The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination

Albert Einstein

What is learning in the 21st century?

While the internet has opened exciting new opportunities for citizens to learn at every stage of their life, it has also vastly increased the knowledge turnover rate. In 1900, it was estimated that human knowledge doubled approximately every century (this is known as the Knowledge Doubling Curve), whereas today on average human knowledge is doubling every 13 months. IBM predicts that the internet of things will lead to the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours.

If it is no longer possible to learn at school all the knowledge you will need for the rest of your life, then how you learn becomes more important than what you learn, even more so when you consider the rapid evolutions that digital technology is bringing to the way we live. It has modified both the tools and platforms that support learning and knowledge access, replacing the traditional chalk and talk mode of knowledge transmission with interactive information and communication tools including and combining websites, e-mail exchanges, chat rooms, video conferencing, webinars, apps, robots, drones, virtual reality and more. Printed books are being replaced by ebooks, and the encyclopaedia by Wikipedia and the like.

Mobile learning, social media and online gaming are taking the development of knowledge and certain skills out of the hands of teachers and placing them into the hands of learners. Distance learning opportunities (for example, massive online open courses or MOOCs) are enabling citizens to overcome former social and physical barriers to obtain new professional qualifications. Thanks in part to improved access to learning tools (see Fact sheet on “Access and inclusion”), today just 10% of the world’s population is unable to read or write a single sentence, compared to 25% half a century ago.

Reshaping the curriculum, updating learning approaches

Besides raising the ever-increasing challenge for learners to sift through a constant information overload and sort the true from the false (see Fact sheet on “Media and information literacy”), these new means of learning and the rapid turnover of knowledge have had to be accompanied by big changes in what and when we learn. Back in the 1990s, former European Commission President Jacques Delors proposed restructuring education around four essential pillars as a means of preparing young people to meet the challenges of our increasingly digital world.

These four pillars are: learning to learn, to do, to be and to live together1.

Figure 7: Four pillars of education underpinned by digital citizenship competence modelThis idea has been echoed by other educators before and since Delors, and the internet offers an abundance of tools and platforms that are making anywhere-anytime learning a powerful reality, though usually alongside the traditional education systems rather than being integrated into them. The four areas of competence of the Council of Europe’s “butterfly” framework underpin the four pillars (Figure 7).

Figure 7: Four pillars of education underpinned by digital citizenship competence model

Most recently, the European Commission’s IPTS (Institute for Prospective Technological Studies) has suggested that the curriculum should be built on five key concepts if schools are to cater to the real needs of future citizens: information, communication, creativity, problem solving and responsibility. While the debate around school curricula rages, one further disruptive stakeholder has crept in seemingly unnoticed and is transforming the face of learning: technology. Technology has found its way into the hands of our infants who, already adept internet users by the time they enter kindergarten, are skipping important developmental phases that could have a big impact on their future life.

As children and young people grapple their way through a blurred online-offline reality, bringing their friendships and disputes via their tablet or mobile phone into the classroom, and their schoolyard fears and fantasies into their bed at night, “learning to be” and to “live together” (i.e. values and attitudes) are becoming ever more necessary. And we are gradually beginning to see “emotional intelligence” competences such as “self-awareness”, “social awareness” and “relationship management” rear their heads in formal education. At the opposite end of the scale, the realisation is dawning that children who learn to code have a better understanding of the place of technology in their life, and its limits. This has pushed coding to the forefront as a must-have for the 21st century digital citizen.

Where does creativity fit in?

Being an active citizen, whether in school, among friends or in on- or offline communities, means being a participative citizen able to put forward ideas, formulate opinions and bring original perspectives to any debate. This requires mastery of a range of higher cognitive skills, from analysing data sources to sorting, reflecting on and interpreting information. These are all higher cognitive skills developed through exploration-driven learning and experience rather than through transmission of knowledge. They rely on a certain level of creativity, which is a key ingredient in problem solving. They also rely on the capacity of young people to express themselves coherently and listen to the opinion of others.

But how do we foster creativity, self-expression and learning through experience in schools that define learning through a standard mainstream curriculum and covert evaluation models requiring students to fulfil external objectives rather than their self-set goals? Creativity and meaningful artistic expression have always been important drivers of social progress, but how do we encourage children to exercise their imagination when an endless palette of entertainment is at their fingertips 24/7, at the simple click of a mouse or swipe of a screen?

1 Delors J. et al. (1996), “Learning: the treasure within”, UNESCO, Paris

How does it work?

Learning and creativity are intrinsically linked. All learning, like creativity, begins with the learner receiving information, ideas, feelings and/or sensations that he or she processes through an activity that can range from thought to individual or collaborative action. For the most effective outcomes, as with creativity, the learner needs to be motivated, and not restricted by time, space, pressure or fear. Learning through play and self-directed technology-based learning generally meets these requirements, and therefore can result in creative outcomes. When learners are able to satisfy their immediate goals, they are encouraged to set more ambitious goals and thereby map their own path of further learning.

“Learning to learn” is described by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) as “the ability to pursue and persist in learning, to organise one’s own learning, including through effective management of time and information, both individually and in groups”. 4 Nowadays both educators and policy makers consider it to be a basic skill for success in the information society. Learning to learn is an essential building block to lifelong learning and is determained by a learner’s own behaviour, i.e. his or her attitude and engagement towards learning. This is why learning must become a positive experience for all children. Assessment of learning-to-learn capabilities is challenging because it needs to take into account both cognitive, psychological and socio-cultural perspectives.

Educational and citizenship value

Besides the important contribution that learning makes to knowledge and critical understanding of the world, when children encounter success and/or failure in learning activities adequately framed in a supportive environment, they are able to build a better understanding of themselves, their qualities and their limits. Co-operative learning, for example planning and building projects and models through construction activities, are especially valuable to very young learners. By sharing materials, negotiating ideas and taking turns with equipment, they are practising democratic values such as justice and fairness, and attitudes such as respect for others and their ideas.

In the growing complexity and unpredictability of our fast-moving world, creativity helps citizens adapt to new environments, respond to emerging societal needs and find solutions to the many challenges technology raises. Creativity therefore creates jobs, driving economic growth and pushing society to maximise its human potential. Research based on the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, which has been the gold standard for measuring creativity since the 1960s, indicates that childhood creativity shows a three times stronger correlation to lifetime creative accomplishment than childhood IQ.5

Figure 8: Learning and creativity – Core digital citizenship competences

4. Hoskins B. and Fredriksson U. (2008), Learning to learn: What is it and can it be measured? JRC,
European Commission.

5. Runco M. A., Millar G., Acar S. and Cramond B. (2010), “Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking as Predictors of Personal and Public Achievement: A Fifty-Year Follow-Up”, Creativity Research Journal, 22 (4). DOI: 10.1080/10400419.2010.523393.