Education: how collaboration and critical thinking are more important than mathematical formulas

Education: how collaboration and critical thinking are more important than mathematical formulas


For the 21st century student, skills such as critical thinking, collaboration and creativity are much more important than teaching through formulas or content memorized and without context.

Traditional content such as mathematics or even newer ones, as a programming language, are useless if they are taught without application in the real world and without reasoning.

That’s what American Education Specialist Jennifer Groff , co-founder of the Center for Curriculum Network and researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), says, where she leads the development of game design for classroom use.

“You can not teach out of context, so that there is hope that in the end they understand everything else (the children) they have to start acquiring experience with the real problems throughout their lives,” he says.

Groff is the author of studies on curricular topics, personalized teaching and how to redefine learning environments and experiences through innovations and educational technologies. Last year, she was named one of the 100 most influential people in education technology by Ed Tech Digest magazine .

The specialist is also since 2017 Lumia’s pedagogical director, organization of schools and learning technologies created in Brazil.

Groff explains why an increasing number of experts defend the so-called Competency-Based Teaching (EBC) that focuses on developing skills and reasoning instead of memorizing content.


Jennifer Groff
Copyright image COURTESY JENNIFER GROFFImage caption Jennifer Groff defends competency-based teaching.


In this system, students learn through the realization of projects, instead of receiving a ready content divided into disciplines. This teaching does not depend on materials such as didactic books or division of students into grades.

The methodology was chosen as one of the most innovative by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) in 2017 and is being implemented in schools in countries such as the Netherlands, the United States, England and Finland.

In spite of the differences, the schools that follow the method adapt themselves so as not to fail to follow the compulsory education guidelines of each country.

These are the main excerpts from the interview that the BBC Brazil journalist Letícia Mori made to Jennifer Groff:

Does the traditional method of teaching meet the educational needs of students?

There are decades of scientific research on how people learn, and the way we structure schools and other learning environments is often not aligned with these findings.

Traditional school structures, in fact, take children in the opposite direction to what we know today is the way they learn best.

Traditional schools offer the same orientation for everyone, a very linear and descriptive type of learning, by artificially dividing classes into subjects.

The curriculum is very rigid and the teachers teach very fast to cover the whole syllabus. And often that content has no context.

And everything is in modules: learn what you have to learn, take the test and go to the next task. And that topic never resumes.

For 12 years the children simply say: “Well, tell me what to do, what to learn, where do I go?” Literally, children are trained not to direct their own lives.

The traditional method teaches that there is a single answer, that is, a correct and a wrong answer. What kinds of problems in life, or in the world, are like that? Almost none! They are all complex, multifactorial, and the solutions are not right or wrong, they have pros and cons, and consequences. Then the real world is much more “messy”.

Children with a teacher in a nursery.
Copyright of the GETTY IMAGES imageImage caption The competency education model has been applied in elite schools around the world, but it still has to show results.


Do you think the focus on disciplines such as math or language gives children the skills they need in the 21st century?

Of course, children need to know how to read, write and do accounts. But the idea of ​​focusing so much on it to the detriment of everything else is well documented in science as problematic.

I often say to parents: think of all the things that challenge you in real life. In all types of problems: global warming, right and left issues …

How a language and mathematics are enough to equip children to deal with these things? And at work! Observe the skills we need for all our jobs.

You can not teach out of context and expect the children to finally understand everything else and be magical unicorns that can do anything. They need to be acquiring experiences with real problems throughout life.

And what are those necessary skills? When talking about competencies for the 21st century, many think about robotics, programming, etc.

There are four skills considered central: communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking.

It is obvious that this is needed in many parts of life. Communication to talk with colleagues at work. Collaboration is necessary because we do not work in isolation. Creativity serves to think of new and innovative solutions. And critical thinking to solve problems, to think about effective and meaningful solutions at work or in life.

But there is much beyond. When they ask me: “If you could change the curriculum in one thing, what would it be?”, I always say: add the systemic thinking that is learning to work with complex systems, which are not linear. There are dynamics that you can learn, that you can observe and be better prepared to deal with them. Our world is made up of many layers of complex systems.

There is also ethical thinking, or thinking with a social perspective, which is to make decisions considering how others are affected.

Of course these things are taught (robotics, programming) too, but the beauty of Competency-Based Teaching is that the teacher does not need to be a specialist in robotics, or hydroponic agriculture, or whatever the project chosen for the moment. The teacher cares about the general development of the student, brings the specialists of the community, even involves the parents.

Adolescents in robotics.
Copyright of the GETTY IMAGES imageImage caption Robotics and programming are some of the new disciplines in education.


How should these competencies be taught?

Our model is not like filling a bucket of content, which is how most people think education is. Children do not keep the content.

There is a famous video in which students from Harvard University are given a battery, a lamp, a thread and they say: ‘Turn it on’. And they do not manage to do something that depends on the basic understanding of the circuits! Most of the content is useless because many of us do not remember most of the things they teach us in school.

What matters are the skills and competencies that are earned by working on those projects. We are focused on creating complex experiences for children to learn to reason and reflect what they will be required in the real world.

So, if there is an ideological discussion going on in the real world, it must happen at school too, without choosing a side, and obviously adapted for their age.

We are not concerned with remembering facts and knowledge, but with the necessary skills to deal with the complex world.

What points of student development show that this method is really better?

The way they talk and solve problems. How they reason and discuss, how they deepen in a subject, dialogue and ask is more advanced, complex and full of nuances than we can see in other schools.

I joke that when I talk to a 14-year-old student from the schools that use this method, I say: ‘Come and work with me!’ (Laughter) Because the way they approach problems is something that I would like to see in the people of my team.

How to balance this form of learning with the demands of traditional teaching, as in exams?

We look at the general elements that are in the tests, in what skills will be examined so that they can be approved in universities.

We guarantee that they will have the necessary skills to pass the exams. And that happens, most of the time, only participating, deepening in those projects.

We are concerned with literacy and mathematics specifically because there is a basic level of literacy to be able to do any of these projects. And you have to make teachers trained in those areas.

Round of students with teacher talking.
Copyright of the GETTY IMAGES imageImage caption Critical thinking is one of the pillars of Competency-based Teaching.


Why then is education more focused on competencies not used more broadly?

Technically, the current model is from the 18th century. We have made some progress and each school is a little different from the other. There are some that are still in the past, others more advanced.

My first master’s thesis was about that: why do not schools change? And the answer is that there are many barriers in education systems. There are state, municipal and federal policies that determine what schools can do, what they should do, where they can innovate.

But it is also a matter of taking risks. They are small children, they are the children of the people. Would you want to risk applying that innovation to them?

And that’s why in the US There is a lot of investment in research to understand what is best for who is learning. But having clarity about what is better does not necessarily mean that the improvement will be applied.

People have resistance to change. Especially because parents often do not understand the process of in-depth learning, or how research in education works. There are many factors that need to be aligned to allow the school to change.

In the end, what makes change possible is resources, and financial support for education is not so high. It’s not such a big business, it does not give as much money as Google does.

But I think we are in a turning point. We come to a point where the world has changed so much that it is extremely clear that only worrying about passing exams is not working, and that we need to prepare children with broader and deeper skills in such a complex world. I think parents understand.

How is it possible to organize a teaching without didactic books?

Many districts in the United States are creating teaching guidelines quite different from national standards.

Many schools in the United States are developing new competency-based structures. The objective is to personalize the teaching, taking into account the needs of each child.

We are not educating children in a production line, they do not learn everything in the same way. They grow with their own ways, in their time, with different skills and in different ways.

Students in a classroom with books.
Copyright of the GETTY IMAGES imageImage caption Competency Based Teaching (EBC) that focuses on developing skills and reasoning instead of content memorization.


Until now, teaching by competition is, in general, quite restricted to lite. Does not a different education for each child in the public sector create the risk of producing more inequality?

Inequality arises from many other factors, such as regional resources and policies. The hope is that it is the opposite, that this type of education can open the door for more equality.

Not only are you taking teachers who teach differently, there is a whole background behind them. Teachers who teach by EBC (competency-based teaching) have, in general, more skills.

In the case of elite schools, this type of teaching has been implemented so far. But (in Brazil) we are, however, trying to find resources and structures for other schools to apply this method.

This should bring more equality. Everything depends on the way it will be applied.

This transition of teaching model does not necessarily mean that there will be a change in quality, it all depends on how this type of policy is applied and how resources are used.

How to discuss the curricular syllabus and the method when many schools often do not have basic things, such as snack and chairs?

When this is the topic, discussing the curriculum is a meaningless conversation. Because if you do not have food or shelter, you are not worried about creativity. This is a separate discussion about the education budget.

But polls show that “charter schools” (schools that receive public money but are operated by private institutions) in the United States are the ones that are trying to assist people in greater social fragility, even when they offer English and mathematics, they achieve benefits, but not so great. This teaching is not enough for the university or for the real world.

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Rava Desk

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