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Straightjacket for success

OUR EDUCATION system was forged during the first industrial revolution to meet the growing demand for a literate and numerate workforce. But as a system it has failed to change or progress; commerce, industry and society have moved on while education remained static.

Schools now tend to produce zombified versions of what went in – unthinking, unenthusiastic, lacking in creativity and problem-solving skills but stuffed full of facts and algorithms for solving prescribed education problems. Tests, targets, scores and league tables trump knowledge, ability and creativity.

While industries of the past were about process, and limited problem-solving in a slow-moving world, we now have to deal with fast-moving technology and global competition demanding creativity and unbounded thinking. The new premium is thus on innovative people who can think and solve problems on the fly across a broad range of disciplines, not just the problems ceded important by an outmoded education priesthood.

What went wrong? Those teachers of old who came to the profession after many years in industry have been replaced by an inflexible and unimaginative curriculum – a straightjacket for success – with children going to school, graduating through college and university, to immediately go back into teaching with no value add.

During the same period we also witnessed the demise of apprenticeships that fueled industry with people able to get the job done. It was an organic process that adapted to, and adopted, new technologies and techniques on the fly. But by some false devaluation through the erroneous classification of ‘non-academic’, it was never fully understood by those outside these ‘practical’ trades – and especially those in government and education.

Today the ‘so-called’ educated consider being innumerate and knowing nothing about mathematics or science something to be proud of. In a technological society this can only spell disaster with more spectators than doers, amplified overheads and a reducing ability to create a healthy GDP, not to mention the political and societal strife that results. Something has to give.

The good news is that education systems unable to equip a technological astute student body for today’s world of work are about to be sidelined by change from within the sector. Online options and internal company schemes now provide extremely good-quality material at very low cost. At one end of the spectrum there are the TED lectures and the Khan (like) academies, while at the other, courses in Artificial Intelligence from Stanford. These measure their student body in the millions, and in between there are talented and benevolent individuals donating their skills to delivering presentations, support and advice.

It would be easy to overlook the automated software packages, games, simulators, interactive sites and more on the web, but they provide a valuable resource in terms of direct experience. It has happened already in training and people support for the military and oil industry, and soon it will be available on mobiles, tablets and game consoles too. This may well see the demise of the tired ‘sage on the stage model’ and a return to ‘a guide at the side’ mode of ancient Greece. But this time the guide may well be a machine.

Possibly the biggest transformation, and perhaps the primary threat to the old system, is the change in industry and the student body that is fast migrating from a ‘show me your certificates’ to ‘tell me what you can do’ model. In short, a proven and valued capability trumps an abstract paper gradation of understanding. The clock is ticking. ?


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