The Present And Future Value Of These Perennially Essential Skills (Eyes On EdTech)

The Present And Future Value Of These Perennially Essential Skills (Eyes On EdTech)
The Stelae of Doctors at Hanoi's Temple of Literature, built in 1070, depict the names of graduates who achieved honors in the strict Royal Exams and preserve them for posterity. @cristiantduque

Which subjects will continue to be taught 20, 30 or 50 years from now? STEM, that was easy! No, “STEAM.” Hang on: How about “Soft Skills?” Oh, they’re talking about MESH now. That won’t cause anybody a headache.

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As it turns out, each subject has merits, and it is also a possible victim of pedagogical pitfalls. Below, we take a look at how Educational Technologies are energizing the way students approach the subjects and how exciting can future students be about them.


In our exploding digital media landscape, physics has been the most wholesome benefactor. We might still be facing critical issues of student engagement and skill gaps across the STEM, but for physics enthusiasts these are enviable times. LHC, LIGO and EHT are but flashy examples in a decade or two that have seen us increase our knowledge of, well, everything, at an unprecedented rate.

Interestingly enough, the many fields of engineering and their playful array of simulations can be effective methods of physics education. The main reason is the familiarity with the virtual objects. As inclined as we are to believe that basic science education should start with abstractions and math, the Proximity Development Zones predicts that effective learning should begin everywhere the person feels more comfortable and familiar, then steadily push their skills into the darker and less familiar. After all, abstraction is acquired, not innate.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that physics (and math too, if you can hold off the equations for a while) are set to remain as staples for every learner in every setting. But surely every approach isn’t worthwhile. Active learning that focuses on basic principles as it allows the learner to perform a practical (however virtual) action should be the norm rather than the exception.

  • Now: Simulations is the name of the game. VR is the obvious choice.
  • Soon: More realism and more context-relevant simulations.
  • Threat: Edutainment. More generally, the rise of science influencers and media that focuses on the flashy and shallow parts of the experience.

History and Historiography

Yes: Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. But do you “know” your history, and which one? And what if you want to repeat history? (You know, the good parts.) Forgetting all about it is not guarantee it will happen again. Replicating a human accomplishment often hinges on how accurate its records were, and how properly the lessons were captured and understood. So maybe we need more history, but we also need historiography: The discipline of how history, the discipline, is made.

Fortunately, part of why humanity has made continuous progress in key fields and indicators is the way in which history has been emphasized in curricula. The digital fidelity of recent history allows us to enjoy it in more faithful ways, and understand the many ways in which events are related. (And in which they are not.) Unfortunately, the importance of history itself does not seem to be emphasized as it should be in practice, and our learning technology runs the risk of advancing lessons blindfolded.

A word of caution. (It applies to every subject.) It is perilous to think technology makes schools of thought useless. Here’s a small historiography lesson: At a given moment in time, a scientific theory is the result of a tedious process of synthesis and refinement. If there is one thing on which we can rely in human ingenuity, is that it can get dramatically wrong. Scientific innovations are there to enhance our existing theories and understanding, until a radical new technology proves it wrong. Ah the pace of progress!

  • Now: History has never been more relevant! Take advantage of questions like “how did this event unfolded in the past” or similar to encourage more inquisitiveness about current issues.
  • Soon: More historiographic-rich experiences. Interactive timelines that do not force causality, but invites careful examination. Schools of historiographic thought outlined next to the historical narration that influenced it.
  • Threat: Painting by numbers. As it turns out, the history of historiography presents us with cliometrics, an ill-fated attempt to believe history could be fully grasped through data and mathematical formulas.


The definition of a “soft” skill gets fluffier with each passing day. It is worth disputing the merits of the term itself, and its similarly conflicting “hard” counterpart. Nevertheless, the point stands: Paying attention to the non-verbal cues that affect the way people communicate —even how they shape their understanding of the world—must be an active theme throughout the teaching of more objective science.

For decades, Educational Technologies have evolved to incorporate more of the softer aspects of education. (A thorough review worth looking up is the forthcoming Teaching Machines and the author’s blog.) Arguably, the era of “Social Learning” dawned upon us along with the spread of LMS, a period we still inhabit and whose height is yet to come.

  • Now: And for decades more, social learning paradigms. Knowledge may not necessarily be created among peers, but is discussed, validated and enforced.
  • Soon: Real-time interactivity should only go deeper, with gamification and tracking for evidence and show of social progress. We may also witness new forms of friendly, team-based competition.
  • Threat: Going too social. Overreliance on peers is extremely dangerous, and arguably the cause of many of internet-borne illnesses.

PhD (anyone of those apparently)

Rigorous reading of assertions. Methodological inquiries into claims based on evidence. Dutiful validation of primary sources, in order to support or refute a given statement, or advance our collective knowledge. Sounds like skills worth promoting in our traffic-jammes information superhighway age?

Evidence shows that explicitly required competencies for postgraduate education (mentioned above) as well as implicit ones (patience and perseverance, focus, fast reading comprehension) are well prized, regardless of the field of study. But even if we wanted everyone who can pursue a doctorate to do so, we should still think about ways in which our learning and EdTech promotes rigorous critical thinking.

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