The Evolution of Education

January 7, 2019

The way that we learn is antiquated. It is unlikely that your first career will be the one that you retire with. Students need to be given the tools for to be able to apply critical thinking, to understand what makes them happy and how they define success for themselves, and learn how they can be resilient in any situation. We need to rethink how we approach education and there are a number of companies out there that are making moves in that direction. It is unlikely that we’re going to see the change that needs to occur happening on the inside because of the vested interests and mindsets of the existing educational institutes.

The way that we learn is largely based on the Commonwealth system that attempted to create a human computer that was able to take in data from the different parts of the Commonwealth and report back to the mothership. Students learned math to compute the yields from crops, English to be able to communicate in writing and give updates on what was happening in the remote parts of the Commonwealth. Science was taught to help the remote workers understand how to fix machines when they were broken or understand what chemicals to mix together when creating explosive to clear rock or fertiliser.

Now, I’m still a big fan of the STEM subjects because they are hard sciences based on falsifiable knowledge. I still think that there’s a place in our education system to build a basic knowledge of the STEM subjects; a foundation that students could build on further in their later education. However, a majority of the mechanical things that students are taught in school are now performed on computers. Again, it’s necessary that there’s an understanding of why and how things work, but learning how to learn is becoming far more important than having a traditional hard skill.

Take history for example. Studying history is important as a paradigm to understand how we got to where we are now. But in doing so, it’s necessary to take a revisionist perspective to historical antecedents and consider alternative ways in which they could be interpreted. I’d argue that in some educational systems there’s too much focus on taking historical fact as established fact. That is not always the case. The history books were written by the winners. Typically, in history, there’s a lot of room left for interpretation. Thinking critically about what you’re being told in school (and now by the news and media) is a far more important skill than remembering a specific date (which can be verified by looking at your phone).

Creating Critical Thinking Skills

We need educational institutes to focus on creating skills that aren’t going to be usurped by AI. It could be argued that we’re heading towards a renaissance era where a majority of our daily tasks are taken care of by computers and we have more free time. If we’re heading into a renaissance era companies are going to be looking for Renaissance workers that will have problem-solving skills, judgment, creativity, collaboration and empathy as opposed to the applying hard facts to algorithmic problems.

Defining Success

Students can also benefit from learning to define what success looks like for themselves at various points in their life. Learning about philosophy and asking questions about what’s important both for themselves and their surrounding community will help drive people towards more fulfilling careers.

Students will benefit if we give them the tools to help them determine what makes them happy. If computers are now doing more mundane tasks then people will have more time to pursue their interests (assuming some basic social welfare safety net). However, if asked, most people wouldn’t be able to tell you what they’d do with their time if they had the chance. I know people think that they’d be happy sitting on a beach drinking beer but the reality is that this gets old fast. People need purpose and to find what they enjoy. No one has been thinking about this previously. In the past, the only time people had free time was when they retired. If you haven’t figured out what makes you happy by the time you retire, then it’s safe to assume that you’ll never know.

Teaching people to define success for themselves will be more useful than asking them what they want to be when they grow up. Honestly, how many people know what they like or even what they’re good at when they’re making some crucial decisions about their future prior to entering tertiary education? The trajectory of education has a lot of room for change and some companies are making headway in that direction.

Resilience

One of the things that I’ve seen linked to success more often than not is resilience. I was introduced to the concept early in my career through the work of the Resilience Institute. It’s important to keep a baseline level of sleep, diet and exercise. If any one of these things is neglected, then it’s likely that energy levels start to wane and small issues can become insurmountable problems. This is starting to be a bigger focus as people begin to understand the issues with hustle porn. Even the Dalai Lama has recognised that it’s important to maintain the foundation — every day he meditates for an hour but on busy days he meditates for two hours. Currently, there isn’t a lot of focus on educating people about how to get the best out of their minds and bodies. Adding resilience training to the current curriculum could help students lead healthier and happier lives generally.

Educational Institutes

Educational institutions need to focus on teaching students skills that will make them employable. At the moment I’d argue that they’re just selling credentials. I might be jaded here considering my degrees which are effectively an undergraduate MBA and law degree (yes, you can do that in New Zealand). I’ve worked with a number of MBAs who were quick to tell me about their alma mater but I’ve never met one where I was truly blown away by the skills that they picked up, maybe by their network, but never by their abilities. If anything, they relied on their credentials more than they should have.

That said, there are some interesting changes happening in the education space, specifically what QLC and the Lambda institute are doing. QLC has recognised that education isn’t a static thing, something that you visit prior to beginning your career. Education is an ongoing journey and people need to continually upskill and have the ability to change careers midstream. Their platform allows users to select projects or mini-internships to understand more about other potential careers, learn the skills that they need to be able to transition, or continue to upskill.

On the other hand, the Lambda Institute teaches people to code within six months by taking them through a fulltime (or part-time) intensive course. They don’t charge anything for the courses but instead charge 17% of earnings for the first two years after completing the course capped at $35k. This turns the educational model on its head because they can no longer offer products that aren’t in demand in the market. They’re incentivised to teach people the skills that employers need. If the employers don’t need the skills that they’re teaching, then their graduates won’t be able to find jobs and they won’t get paid. This is a far cry from traditional tertiary models where universities get paid regardless of the outcome for the students.

Conclusion

While there are some benefits from learning the basics of the STEM subjects and literacy in the current educational curriculum, we need to be more open to adding other skills that could help people as they mature. The time when people had one or two careers over their lifetimes has gone. Industries are changing quickly and it’s likely that the pace of change will continue to accelerate. To continue to be meaningful, there should be a larger focus on learning how to learn and the other soft skills that are more closely correlated with a successful life — however that may be defined by each person.