21 Lessons for 2021: A Brief History of our Mistakes

I once heard someone say that it is during times of pain and suffering that we learn the best lessons. I tend to disagree a little because I’d rather believe that:

A smart man learns from his mistakes. A wise one learns from the mistakes of other


I said I disagree a little because I can’t really agree completely with the statement above. First because it’s outdated. It should read “A smart person…”. Secondly because many times we need to make the mistakes ourselves so that we can actually learn. At other times, we might not learn at all from our mistakes and those of others and we can be doomed to repeat them. We could also claim that moments of joy, success or bliss are the ones that teach us the best lessons.

The big question is: How can we learn from our own mistakes and the mistakes of others? The first step might be related to recognizing the mistake. This can be hard if we have no one to point that out or a basic reference, a yardstick. But for both our mistakes and those of others, once we’re passed the recognition stage, we can start the one that maybe matters the most: reflection. Reflection requires us to question our own biases and try to understand why we do the things we do and what we can change to do better the next time.

A powerful way to learn from the mistakes of others and reflect on how to do things differently is to pick up a History book. If you’re more of a documentary kind of person, there are many options as well. I love documentaries, but I can’t get enough of books. As a matter of fact, one of the most interesting books I read last year was 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari. In it, Harari discusses some of the broad themes (or big issues) that have made humanity what it is, some of the dilemmas we face, and what we can expect in the future. He talks about community, fake news, Artificial Intelligence, politics, war, education, religion, science, you name it. A quite illustrative quote of his book goes like:

Humans have bodies. During the last century technology has been distancing us from our bodies, We have been losing our ability to pay attention to what we smell and taste. Instead we are absorbed in our smartphones and computers. We are more interested in what is happening in cyberspace than in what is happening down the street. It is easier than ever to talk to my cousin in Switzerland, but it is harder to talk to my husband over breakfast, because he constantly looks at his smartphone instead of at me.

Yuval Noah Harari

Harari does have a point and this excerpt seems to suggest something we’ve been sort of aware of for some time but we also seem to deny this reality, feel powerless about it or at least be OK with it. When I say “we”, I’m referring to education and all of its stakeholders. At the same time, the apparent paradox never ceases to amuse me. If we’re becoming ever more tech-savvy, why was it such an enormous challenge for educators to adapt to the new pandemic reality and integrate digital tools into the learning process? What is missing in this puzzle?

So, is there anything we can do to learn from the mistakes that we’ve been making in the last decades? Can we learn anything from the mistakes we made in 2020 while trying to make sure our kids and teens had access to (quality) education? What about English teaching and Bilingual programs? What are some of the valuable lessons we can take from not just our recent mistakes but also from the mistakes of others who seem to be a ahead of the curve when compared to us?

The pupose of this blog post, the very first of 2021, is by no means to provide you with the ultimate list of immutable lessons that will prevent us from ever making mistakes again. Errors and mistakes are important since they often come to us as learning opportunities. My goal here is to point out 21 reflections shared by me and some of the people I follow, colleagues, and peers I admire. I won’t elaborate too much on each lesson, though. I hope you add your own layers to them and share them with your peers so that we can keep learning because I’ll promise you one thing: we won’t stop getting things wrong.

  1. Teachers cannot be replaced by technology (at least not yet and not entirely). The human factor – including physical presence – should be a fundamental part of the teaching-learning process, particularly for young learners
  2. Teachers are the most valuable asset any school has. That also means that promoting a culture of professional development is always an important pillar and one of the best investments managers can make
  3. Using technology for the sake of technology probably works more as a distraction or simply to provide fun than something that might promote effective learning outcomes. If you can’t teach it, don’t tech it
  4. We still need to better integrate digital technologies into schools, though. There’s a visible gap that needs addressing. Either the school does not have the required structure or the teachers do not use (or do not know how to use) the tech they have as they could. It may as well be both
  5. We need to look at schools as resource centers that are not too open (free) nor too closed (restricting) or monotonous. They need spaces for creative thinking, hands-on activities, trial and error, and rooms where they can use computers, coding, robotics and other things. Preferably integrated spaces with flexible seating arrangements
  6. Student-centered approaches allow schools to focus on providing the resources for students’ needs instead of obsessing with content-driven curricula. Content is not such a rare commodity anymore
  7. The teachings of Loris Malaguzzi, Emmi Pikler, Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner, and Paulo Freie are more relevant than ever. Autonomy, guided and self-discovery, play, curiosity, social interaction, artistic expression, empathy, differentiation and personalization, as well as love of nature need to be at the heart of the learning process
  8. Flipped Classroom and Project-Based Learning need to gain more space and help schools look at subjects in a more interdisciplinary (or even transdisciplinary) way
  9. Blended Learning and more customizable learning environments/experiences are on the rise for good now. That means schools and teachers will have to create and curate content for students to have options when they’re studying asynchronously
  10. There’s no reason to believe that new drastic transitions won’t happen anymore. Schools should expect sudden changes and need to be better prepared for situations like COVID-19 in the future. Managers, teachers, and families have to devise contigency plans. A successful contigency plan has to be more based on the HOW rather than the WHAT. Protocols, processes, and methodologies need to be set in motion quickly so that the school ecosystem can adapt as painlessly as possible
  11. The interactions between education stakeholders have a powerful impact on students’ mental states and, thus, on their learning capabilities. Families, teachers, managers, and students need to understand each other’s roles and realize that their attitudes and behaviors towards learning matter
  12. Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is as important as (or maybe even more than) learning content and skills. Without emotional regulation (self and co), and behavior management students cannot learn effectively
  13. Educators’ mental health need to be addressed as well. Schools need to provide teachers with the opportunities to talk about their mental health and with qualified professionals who can help
  14. Educators, students, families, and even policymakers should have a basic understanding of cognitive sciences so that they can make educational decisions based on how the brain and the mind learn. The Science of Learning and Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) should be part of pre and in-service training
  15. Scientific and critical thinking must be at the foundation of teaching. Fake news, science deniers, authoritarian governments are on the rise because education has been failing entire generations that are easily grouped together on social media through algorithms and live in their own bubbles where their cognitive biases are reinforced
  16. English language teaching has been changing and we should expect to see a rise on bilingual education. Therefore, ideas such English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) and Content and Language Integrated Learnig (CLIL) should gain more momentum and ideologies such as native-speakerism should lose strength
  17. As bilingual schools/programs grow, private language centers will have to adapt to survive. It might take a few years, but these private schools will lose more and more Young Learners and Teens in 2021
  18. Private language centers should/can rethink how they teach (and attract) adult students as more and more professionals will look for solutions that prepare them for situational/conversational English with very little focus on exams
  19. With many classes going remote due to the pandemic, private teachers, and smaller schools might be able to reach more students than ever (not considering the negative effects of the economy)
  20. Big publishers should start rethinking the layout and content of ELT books so that they can adapt to the blended/remote learning scenario. Many schools may need fewer physical books and want to have the digitized version instead with short videos of every lesson
  21. We will continue to make the same mistakes and maybe very little will change

I’m sorry if the last lesson isn’t that positive. When I look at people’s attitudes in 2020 regarding the pandemic, wearing masks, conspiracy theories about the vaccine, lockdowns and other situations brought to us because of COVID-19, I don’t see a lot of change. To be honest I see many of the same behaviors people had a century ago when the Spanish Flu hit the world and killed millions. The problem is that with all the amazing progress we have achieved in the last 100 years, we should expect people to act differently. We should expect people to pick up a History book and be more “intelligent”.

The big question then is: how intelligent are we as a species?

Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change

Stephen Hawking

The man who said that, Stephen Hawking, was certainly intelligent. Having lived a functional life for many years with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), against all the odds of survival, and having contributed so much to science should suffice as evidence of his overwhelming intelligence. His book A Brief History of Time is one of my favorites because I’m fascinated by how the universe and nature work and because he had the phenomeal ability of writing about complex things in such an easy way (mostly through concrete examples of our daily lives).

In Hawkings’ book, he takes us on a journey from Ancient Greek to modern times and how our understanding of the cosmos has changed. He describes how before Copernicus, and Galileo the paradigm was that the earth was the center of the universe. Hawking points out how Sir Isaac Newton proposed his Law of Universal Gravitation in the 17th century and how we still use his formulas till this day. However, it was only in the 19th century that another brilliant scientist proposed something that would add to (and “correct”) Newton’s theories which would allow us to create incredible new technologies such as the GPS. This man was Albert Einstein and his proposition (referred to as General Relativity) changed Physics.

Newton knew, however, that all he was able to accomplish would not have been so if he hadn’t learned from the mistakes and the successes of others before him. He said:

If I have been able to see farther than others, it was because I stood on the shoulders of giants

Sir Isaac Newton

We now know that Earth is not even in the center of our own galaxy, let alone the entire universe. We also know that our planet is basically a sphere with slightly flattened poles (not everyone seems to believe that, though). We also know that the fabric of space-time is warped by gravity and that there’s no absolute time. Time is relative. Building upon the knowledge left by others is how we move forward, how we make progress, how we adapt to change. We study, we learn, we compare, we think, we reflect, and we act. If we haven’t been able to adapt to change, we might not be that intelligent after all.

Our biggest challenge could be that the lack of change, real and profound change, in education. A change that has yet to take place. We might need a complete paradigm shift, not unlike the scientific method and how it works, to learn and implement important lessons from our mistakes and the mistakes of those who lived in different times.

I wonder if 100 years from now someone will write a list of reflections that resembles this one. I hope not. I hope humans in 2121 discuss other paradigms, like what physicists are doing now with Quantum Mechanics and particle accelerators, not whether the Earth is flat or not or if vaccines work. I hope the future educators look at this blog post as a historical account of less modern times and reflect on how they got where they are. I hope they get the same feeling I got when reading about these giants who came before us and did amazing things because they learned from people who had come before them.

I hope Einstein meant that we could be more intelligent collectively. I hope he meant that we would not run out of things to discover when he said:

Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe

Albert Einstein

Maybe he meant something else. Maybe I’m wrong about what he meant. I can tell you one thing, though. He was wrong about the universe being infinite. It took him many years to learn that lesson.

May we learn from mistakes and change our mindsets

That’s my hope for 2021. Happy New Year!

What would you change/add to my list? Let me know

3 thoughts on “21 Lessons for 2021: A Brief History of our Mistakes”

  1. Some of the valuable lessons I have taken from recent mistakes in virtual and blended teaching as well as misconceptions and wariness on behalf of others in the freelance world of language acquisition are reflected in your points. Thanks for laying out your views.

  2. Pingback: History of Learning and Learning Theories: Looking back to Move Forward – Education Development Courses

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