Becoming Brilliant: Re-Imagining education for our time

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek
Brookings Institution and Temple University

Roberta Michnick Golinkoff
University of Delaware

Knowledge is doubling every two and a half years. The consequence? Even if we knew every fact available in every textbook and on every web page today, our capacity would diminish by 50% by 2018 and by 75% in 2021! If our education is founded solely on our ability to learn facts, we will not succeed in a Google and Wiki world.

These facts have been bandied around for the last decade as people scrambled to redefine education and to craft the set of essential 21st Century Skills. Critical to finding the set of core skills, however, is not merely proliferating skills, but our ability to define what would count as a successful education at a time when geographic borders are porous and information widely available.

To date, education is largely relegated to our schools. And across the globe there are cries that our systems are failing our youngest citizens. Children graduating from the K-to-12 system are largely unprepared for workplace challenges. CEOs across the world look for strong communicators, creative innovators and expert problem solvers. Yet, formal schools – where they do exist — remain narrowly focused on a definition of success that includes only outcomes in reading, writing and arithmetic with little attention to this spectrum of needs articulated in the business community or even to “thinking skills.”

With few exceptions – notably Finland and Canada – nations are preparing children to do well on tests that are not predictive of life success. Indeed, scholars in Taipei recently questioned us as to why the United States educational system showed a steadfast persistence in teaching narrowly construed outcomes at a time when those in Taiwan and in mainland China are transforming their education to build creators rather than memorizers!

It is in this context, that we wrote our recently released book, Becoming Brilliant, as a re-imagination of successful learning in a dynamic, global world. At its core, we ask how we might move from the more traditional definition of success as good test scores in reading, writing and mathematics (with a little science and social studies thrown in) to one that is more encompassing. Examining educational mission statements across nations along with a foundation in the science of learning, we posit a more comprehensive educational mission for the global community. We hold that success might be best judged by outcomes that nurture:

Happy, healthy, thinking, caring, and social children who will become
collaborative, creative, competent, and responsible citizens tomorrow.

Success so defined need not be a Procrustean fit. Just as clothes across the world can vary widely as long as they leave room for the head and limbs, so too – our ways of achieving success can vary dramatically within the universal framework of these goals. A common core of skills, derived directly from research in the science of how children learn, feed this new definition of success. We propose that these 6 competencies are:

  1. Collaboration (the ability to work with others, to have social-emotional control,
    to form communities)
  2. Communication (the ability to develop strong language skills, excellent listening
    skills, strong reading and writing outcomes)
  3. Content (competencies in subject areas but also in learning to learn and
    in executive function areas of memory, planning, attention and flexibility)
  4. Critical Thinking (the ability to sift through information intelligently,
    to weigh evidence)
  5. Creative Innovation (the ability to use information in new ways to
    solve obvious and undefined problems)
  6. Confidence (the ability to learn from failure, to persist in a problem, to have grit)

Each of these skills is interrelated and builds on one another, continually improving across the lifespan. Each is malleable and each is measureable. Further, each is as adaptable to the schoolroom as it is to the boardroom. Taken in the aggregate, they offer a dynamic and systemic way of achieving a new vision of successful education. We pose the question of how we might build environments, classrooms, our homes, museums, and cityscapes that foster growth in each of these skills?

This suite of skills, that we dub the 6Cs, forces us to re-imagine the goals of education within the context of a child’s place in the workplace and in society. It also offers one way to realize a new vision that has at its core breadth along three dimensions. A more realistic vision of education for our time demands that we move beyond the narrow confines of memorizing facts and adopt breadth in the number and kind of skills that must be mastered to achieve success.

Such a vision also demands that we broaden the context in which learning occurs. Learning does not just take place in rows of desks aligned in classrooms. Rather learning happens in and out of school. Today our children are as likely to learn from digital content on apps as they are in textbooks. Our new image calls for us to rethink schools and to give more attention to learning in “the other 80%” of their waking time when children are not in school.

Finally, our vision calls for attention to breadth in the ages at which children learn with a realization that learning must be lifelong – from 0 to 99 rather than trapped within a K-12 framework.

Ours is not the only call for re-imagining education by rethinking 21st Century skills. In 2010,Galinsky proposed the 7 essential skills in her outstanding Mind in the Making. In 2009, (the same year that we first proposed the 6Cs) the 21st Century Partnership also offered a new model of how we might align education with workplace goals. In Becoming Brilliant, we join these traditions and ask how available scientific evidence could be used to re-imagine a new view of success and to provide us with an evidence-based, dynamic learning model that has breadth at its very core.

It is time to re-imagine education for our time. All too often, we use our science to tweak the existing system rather than to re-invent it. We ask how we can draw better diagrams in our textbooks. We find better ways to learn letter-to-sound correspondence. While these are noble efforts, we will never make marked change unless we have the courage to start over and to dream about what education can be in and out of school, in evolving learning societies. Becoming Brilliant is not your average parenting book – it is for the architect, the dreamer, and the inventor who hopes for a new model of educational success based in evidence. It is for those of us who want to prepare our children — the world’s children — for the challenges we face.

By consolidating the science of learning towards this goal, we hope that Becoming Brilliant will spark renewed conversation about the Brookings and LEGO initiative, Skills for a Changing World. The blogs in this series are directed to describing how each of the 6C’s can be addressed in innovative ways. They will also talk about how this framework is useful in business, the arts, and in the media.