When it comes to education, the past few years have been a substantial challenge for both teachers and parents. Trying to help children adapt to new situations and develop essential skills has proved to be a mammoth mission. Claudia Cojocea chats with Dr Catherine Morgan, a long-term educator, to learn more about today’s educational environment and the unique ways parents can help
Dr Morgan is a former geography teacher with a background in science, engineering, and sustainability. She believes that all learners should have equitable opportunities to reach their potential and celebrate their gifts. These days, she works in the International School of London Qatar’s technology hub in curriculum innovation and technology integration, advocating for game-based learning, learning through play, and 21st-century skills.
C: To start, you say you are an advocate for 21st-century skills. What does that mean?
D: Our traditional school systems were built for the 20th century when society needed a low-skilled workforce to drive the Industrial Revolution. The schooling system was designed to ensure children were literate and numerate enough to enter factory employment. So, it used techniques such as rote learning to memorise knowledge and facts. In many places today, the school system has been slow to evolve beyond that old model. However, it is recognised that there is a need for change.
The world our children live and learn in today is dynamic and complex. It requires young people to be adaptable and agile—they need to be able to embrace uncertainty and harness creativity to address global challenges. One of the greatest examples of those complex challenges has been the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic. It is our responsibility to help prepare future generations to embrace such complex, unknown challenges by teaching them how to learn rather than what to learn. That’s the aim of teaching 21st-century skills.
C: Can you share some examples of those skills and how parents can help their children learn them?
D: There are many different 21st-century skills frameworks to suit different education systems around the world. They cover a wide range of skills, from leadership and strategic thinking to social and emotional skills such as perspective-taking and empathy. However, in general, four over-arching skills are considered crucial, referred to as “the four Cs”: creative thinking, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. A simple way to help children learn these skills is through play. Play is an ancient, innate, and powerful form of learning. Play helps children develop the ability to learn new skills and creates neurochemical pathways that govern learning and development. Many games are designed to promote skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, communication, creative thinking, logic and reasoning, flexible thinking, and adaptability—all the while being fun and enjoyable. We can harness this powerful learning method by playing games with our children. If you want to develop an understanding of probability and risk, play snakes and ladders. If you want to develop strategic thinking, play Battleship or Clue (also known as Cluedo). Want to work on communication and observation skills? Play “I spy” with each other. At home, create an environment where play, enjoyment, and learning go hand in hand and where children associate this playtime with a connection to you. Model life-long learning and enjoyment by participating in play. Show your children how to play fairly, lose gracefully, and what you learn each time you lose.
C: Many experts believe that the skills we learn during our school years will be far more important than the academic knowledge we gain. How can parents start helping their children develop some of them?
D: It’s important to understand that for many educators, their role is to help students reach their potential by developing the whole child. The holistic approach considers physical, intellectual, social, emotional, and mental well-being and development. While it may seem that there is an emphasis on academic performance in schools, in terms of growth and development, all of these aspects are actually related to each other. And they are all considered important. By working on one aspect, say social and emotional learning (self-awareness, perspective-taking, empathy etc.), we help students develop skills that feed into other areas.
Parents can begin by acknowledging that every child is an individual with their own unique gifts, talents, and interests. Play with your children and find out what their interests and passions are, and use those as a starting point for exploring the development of 21st-century skills. Communication is a crucial 21st-century skill that can be modelled and developed at home by talking with children. Ask them to tell you about their day or engage them in creative thinking by inviting them to create stories using their imagination. Ask your children to choose books for you to read together. Let them choose titles that interest them and that they will find joy in. Reading aloud to your children and asking them to read to you can open doorways to developing high fluency in communication. It also fosters a deep and lasting joy in reading, which can serve them well throughout their school, personal, and professional lives.
C: School hours, as well as homework, can be difficult for children at times. How can parents get their children to participate in educational activities outside the classroom?
D: Think of a time when your parents or any adult at home joined in your games, coloured or painted with you, or showed you how to ride a bike or play an instrument. How did you feel in those moments? Engaging with children when they play can create the safety and trust that the human brain needs for successful learning and helps to build a sense of close connection.
Even the simplest games—such as hide and seek or I spy—help children learn. Plus, your participation in the play can feel like a special shared moment rather than an additional educational task to be completed if the focus is on fun and connection. Why not make this playtime a part of your daily routine? A time to connect, find out about each one’s day, and play and learn together. If homework has a regular time and a place in our homes, why not play, connection, and joy, too?
C: For some families, calling these activities “educational” might be a deal-breaker for the children. Could we name them differently so that children do not feel pressured to learn all day?
D: I passionately believe that if children are at school all day and they complete homework expected by their teacher, then it is natural for them to want to participate in other activities. For some children, this will mean running around and climbing trees. For others, it may mean reading or drawing quietly. Some may need to play and connect with others instead. All of these activities develop different skills, from gross and fine motor skills to creative thinking, risk-reward assessment, and communication and literacy skills. As adults, we may wish to set boundaries around this time to help guide our children. These can include the length of playtime, where playtime takes place, and even who can participate. But, we should never be in any doubt that while we play, we are learning crucial skills for success in life, learning, and work.
C: We have talked a lot about play and games, but we must also admit that it can be increasingly difficult for parents and educators to pull children away from video games and engage them in educational activities. Do you think these games have something to teach us, too? And how could we harness the benefits of the digital environment for our children?
D: There is understandably a lot of concern around the overuse of video games, which is important to address. However, like traditional games, video games provide incredible opportunities to develop a wide range of intellectual, physical, social and emotional skills. Research suggests that video games provide powerful, immersive learning environments and embody many of the principles of a well-designed classroom lesson. These include clear goals, motivation, opportunities for practice, reinforcing expertise, feedback, progress monitoring, choice, agency and problem-based learning—all within a beautifully constructed, graphically-rich environment. As children’s development needs evolve, video games can include complex concepts such as rules, ethics, morality, judgement, decision-making, and social engagement. These give young people opportunities to practise and refine the growing skill sets they will need in later life. Not all games are created equal when it comes to learning. For me, it is about choosing games that provide quality content and engagement over the quantity of time spent playing.
As with playing traditional games, though, parents may wish to exercise caution over the types of games children play (all video games come with an age/stage rating system) and set firm boundaries around the length of playtime and with whom play takes place. As adults and caregivers, we are responsible for guiding young people on healthy practices around digital technologies. We can best do this by being present, participating (or at least taking an interest) in the gameplay, setting clear expectations, and having an open dialogue with our children.
C: In your opinion, what are the most common mistakes parents make nowadays when confronted with their digital native children’s resistance to learning?
D: I wouldn’t ever wish parents to feel that they were making mistakes! However, I would encourage parents not to consider their children digital natives or experts. It’s true that many children have an affinity with technology because it has always been a part of their lives. But generations before were surrounded by books, and even they still had to learn to read! Instead, I encourage parents to take an active interest in their children’s digital lives. Be present with them, ask questions, and support them in understanding issues around cyber safety and digital citizenship. Being present and having an open dialogue with children from a young age can help ensure they see you as a role model for good, safe digital practices. It will also help them realise that they can come to you if they need to.