European Hustle

The Digital Revolution – Bringing Education into the 21st Century

In our previous entry, we looked at the new skills that people need in order to stay relevant for the shifting job markets across the globe.

This article focuses on how these skills can be fostered and properly developed both in the young generations to come, but also for existing workers, who desperately need to update what they know, in order to compete with the youth.

Education is a sensitive topic that permeates all of society. At one point in time we are all children or parents and thus come into contact with the education system. But while science and technology and even social institutions evolve at a rapid rate, our education systems have remained largely the same as they have been 200 years ago.

They are systems that were built to give citizens a basic understanding of commonly supported facts and prepare them for menial industrial jobs, where they will remain their entire lives and will be expected to execute their repetitive tasks without question. Such a system is unfit to prepare the next generation for entry into an ever changing market that requires them to think and act critically and creatively.

Director of Education at the OECD, Andreas Schleicher on Education in the 21st Century.

Our schools, apprenticeships and universities need to reflect the needs of our times. In the day and age of the internet, it is not necessary to be able to memorise entire plays or statistical facts and figures for particular events. We do need people with the ability to comb through the wild forest that is the world wide web and extract the right information from it to analyse any given situation. We need people that look at what is out there and ask themselves, why we are doing things the way we are and come up with alternative solutions that will improve existing processes, products and policies alike.

The problem with political reform

Political efforts to reform education are rare, as they don’t promise a lot of electoral success. However, when reforms are presented, they are tame and often akin to tightening a loose screw, rather than the evolution of a whole system. Reforms are implemented without a big picture vision, or long-term plan and our children suffer the consequences of being used as live guinea pigs in a never ending avalanche of tiny reform attempts that tend to worsen their situation, rather than improving their education.

Education reforms often reflect the ideology of a given traditional political party in government too, which is just as outdated as our education system. Fringe parties also tend to put forward ridiculous proposals for education reform, such as abolishing the public education system in favour of free home schooling (because parents know everything best), as was suggested by the Polish Congress of the New Right party.

As governments change constantly, so do the attitudes to education and the resulting changes to the schooling system. It takes a child around twelve years to get through primary and secondary schools, which in the worst of all cases, can mean more than three governments that mess with their systems, while they are going through them. This only serves to confuse the students and decreases their chances for a good education.

What is needed is a bold vision for the future of education that defies the fears and anxieties of parents and directors, who cling to the school systems they themselves went through and are all too familiar with. It is time we introduce a new education system that is built on today’s understanding of early-child development, psychology and the increasing need for creative and critical thinkers.

While I am advocating for our education systems to change in reaction to labour market shifts, as they are inevitably intertwined, I am not postulating that education should only serve the whims of the market. Education is meant to empower people to make their own informed decisions and find fulfillment in their lives (which includes their profession). Trying to adjust education to the whims of the market is actually the worst thing a government can do and comes close to government interference in the market.

When the industry clamors for a particular type of specialists and a government tries to direct people to choose a particular degree in reaction to that, it takes a long time for these students to actually graduate. Education is a life-long process and even if we only look at twelve years of schooling, by the time students that specialised in a particular field get out of school, into university and then into the labour market, they might find that their specialty is no longer needed by employers, or that they simply are one of thousands of people, who all took that same path at the same time and are now facing unrelenting competition from their peers.

To prepare an entire generation or even multiple generations at the same time for entry into or continued existence in the labour market, the best course of action is to create a system that enables people to develop themselves into fully independent actors that are able to make their own life choices and cope within an ever changing complex environment. It is not sufficient to make a child memorise mathematical formulas if it is later in life left unable to fill out their tax returns form, nor is it useful for a child to know exactly what to citicise in a particular set of books if that same child leaves school without the ability to comprehend what they are reading in any given text. The best policy will always be to teach children soft skills that develop their character and their practical abilities to digest information, rather than to teach them facts and figures.

How does a classroom of the 21st century look like?

In a futuristic classroom, students face each other, not an authoritative teacher. They learn by doing, rather than by passively absorbing information. Classes are not divided by age or even by an overarching subject, but by specific topics that follow a wholesome curriculum are always multidisciplinary.

Grades are not used to judge a child’s weakness, but to inform the teachers, the parents, and the children of a child’s talents. A child should never feel depressed, because it is lagging behind in a single discipline. Instead, we should encourage them to excel at what they are good at. In this way, children learn from their peers, as much as from their teachers and enjoy a much faster progression, as all of their colleagues are on a similar level as they are, regardless of their age and they will never be discouraged from learning in any particular discipline, because they feel bad about their lack of progression.

In some countries in Europe, teachers have a very bad reputation and are viewed as an inferior profession. For a futuristic school, like the one I just described, to work, teachers must become the most well regarded profession of all and have the highest educational standards themselves. In fact, it may even be prudent to have university lecturers and researchers teach at secondary and primary schools. There are more and more academics with a PhD entering a saturated market that offers very few positions for them. Why not train these postgraduates and give them the ability to conduct cutting-edge research, while also teaching our youngest students?

Of course, the emphasis of the school of the future lies not only on the young, but also on older age cohorts that need to update and renew their skills. What some experts refer to as life-long learning should in fact be an interactive exchange of experience and skills between different generations that benefits each of them. This exchange is desperately necessary, as we are not only losing valuable skills and knowledge from older generations that no longer interact with younger generations, but older generations also desperately need to learn from younger generations about new trends, methods and technologies, so they too can keep participating in our ever changing disruptive postmodern world.

Dominik Kirchdorfer
Dominik is a European writer and entrepreneur of Austrian and Polish descent. His passion is storytelling and he wants to do everything in his power to give the story of Europe a happy ending. He is currently the President of the EFF - European Future Forum, Editor In-Chief of Euro Babble and EU Adviser to the Austrian Savings Banks Association. Dominik recently published his first SciFi novel, The Intrepid Explorer: First Flight under the nome de plume Nik Kirkham. Twitter: @NikKirkham

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