What does assimilate, analyse, synthesise and innovate mean to students today? Are these the elusive millennial skills?

We’re well into the second decade of the 21st Century and most of us in academic institutions are still grappling with the challenge of building “21st Century skills” in our students. The industry seems to know what they are, or at least they indicate that candidates with these skills are more likely to get hired. In conferences and meetings, we present them as if they are well packaged, nicely arranged ideas that can be arranged in an orderly fashion into a curriculum to be delivered, just as neatly, to students.

But of course things don’t quite work that way.

A few weeks ago I mentioned the problem of “unemployability” among university graduates. Employers complain that academia is disconnected from the needs of the workplace, while educational institutions (some of them, anyway) argue that education is meant to create citizens and not cater to the narrow needs of the market.

And somewhere in between, students fall through the gap, neither acquiring those valued “job-oriented” skills nor the sensitivity and understanding to be engaged or ‘aware’ citizens. We all know that it takes a long time to address the problems of an entire system. There are of course efforts to reform the curriculum and change the way things are done in educational institutions, but these take several years to really make an impact. Employers are impatient, so they end up either being extremely selective in hiring (bad news for graduates) or putting in place what they think are good in-house training programmes. Either way, it means a young person has a longer wait before being really equipped to work.

So what can we do to make our years in college count? How can we use the time to acquire those elusive millennial skills? We’re talking about such things as the ability to assimilate, analyse, synthesise and innovate. And the ability to do all this fast.

First, we need to stop spending all our time complaining about the lack of infrastructure, the quality of teaching, the absence of books, the uncooperative attitude of our peers, the weather (as in: “I could not do my assignment because of the rain/sun”) or even the uncertainties of our politics (agitations, bandhs, rasta-rokos). This is not to say we simply accept these issues, but we cannot let them interfere with our learning.

Stop blaming

Secondly, we need to recognise our own role in the learning process. This I think is the bigger challenge. It is easy to blame our failure to learn on that vague thing called “the system.” Some of what we can learn does depend on the material resources and infrastructure we have access to, but a lot of it can be had in spite of a poor system.

Let’s take assimilation, for instance. We are subjected these days to large amounts of information, through a variety of media. To make sense of all this we need to do at least two things: one, sift through the material to understand what is relevant to our specific interests or academic needs, and, two, judge the relative importance of the different pieces of information. We have to train ourselves to read quickly and see how the various sources fit together. The larger the pool of information, the more robust our understanding becomes. So as a student, you have to get used to not depending on one source. Even if you have a prescribed textbook, and even if your examination is based just on that one book, you would be at an advantage in life if you get into the habit of reading beyond that book. The further we go in search of information, the more easily we can judge how good or useful a particular source is. As you read widely, you will find that you are also effortlessly acquiring the second skill — analysis. The act of judging whether one bit of information is better than another, or realising that there are contradictions and disagreements between scientists, writers or scholars, is the first step to analysis. Once we have been able to decide upon the merits of the information, we begin to put together our own arguments, thus synthesising everything we have read into a form that is our own.

Most of us have learned how to “manage” the system by spending the least amount of time on assignments and homework. We do well enough by simply following established patterns — we borrow course notes, look through the papers done by seniors, and do a little bit of re-engineering while submitting our own. But in the process we have lost out on the opportunity to build those three valuable skills for ourselves — and this is through no fault of the system, wouldn’t you say?

The writer teaches in the Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad, and is editor of Teacher Plus. www.teacherplus.org.

Email: usha.raman@gmail.com

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