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How can we change the way we teach in schools?

How can we change the way we teach in schools?
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Doing homework, reading books, studying for exams, paying close attention to the teacher. It probably all sounds very familiar, whatever generation you belong to. Although much has changed technology-wise since the dawn of the new millennium, the way young people are taught in schools has remained something of a constant. Isn't it about time the education system was tweaked for the modern age?

Esther Wojcicki, an educator at Palo Alto High School in California, thinks it is. She was a guest speaker at The Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA), a branch of the European Parliament that organises discussions and forums on emerging and tech-led topics of political relevance (see more below).

Electronic devices are the new way to learn

According to Wojcicki, teachers "are still doing the same thing" that they did before the technological revolution that brought us all the electronic devices we use today. She points out that "90% of education is lecture" despite the fact that "research shows that lecture is the most inefficient way to learn anything." The emphasis has remained on leaving students to passively take in information, whereas, she says, it should be on getting them to engage more actively:

"If you think about anything you do in life, if you don't _do_ it, if you don't have some kind of action involved in it, then it's harder to remember."

"If you learnt to swim when you were 10 years old and then you didn't swim for 20 years afterwards, if you fell in the pool you'd still remember how to swim. But if you heard a lecture 20 years ago in which you were told how to swim, the chances of you remembering it are almost 1%."

"The main problem with the status quo is that teachers, parents, administrators, people in the community, they don't realise that everybody learns on their phone. They learn primarily through the computer and on an electronic device," Wojcicki told Euronews.

Hey! Teacher! Leave those kids alone (20% of the time)...!

Wojcicki was at the STOA event in Brussels to promote her proposal for modernising teaching methods, a proposal she refers to as "80/20". She believes it would be beneficial if "students have 20% of their time" to work in collaborative projects, using smartphones, tablets or whatever other technology they have at their disposal.

"80% of the time you can continue to do it the old way because I think it's hard to change. Just change 20% of the time and if that works well for you, move to 30%. And if it's too much to try 20%, try 10%. But try something!", says the educator.

For Wojcicki, teaching methods need to be adapted to the 21st Century.

"What people need to do in order to become creative, collaborative and passionate about something, is to do something they care about. You can't learn what you care about when all you're doing is following directions. Do we really want a whole population that does nothing besides follow directions?

"That's not what we need today. We need innovators, creative thinkers, problem solvers and collaborators. If you don't practice collaborating, how are you supposed to do it?"

Wojcicki is an advocate for giving students, of all ages, what she calls a "moonshot project", one that they can choose themselves and which is supported by the school in terms of material and time allocated for it. "That'll make students excited about going to school. They might want to do it by themselves or they might want to do it with friends. Most kids love doing things with their friends."

Change the tests and the teaching will follow

They way in which students are tested would also need to change if teachers are to adopt new methods. Among teachers' main concerns is their students' performance in tests and exams; it will be on this that they, as teachers, are ultimately judged.

For example the PISA test, a universal test taken by students the world over, "has to change," says Wojcicki, "because that's the target. If we change the target then we change the behaviour. Collaboration, innovation and critical thinking need to be encouraged by the test. Our target should be to create innovative, problem-solving individuals for the 21st Century."

STOA: European Parliament's efforts to advance the teaching science and technology

Wojcicki was a keynote speaker at the STOA (Science and Technology Options Assessment) Annual Lecture in Brussels on December 4.

STOA is a political and administrative body of the European Parliament, governed by the parliament's Panel for the Future of Science and Technology, which comprises members from various parliamentary committees. It seeks to provide independent, objective analysis of science and technology issues and policy options for dealing with them.

One of its tasks is to organise public events in which politicians and representatives of scientific communities, and of society as a whole, discuss technological developments of political relevance to civil society.

The Annual Lecture is the high-point of STOA's calendar and brings together eminent speakers to talk about prominent topics of political relevance in the field of science and new technologies and to raise public awareness of science and technology issues.

The topic of this year's Annual Lecture was 'Quantum technologies, Artificial intelligence, cybersecurity: Catching up with the future' and was, says a Parliament spokesperson, a logical culmination of a series of STOA events and scientific projects linked to the development of Artificial Intelligence in recent years. Eva Kaili, a Greek MEP and chair of STOA told Euronews:

"Artificial intelligence is becoming more and more part of our everyday lives. For a second year STOA is dealing with how AI and the development of quantum physics will affect and shape our lives in the near future: how they will make it easier but also how many dangers AI will unveil for our societies if we don’t start building a strong ethical code."

STOA's next event, in Strasbourg on December 13, will be a panel meeting to discuss a study on disinformation and new technologies: technological responses to fake news and the implications of AI-powered fact-checking for media pluralism and freedom of expression.