It is painfully obvious that our current approach to education has serious problems. Symptoms manifest themselves in a variety of ways: unequal access to education, lack of student engagement, inadequacy of existing curriculum, high school dropout rates, inability for graduating students to find work, and many more.
To help diagnose the problem, many experts point to the PISA report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that scores and ranks students from different countries across the world in several dimensions, including reading, math and science. The results are deeply troubling – in every case, the US is far below the countries that performed best in these dimensions.
However, the problem is bigger than that.
Even if we improved our current educational system to get our students to match the test scores of other top countries across the world, we would still face many of the symptoms we have today. The reason is that when we perform a straight comparison of the results of US students vs. other countries, we fail to acknowledge that our students must live and thrive in very different conditions than those in countries such as India, Finland or China.
The cost of living is different. The opportunities available are different. The environment and culture are different. The source of competitive advantage is different.
To remain competitive in our ever-evolving global environment, our country is shifting very quickly towards a knowledge economy. While the manufacturing and services sectors remain very important, they are not the engines that will propel our growth and extend our global leadership throughout this century.
To compete in this knowledge economy, it is true that our students need core skills like math, science, technology and engineering – but to thrive, in addition to these they also require other elements, including critical thinking, creativity, leadership, global awareness, collaboration, an eagerness for lifelong learning, and the ability to deal with constant change and ambiguity.
Two key drivers of this are the speed of change and the very nature of an economy based on innovation. According to the US Department of Labor, 65% of today’s grade school kids will end up at jobs that haven’t been invented yet. This trend is not only continuing, but accelerating. To accommodate this reality, we need to revisit our view of education: the objective of education today cannot simply be to train people to fill “jobs”. In many cases, we don’t need our students to find a job, we need them to invent a job.
The goal of education today needs to be much broader: to generate productive members of society that drive economic, scientific, cultural, and social growth while living happy, fulfilling lives.
And this is a big problem of our current approach to education. Because it was designed for the industrial age, even when it works, our K-12 educational system is increasingly producing the wrong kind of output: cookie-cutter students that look for a “job”.
The solution is not simply to change our K-12 educational system to produce students with better grades in core areas – we need a broader approach that produces many different types of individuals. The answer is clearly not “one-size-fits-all” – even the notion itself of a single “educational” system might be limited and impractical for the future.
The way we address education for areas so different as medicine, physics, computer science, law and art needs to also be very different. Some of these areas require strong theoretical understanding, others require knowledge of a vast body of work, others require constant contact with a fast-changing industry, and others require lots of practice and experience. As individuals grow and blossom in their own fields according to their own strengths, our approach to education must support them in their particular development.
To solve the problem, there is no silver bullet. The underlying issues are complex and systemic in nature. The priorities we must address are different across different age groups, states and areas of study. While some students need better entrepreneurship skills or access to sophisticated equipment, others simply need to be able to go to school.
There is no doubt in my mind that we need to continue to improve our current K-12 system – but I am also clear on the fact that because of inertia and structural reasons, this change will not be fast enough or extend far enough. We have sprawling, highly entrenched institutions that move slowly and resist large-scale change.
Furthermore, I believe the long-term answer goes beyond any ‘educational system’, and must be rooted in a deep transformation of our society. We cannot simply stay on the sidelines and demand results from our institutions – we must take an active role in creating the building blocks needed for the future by stimulating disruptive initiatives, accelerating promising changes, and changing regulations to remove barriers.