Innovative, resilient kids in a new world

As the coronavirus pandemic changes the way people live, work and play, parents need to prepare their children for a future of radical transformation and untold uncertainties

Billions of people around the world have endured some form of lockdown over the last few months.

The lockdown affects every demographic group in different ways, with knowledge workers having to work from home, grandparents eschewing visits with the grandchildren and kids suffering cabin fever because they cannot play outside.

Amid all this, the United Nations has sounded the alarm that the pandemic affects children the worst of all demographic groups, with large-scale school closures creating a learning crisis globally in more than 188 countries and affecting 1.5 billion children.

In some countries like Singapore, home-based learning (HBL) has challenged parents, teachers and school systems in terms of how young people are engaged and educated.

The decision to bring forward the June school holidays to May was met with a collective sigh of relief from parents, students and teachers alike.

While many parents worry about how HBL affects their children's performance in future examinations, one should perhaps ask instead how are our children being prepared for the post-coronavirus world?

Ambiguity aversion, a concept from the field of decision theory, could be useful in describing the phenomenon at work here.

The theory describes how people have a tendency to focus on known risks in front of them, while ignoring the unknown risks that might befall them - even when these are right in front of them.

For many parents, the known risk is the standardised examination a child might well have to take, such as the Primary School Leaving Examination, the International Baccalaureate or O or A levels.

The unknown risk is the question of how well prepared a child is for a future, which is inherently uncertain, and made much more so because of the coronavirus.

Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, the best-selling author of books like Homo Deus (2015) and Sapiens (2011) and a professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has explored what humans have done to impact the world since the dawn of history, and what they can do to continue to remain relevant in a world of artificial intelligence and biological hacking.

He predicts that humans will face unprecedented upheavals in the coming years, and that no one knows what to teach young people any longer because no one knows how the world of the future will look.

He cites this as one of the greatest challenges facing mankind today and is obsessed with how to prepare the world, especially our children, for a world of radical transformation and untold uncertainties.

He criticises schools for being too focused on cramming irrelevant information into the minds of students.

While this may have made sense a hundred years ago - due to the lack of access to books, papers and newspapers - this is hardly the case today in a world where people suffer from daily overload of information.

He recommends in his latest book, 21 Lessons For The 21st Century, that the best two things to teach children to prepare them for an uncertain future are reinvention and resilience.

First, he believes schools need to be reinvented to teach reinvention.

He recommends that schools switch to teaching "the four Cs - critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity". He believes that schools should over-emphasise general-purpose life skills - which will help a child deal with the coming changes and uncertainties - over technical skills, which are easily outdated, for example, learning a programming language or how to use a specific computer application.


Next is reinventing thinking. This form of reinvention requires people to hone the ability to make sense of vast amounts of information and develop the ability to tell the difference between what is important and unimportant. He writes in his book: "In a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power."

Then comes reinventing job expectations.

"When you grow up, you might not have a job" is how he starts Chapter 2. This flies in the face of what every parent wants for his or her child. Parents in Singapore push their children hard because they believe good grades will help their kids get good jobs in the future.

Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman laments how easy his generation had it. In the "old days", after your formal education, all you had to do was to go out and find a job. With some luck, you could potentially stay in a trade or profession for your whole career, be it journalism, law or medicine.

But with rapid disruption and change in the job market today, he says "our kids will have to invent a job" - something much more difficult to do.

Reinvention will inevitably mean there will be failures along the way. The inherent uncertainty of these activities will require children to have an ability to keep pushing on, despite facing challenges and setbacks along the way, leading to the second area of focus - the need for resilience.

The work of constantly reinventing and retraining for ephemeral jobs will create endless upheavals in people's lives.

Change is stressful. Our children will need deep reserves of emotional stamina and persistence to cope with this new normal.

Prof Harari writes of the resilience needed: "To survive and flourish in such a world, you will need a lot of mental flexibility and great reserves of emotional balance. You will have to repeatedly let go of some of what you know best and feel at home with the unknown.

"Unfortunately, teaching kids to embrace the unknown and to keep their mental balance is far more difficult than teaching them an equation in physics or the causes of the first world war. You cannot learn resilience by reading a book or listening to a lecture."

It is exactly because you cannot learn reinvention and resilience by reading a book or listening to a lecture that it is so important to teach children these important skills.

As parents with children will tell you, kids do not do what they are told. They model what they see being done at home.

Our household has taken advantage of the circuit breaker to practise reinvention and resilience with our two boys: R, who turned 18 during the period of confinement, and S, 15.

This period has expanded our minds in terms of what can be done in a humble Housing Board flat.

We celebrated R's 18th birthday with an offline-online party which involved the family in the flesh and his close friends online. Between Texas BBQ ribs, Korean fried chicken and soju-Yakult cocktails, we commemorated R's coming of age at home.

Since the circuit breaker started, R has been helping our neighbour's daughter with additional mathematics and physics via Zoom and is being paid for it.

S wonders why teachers seem to be able to teach the same material in 45 minutes via HBL, which used to take 90 minutes of class time in the past.

With the time saved from not travelling to school, S spends his days playing his five musical instruments and mixing electronic digital music on his Mac. He is planning to put his music on a monetisation platform like SoundCloud.

In an attempt to stay fit during this period, R does online fencing in our flat. I have had to send our neighbours downstairs a bottle of champagne because of the thunderous booms R's lunges make, twice a week.

The family has started doing high intensity interval training workouts, thanks to gyms being closed and the reluctance to roll out of this period as morbidly obese candidates for heart disease.

At a spontaneous family music jam session, S told us he wished the circuit breaker could be extended until the end of the year.

During this period, we were also blessed by a pair of Asian Glossy Starlings that decided to nest on the ledge under our air-conditioner's exhaust unit outside our flat.

While taking turns to clean up the area near the birds, we marvelled at how the Starling parents hatched, fed and nurtured the young ones during this period. We watched with wonder as the young birds grew from tiny helpless chicks to the point that they took shaky first flaps of flight, eventually taking off to start their own independent lives.

Unlike the Starling chicks, I have no idea if my boys will succeed in their efforts to reinvent themselves with resilience in the future. But I do know they will not be bored trying, again and again.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 17, 2020, with the headline Innovative, resilient kids in a new world. Subscribe