Moving Beyond the 3 R’s and Into the Future of Education 

Despite almost all facets of our lives being redefined by the advances of the 21st Century, our education system is still firmly anchored to an era of steam engines and morse code. Instead of being equipped to function in an unpredictable job market that experts concur will be shaped by automation, students are still largely being taught the 3 R’s—reading, writing, and arithmetic. They are taught this by teachers trapped on their own treadmill. Burdened with expectations to comply with overly prescriptive and crammed curriculum, timetables, and testing regimes, teachers are reduced to functioning more as administrators relying on practices designed for an analogue world that will soon no longer exist. 

If we are to address this problem with the urgency it deserves, one of the most effective ways to create immediate change would be to train teachers for the digitally disrupted world. Since students will have to perform the functions machines aren’t able to do better, there needs to be an emphasis on critical thinking over memorisation. The ability to analyse situations and create solutions will be more valuable than recitation of correct answers. That means we need to empower teachers to focus on hownot what, students should be learning. 

The 3 E’s: Experience, Emotion, and Evidence  

The best way to approach this shift is moving away from the 3 R’s to what we think of as the 3 E’s: Experience, Emotion, and Evidence. This involves solving real problems that matter in a feedback-rich environment. Students then build their cognitive skills to become innovators who can identify and create answers to problems that are currently unknown. By embracing the upside of uncertainty, we’ll be keeping pace with the changes we’re seeing in critical industry sectors.  

Based on our research in Australia, only 8-15% of Australia’s 280,000 teachers currently teach the way we now need them to. The other 85% are still working under 20th Century assumptions, underpinned by the teacher lecturing students as the arbiter of all knowledge, and in turn grading them on their ability to repeat what was lectured 

Unfortunately, even among the few who are equipped with cutting edge teaching techniques, few of Australia’s 9,500 schools enable these new practices. Without acceptance, without social validation that these new methods are embraced, they will never be implemented by those who can teach them – and teachers will have little incentive to do anything more than they do now.  

In this new role, teachers become facilitators, empowering children to take control. By challenging students with real-world problems, those that require lateral thinking and collaboration to find innovative solutions, students feel a sense of responsibility, of ownership over their education. As teachers guide the process, with intervention limited to continuous feedback or guiding ‘nudges,’ students become immersed and true learning takes over.   

Importantly, this model works best when the problems aren’t from a textbook. When the problems are real, students realise that what they’re doing matters. Bringing education into the 21st Century is therefore not solely the problem of the education sector, but a concern that requires the support of all industries and communities.  

The classrooms of today need to move to boardrooms, laboratories, data centres, and the outdoors, where students learn how to solve problems in an environment more dynamic and fluid than a textbook will ever be.  

It’s not a far-fetched idea; it’s imperative if our schools are going to be able to properly educate our children for a rapidly changing world. Students, led by their teacher-facilitators, would not only learn how to problem solve, they would learn to work in a team, to communicate, to be leaders. They would learn the soft skills that are increasingly necessary in the modern world.  

Critics might question whether this kind of system takes responsibility away from the teacher. It doesn’t. Rather, it changes what this responsibility is. Considering how the world we live in is changing, we do not know what challenges our children will need to face tomorrow. In the face of the unknown, we need a new kind of teacher, with the confidence and experience to teach our children not what to think, but how to think.  

Written by

Robert Kay, Honorary Professor at Macquarie University, has consistently bridged the gap between academia and industry. He was formerly the Head of Strategic Innovation at Westpac Banking Corporation; a Senior Lecturer in Information System and Organisational Development at the University of Technology Sydney and a research analyst at Bovis Lend Lease. He holds a first-class Honours degree in experiential curriculum design and a PhD on biological systems approaches to organizational learning and resilience.

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  • What you say is so accurate, some teachers are making great changes in their classrooms that actively engage students in relevant 21 century skills. However, until the powers that dictate the curriculum content recognise the need for change including their current methods of assessment the student population will continue to be the losers.

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