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Learning in the 21st century

We live in a digital and mobile world where Google, the Internet and mobile technologies have disrupted traditional classroom learning and requirements for immediate recall.

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We live in a digital and mobile world where Google, the Internet and mobile technologies have disrupted traditional classroom learning and requirements for immediate recall.

Internet-accessible resources are extensions of our memory. There are over 30 trillion links and 2 billion plus users. Our students are using these resources from all around the world to learn. Tomorrow, there will be more and more technologies that thrust information at students, stimulating curiosity and thinking.

Our challenge is how to adapt our learning strategy in a way that leverages and maximises these opportunities, to facilitate what will be needed of our students in future.

Unfortunately, remembering facts and regurgitating them in exams has limited real-world value today. The need to store facts in our head is vastly reduced because of the expansive store of knowledge now at our fingertips. What is valued is the ability to use knowledge critically and analytically.

Students today need more skills and competence than ever before to function in tomorrow’s world. One of the most important skills is the ability to reinvent themselves for lifelong learning. They also need to develop both technical competence and emotional maturity.


While the world has changed, schools and educational systems, however, have been slow to adapt.

New ways of delivering content online through massive open online courses (MOOCs), such as those organised by Coursera and Udacity, have become popular with millions of students around the globe. These methods are in their early stages; most still use a lecture format, albeit delivered to an audience of millions.

Indeed, traditional lectures remain the dominant method of teaching around the world, even though numerous studies indicate that this approach is ineffective by itself. At best, these methods provide only basic information; conceptual understanding comes from more interactive learning.

Teaching is not simply presenting ideas and insights, nor filling students’ heads with what we know or transmitting information. Learning is not just committing facts to memory but the ability to critique, synthesise, analyse, use and apply information.

However, the curricula for most subjects are packed with vast content — those facts that faculty feel students should commit to memory; facts that are now available at their fingertips. The packed curriculum leaves little time for students to acquire a conceptual understanding of the subject and how to use that knowledge.

The addition of greater interactivity is essential to make knowledge transfer in universities more meaningful in today’s world. But how do we integrate the digital world’s resources into classroom-based learning?

How do we create the foundation for lifelong learning, so that someone recognises what he knows and what he doesn’t know; knows how to seek information; knows how to use and critically assess multiple resources; and can effectively articulate his rationale for solutions to problems? These are key issues that educators around the world are beginning to tackle.


To accomplish these aims, we have to be clear what is it that we want students to learn. We have to understand that recall of knowledge or fact, as traditionally assessed in school, is only the first step.

A key element in any directed learning environment is the assessment of competence in that knowledge. Psychologist George Miller developed a simple framework for assessing levels of knowledge in relation to competence, specifically in medicine, but it is applicable to other subjects.

The first step — “knows” — is knowledge about a subject, such as recalling facts. The second is to “know how” to use the knowledge, such as in analysing a problem. The third step is to demonstrate proficiency in applying the knowledge — “shows how”. In medicine, for example, this is assessed by observed examination of patients or actor-patients.

The fourth step is to see how the knowledge is integrated into the real world. This requires assessing competence when a person is working and, in the case of physicians, is part of the ongoing assessment after they enter practice. The final step, “mastery”, refers to the competence of an expert who teaches the next generation.

The field of medicine is fortunate in that the bedside clinical experience — where students talk to and examine the patient and relate what they find to lessons or go back to their resources to fill in the gaps in their knowledge about the condition — assists in the long-term retention and better conceptualisation of knowledge.

But this approach, of linking what is learnt to the real world, can just as easily be adapted to any other field of learning, helping students to consolidate and learn to apply concepts.

This is the start of a weekly series on learning and education. In the articles to follow, Professor K Ranga Krishnan will use what is known from pedagogical work, psychology and the neuroscience of learning, as well as experience at Duke-NUS, to contribute to the ongoing conversation in Singapore on approaches to education.


K Ranga Krishnan is Dean of the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School Singapore. A clinician-scientist and psychiatrist, he chaired the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Duke University Medical Centre from 1998 to 2009. This article has input from his colleagues, Drs Robert Kamei and Sandy Cook.

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