning, in the sense of promoting strategies of engagement and attraction to themes and curricular components in a dimension that is much more participative, active and creative. Skills such as communication, leadership, collaboration and interactivity are key” (Rodrigues).

Finally, both seem to agree that, “as obvious as these skills may seem, the reality is that finding teachers with the appropriate profiles is still a big challenge. Not because of the lack of teachers’ will, but because of the training that does not prepare them to act and think beyond the curricular components, assessments and dimensions that involve their performances in the classroom.” (Rodrigues).

Although not mentioned in either article, what both Rodrigues and Cristovão are talking about is a changing shift in paradigms. What they are talking about is the realization that things are already changing but that neither schools nor teachers are prepared for these changes. In essence, what they are talking about is that the traditional information-transmittal of information model (fish-giving) is giving way to what we call the Competency Based Education model (learning how to fish).

The educational paradigms of the past, focused on highly structured, mass teaching, is giving way to a paradigm that not only focusses on learning but, at the same time, focusses on the individual talents that each learner has to offer as her/his differential. That is what the Competency Based Education (CBE) model brings to the vision of a new educational paradigm: the recognition that each individual is a unique human being, with different talents, different ways and paces of learning, and different needs. Moreover, CBE brings a holistic vision that interact thinking with skills and values, and considers that learning is a personal endeavor that needs to be assessed and evaluated based on outcomes that are considered in a backdrop of clearly defined objectives. Fundamentally, CBE focusses on the quality of learning and learning processes as they apply to each individual, not on the quantity of knowledge acquisition in a given period of time, based on average grading of a given class of students.

In a work just published this month, entitled Quality and Equity by Design: Charting the Course for the Next Phase of Competency-Based Education, published by CompetencyWorks, a collaborative initiative that focuses on personalized, competency-based education, and the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNacol), October 17, 2017 (https://www.inacol.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/CompetencyWorks-QualityAndEquityByDesign.pdf), the collaborators have made a comprehensive analysis of the differences between traditional education and CBE and have shown several ideas and experiences that indicate that the movement away from traditional education is gaining momentum, at least in the United States.

To be clear, CBE is not a fad. We are not dealing here with a new way of teaching. What we are dealing with is a new way of defining education and how, by re-defining it, we are re-positioning the roles of schools, teachers, students, and other educational stakeholders.

In order to truly understand the emerging new CBE paradigm, we must define its components (“Competence” and “Education”), explain how the system is working, up-to-now, in its several manifestations, and prove its merits as a new, pervasive, sustainable, educational model. And, although CBE is a very significant evolution in education, it is still, in many ways, attached to the traditional system. As a student of the future of education, my next articles on the theme will approach my vision of how I see a radically different system of formal education emerging, how its missions and objectives will change, how it will be structured, how it will perform its functions, and what I believe the roles of the several stakeholders will be.

These are the concepts and visions I will endeavor to discuss in my next three articles of this series.

Time to go fishing.