Written by Philip Deweyi
Introduction: Getting to the core of today’s emerging challenges
In an increasingly complex global economy, rapidly evolving technology forces us to question whether the incoming generation is being adequately prepared for the future market. The debate around what exactly is required for one thrive in this competitive age has been raging for a long time now, and there seems to be no exact formula for success.
We have to confront the biggest threat to human capital; the current education system, and aptly defining ‘learning’.
Background And Context: Understanding the Dragons
Today’s Dragons – educationists, corporations, private sector companies and policymakers – are stuck in repetitive debates about two things; how should education be defined? And what skills are a prerequisite for students in the 21st century for them to thrive?
When the Millennium Development Goals were introduced, the primary objective of education was to get as many children as possible to sit in a classroom setting i.e. to push enrolment rates up. These efforts didn’t concentrate as much on the quality of education, essentially creating a generation of young people that had gone through an Education system without learning anything.
In an endeavour to redefine the currency of opportunity, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are paying somewhat better attention to this notion of the quality of learning. However, even these efforts are not good enough to meet today’s market requirements.
Emerging challenges; Shift of trends in conflict with today’s Barbarian
The global youth population – between ages 15 to 29 – is estimated at 1.8 billion, and is projected to grow exponentially in developing countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia. It is this population that I am defining as Barbarians; they are recipients of an education system that is helping them ‘thrive’ today but failing them for tomorrow.
Here’s an elaborative example of how the education system is failing (and has failed) today’s Barbarian:
In an economics classroom, a professor still connotes the significance of the three factors of production; land, labour and capital. Through the nineteenth and twentieth century, for one to be an active economic actor, they had to own land either and produce in (mining) or on (farming) it. Similarly, following labour, the economic system automatically absorbed those who attained a given degree of education and you required limited skills to build an enterprise. Finally, capital was mostly related to finance, and the access to money.
Unfortunately, today, the equation of production is no longer as clear as it used to be. Exploring each factor in detail, one learns that the trends over time have drastically shifted. A look at Singapore tells us that the idea of producing on/in land is no longer a requisite to be an active economic actor; a country with barely any land (719 km sq.) and largely technological in nature, it has the fourth highest per capita GDP (PPP) and ninth highest per capita GDP (nominal) in the world.
Capital, today, is about the art of constructing a system, or network, that guarantees you access to resources; without such a network, wealth creation is far more difficult, and the access to money alone won’t do any good.
Finally, labour is transitioning. With the world becoming more and more digital, the nature of the global job market is changing rapidly. One look at advanced technological developments tells us all we need to know: Moley the robotic kitchen, Alpha the humanoid and artificially intelligent robot, Tesla’s self-driving trucks, Samsung’s vacuum cleaner, and several more. These innovations are already shaping the future of work as they are replacing human resource since they are more efficient and increasing productivity as they make work, and life, simpler.
Re-thinking Education in Today’s Competitive Era
A new report by the World Bank re-affirms that schooling without learning is not just a wasted development opportunity, but is a great injustice to the youth worldwide. The report further argues that without learning, education will fail to deliver on its larger promise to eliminate poverty and create shared opportunity and prosperity for all.
Our current system teaches the Barbarian to master rules and memorize facts. However, those dependent on rules to guide their decision making will be lost in a world where rules are in a state of constant flux – where what you memorize in secondary school is outdated before you graduate, and where today and tomorrow’s Dragons no longer give out prescriptions but expect employees to create value by creatively solving problems.
To meet this expectation, we must rethink and redefine education, with importance given to the following factors:
Application of Knowledge
The application of knowledge that I refer to is what is commonly known as critical thinking. How well today and tomorrow’s barbarian applies knowledge boils down to how they fair while using interpretation, analysis and deductive reasoning. Take this hypothetical for instance:
When a community is faced with a challenge of unsafe water, we expect the student to draw assumptions about the challenge, investigate and reach conclusions. These conclusions then should inform their actions. For example, they might find inadequate hygiene to be a major challenge. The solution would probably be an advocacy sanitation campaign using a door to door strategy. It’s safe to say that today’s barbarians would either go on a rant to complain about it or write to the municipal council and even village head. This is undeniably some action, although is not sufficiently pragmatic at all. This is the product of today’s education system. The end goal must be to instil problem-solving abilities at a young age.
Communication and Creativity
Communication and creativity remain an equally highly significant fraction of this equation. Young people should have the confidence to create new innovative approaches such as the example mentioned above and elaborately to offer proper explanation and express emotions, thoughts and ideas. This plays a significant role in fostering more collaboration rather than competition. Clearly, collaboration precedes teamwork and where collaboration is absent, teamwork is inevitably non-existent.
One look at the Marshmallow Challenge will show you why exactly creativity is important. The aim is simple; teams have to build the tallest free-standing structure, using 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape and string respectively, and one marshmallow, with the marshmallow on top. When the results of kindergarten children and corporate managers/business school students were compared, it was found that the former performed better! They built the tallest and the most robust towers. Does this imply that as children go up the education ladder, the system erodes their creativity?
The Marshmallow Challenge
There is no doubt that creativity breeds innovation. For this, we need adopt a system that fosters classrooms beyond boundaries, where today’s barbarian has the freedom to identify and construct different possible ways on how tackle society’s most entrenched challenges.
True education manifests its knowledge in a consortium of three environments; the home, community and formal institutions. Unlike the formal institutions that focus on imparting academic knowledge, it is only through the application of knowledge collected in environments like the home and community that young people acquire social skills, such as the values of compassion and empathy are learnt. For instance, it is through sharing a meal with a friend who is hungry and their hopes for a decent meal are shunned for the day or apologizing to a neighbour that you offended through a dubious action that a child discovers and becomes well acquainted with the notion of compassion and empathy.
Together, these will dramatically increase the number of young problem solvers, by empowering them with the confidence, social skills and necessary support to drive positive change in their communities and beyond.
The need to create an education system that focuses on teaching young people how to construct systems of value, that grow sustainable wealth creation mechanisms for their respective societies is urgent. Learning must be re-defined to include the mastery of the key skills of critical thinking, creativity, empathy, leadership, and teamwork, and how they are able to employ these skills to tackle increasingly complex real-life challenges.
Re-designing our current education systems, especially in countries with a burgeoning youth, is one of the first, foundational measures required to better prepare the next generation for a complex job market. If not acted upon now, we risk failing our youth, our societies, and the future.