Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s quote, I think, applies well to the role of educators in the 21st century. As leaders of a new higher education system, I believe our primary role is to inspire and mentor learners; “teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea”, as opposed to imparting knowledge corresponding to a preconceived framework of teaching that we believe is the “right thing” for students to learn; “gather people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work”.
The traditional education system with its roots in the industrial era is tailored to enabling students to acquire a standard set of tools and knowledge to solve repeated problems that were relatively static and required a low degree of creativity and thinking, much like the tools and templates that are required to build a relatively standardized “ship” described in Saint-Exupéry’s quote. Opportunities for youth in the new age economy, however, are dynamic and require the creativity of thinking well beyond what was required in the industrial age.
The pace of automation and knowledge dissemination has meant that machines and computers do most standard, repeatable tasks. In addition, the way in which machines work is also changing at a rapid rate. A few years after entering the workforce, the “ship” that they may have learnt how to build in college, no matter how advanced, may well not be appropriate anymore for the new waters. Success will depend on a combination of hunger and grit and a core set of skills that include the ability to learn the new areas of knowledge as they evolve every few years.
In this context, our role as educators needs to evolve. We are no longer just schools and colleges in the early phase of a student’s life but life-long partners who need to play three crucial roles – inspirers, mentors and curators.
First and foremost, I believe educators need to inspire learners to identify and develop a hunger for the roles they want to play in the real world, the “longing for the endless immensity of the sea”. The new world economy provides youth plenty of opportunity in areas far wider and more varied than available to the previous generation. As educators, it is critical for us to enable students with the awareness of the nuances of the new set of this new option set as well as inspire them to find their role in this vast space. It is critical that learners enter the real world with an open mind and a hunger to learn and acquire the changing skill set required to be successful.
Educators play an important role as mentors in a context where knowledge is freely available and students are pursuing a much wider set of skills. Students need guidance from “faculty” members with real world experience within the fields of study. Mentorship is critically different from directed lecturing in that, the ownership of the learning path is with the student who is guided by faculty as he/she acquires skills through practice.
Finally educators also need to help curate the set of knowledge and skills for students to choose from as they define their own learning path. There is an ocean of content freely available from various sources but providing the initial structure to help students navigate is necessary to ensure the student acquires quality learning.