21st Century Skills: The Virtues of Ancient Greece

Last week I gave a talk in a workshop organized by the Confederation of Finnish Industries EK. The theme of the workshop was to explore the future of education in Finland. The title of my talk was “digitalization, networks and the future of education” (In Finnish: Digitalisoituminen, verkottuminen ja koulutuksen tulevaisuus).

My original plan for the talk was to bring up the latest international discussion around the 21st century skills: what they are, why they are considered to be important, and how different stakeholders are planning to achieve them?

Finally, I didn’t talk about the 21st century skills at all, but about digital culture and how the social behavior online is strongly affecting on “offline” areas of human life, such as schools and educational system. I concluded that, though we live the era of digital knowledge and networks we probably should not drive “skills sets” from these external factors, but maybe look the old good virtues of ancient Greece and think what could they mean in the 21st century. The classical four Greek virtues are Practical Wisdom (sofia), Braveness (andreia), Justice (dikaiosynē), and Sophrosyne (sōfrosynē).

In Finland – cause the relatively good results from the OECD’s PISA surveys – there isn’t any huge internal pressure for major educational reforms in basic education. Children in Finnish schools all have reading/writing proficiency, can do basic math and science and know where is Burma and who is the prime minister of Italy (and if they don’t they will check it from Wikipedia in two seconds). Having a good system, leads easily to wrong kind of self-satisfaction: why we should do anything if we are doing so well? Why fix it if it is not broken?

Systems are not that simple. When you are doing well in some areas you may have huge challenges in other areas. For instance, if someone would take a look of ICT, Internet and media education in Finnish schools the results could be quite surprising. In these areas, the educational systems ability to respond to the changing world has been very poor. We do not have laptops in schools, we do not produce or use open educational resources and our “online teachers community” is, if not non-existing, very small. Also our ability to encourage our children to be active citizens who see the world as something they can change seems to be very limiting.

If we do not continuously develop the educational system it will decay. Systems are like gardens; you must take care of them. My humble interpretation of the areas in need of more attention in the Finnish educational system are: 1) use of ICT in Education: especially social software, open content and free and open source software; 2) The virtues of ancient Greece.

I feel that for the readers of this blog there isn’t need to list what the better use of ICT in education would mean. Because of this I’ll focus on the virtues and try to explain how they could be more present in schools and education.

The Practical Wisdom (sofia) maps well with the idea of critical thinking, problem solving and design thinking skills. Practical means focusing on solving problems of the real world. Wisdom is ability to look the problem from various points of views and to come-up with creative solutions. This is happening very little in schools today. We just do not ask children to have a look of the real world problems and ask them to search solutions to them, with help of the methods of different disciplines. For instance, how many math teachers are using global warming as the context or case in her teaching? Are we still working in the silos of different school subjects? I am afraid we are. Practical wisdom develops in a balanced practice of art and science.

Braveness (andreia) requires from one-side communication skills and from another side ability to take risks. It requires a lot of braveness to speak-up one’s mind, to share once opinion and to take part in public life. To do this one needs strong communication skills, ability to read and write, talk and listen – in several languages. Risk taking means ability to stand change and unknowingness. Many people see braveness also a critical factor in entrepreneurship.

Justice (dikaiosynē) naturally means skill to see the difference between right and wrong – to be fair and honest. It also means ability to do and support things that are rather constructive than distractive.

Sophrosyne (sōfrosynē) means moderation and temperance in everything. It means avoidance of excess in daily life, in public life, in business.

So, how one can “teach the virtues”? Actually it is simple. Virtues bloom and grown when you use them. Simple – just have good teachers.

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