Friday, August 16, 2013

Rote learning has to make way for digital literacy: Heng Swee Keat - Channel News Asia

SINGAPORE: Education Minister Heng Swee Keat has said that with information readily available, rote learning has to make way for digital literacy.

Speaking at the Second International Summit of the Book on Friday, Mr Heng said there is a need to place greater emphasis on critical and inventive thinking.

Whether it is a papyrus, print or the iPad, it seems that books are here to stay.

Professor Tommy Koh, chairman of the Organising Committee of the Second International Summit of the Book, and Ambassador-at-Large, said: "I think the book will endure to the end of time.

"But the form of the book has changed and will change. The container will change, the platform on which we read the book will also change.

"My children, for example, prefer to read the book either on the computer, on the iPad, on the tablet and other electronic forms. I still prefer the printed book. But in one form or another, the book will endure. There can be no human civilisation without books."

But the question is whether readers are able to discern truths from untruths, especially in an era that is inundated with information.

Mr Heng said: "Some fear that the technologically sophisticated books of the future will dull the mind, as we no longer bother to use our imagination to render words into sounds and images.

"They worry too that we will forget to think for ourselves after we close the book because social media offers such an array of ready-made opinions that we will just pick one off the virtual shelf rather than form our own.

"We need to place greater emphasis on critical and inventive thinking, so that we may go on to imagine and create new insights.

"At the workplace, as the information revolution transforms the nature of work, our ability to move from theory to practice, to apply learning imaginatively in different contexts, and to create new knowledge, will become increasing valuable."

Some scholars echo this view and are even pushing for a redesign in the thinking behind education.

Scholars generally agree that the Internet is one of only a handful of great technological inventions in history that have ushered a new information age.

They say that just as new information ages of the past warranted a shift in the education system, so too does the digital revolution.

Professor Cathy Davidson, co-director of the PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge at Duke University, said: "Much of the Industrial Age value system is about teaching content as if it is fixed, and as if education teaches you something that will then last you a lifetime.

"There have been many studies. The Australians did a study about five years ago that said 65 per cent of 15-year-olds will end up working in professions that have not yet been invented. The OECD did one that... (showed) the average American changes careers - not jobs, but careers - four to six times.

"But our education system is still based on the idea that content is... something you can measure, something finite, and not a disposition to learn... 

"I am sure it is similar in Singapore. In the United States, the pressure on young people to get every answer right is quite astonishing, and I am not sure that is right. I think we are failing our students in some profound ways by forcing them to think that getting the one best answer out of five possible choices is really preparing them for the world of the Internet."

The panel, which comprised experts from the US, Egypt and Singapore, was discussing the meaning of the book in human civilisation.

As the discussion moved on to the future of the book, experts point out that what makes a difference is knowing how to organise and use information.

Professor Wang Gungwu from the National University of Singapore said: "I am quite interested in how the digital revolution will lead to the point where knowledge is so fragmentised, so atomised, everybody picks up little bits here and there, that we lose the power of organising it all into one coherent form.

"And if we fail to do that, the people who know how to do it, who'll always be the few, who will be people who wield the power. The order will come from those who know how to wield power, who can bring the fragmentary knowledge into one series and use it to dominate the others and that throughout history may have always been like that.

"But the fact that we have a digital revolution doesn't protect us as individuals who love freedom from that structure of power which is still there."

However, libraries may continue to play a role here.

Mr Heng said libraries can help to widen people's reading choices by promoting different types of books and pointing to new thoughts and ideas.

"The library is one of the most generous constructs I can think of -- a place where you can go to get unlimited knowledge and inspiration, for free," Mr Heng said.

Professor Koh said the challenge for libraries, however, is to encourage more Singaporeans to read. He said many Singaporeans only read non-fiction books that are related to their work or self-improvement.

He said: "I would also like to encourage them to read fiction, literature, because at the end of the day, it is the combination of fiction and non-fiction that enriches your life, your imagination, your capacity to empathise with people.

"But I am optimistic. I look at the statistics every year from the National Library Board and I think we are rapidly catching up with the advanced countries, not just in terms of the number of books that are borrowed each year, but also in the number of books which are unrelated to their work and their profession."
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