Our education system was designed for the 20th century. It is largely focused on teaching kids how to retain information and manipulate numbers.
It regularly tests these abilities and, if you do well, you are promised to get into a good college, have a successful career and live a happy, prosperous life.
Unfortunately, those promises have become empty. Today, when we all carry around supercomputers in our pocket, tasks like remembering facts and doing long division have largely been automated.
The truth is, there is little taught in school that today can’t be handled with a quick Google search and an Excel spreadsheet.
Working in a team
Traditionally, schoolwork has been based on individual accomplishment. You’re supposed to study at home, come in prepared and take your test without help. If you look at your friend’s paper, it’s called cheating and you get in a lot of trouble for it. We’re taught to be accountable for achievements on our own merits.
Yet consider how the nature of work has changed, even in highly technical fields. In 1920, most scientific papers were written by sole authors, but by 1950 that had changed and co-authorship became the norm. Today, the average paper has four times as many authors as it did then and the work being done is far more interdisciplinary and done at greater distances than in the past.
Make no mistake. The high-value work today is being done in teams and that will only increase as more jobs become automated. The jobs of the future will not depend on specific expertise or crunching numbers, but will involve humans collaborating with other humans to design work for machines.
Clearly, value has shifted from cognitive skills to social skills, which is one reason why educators see increasing value in recess. Unfortunately, very few schools have adapted. Many are so unaware of the value of social interaction and play that they still take recess away as a punishment for bad behavior. We desperately need to shift the focus of our schools to collaboration, play and interpersonal skills.
In recent years a lot of emphasis has been put on the need for stronger STEM education to compete in an ever more technological world. However, there is increasing evidence that the STEM shortage is a myth and, as Fareed Zakaria points out in his book, “In Defense of a Liberal Education,” what we most need to improve is communication skills.
To understand why, think about an advanced technology like IBM’s Watson, which is being applied to fields as diverse as medicine, finance and even music. That takes more than just technical skill, but requires computer scientists to work effectively with experts in a wide variety of fields.
In fact, Taso Du Val, CEO of Toptal, an outsourcing firm that focuses on the world’s most elite technology talent told me that when his company evaluates programmers, they not only look at technical skills, but put just as much emphasis on communication skills, initiative and teamwork. You simply can’t write great code for a problem you don’t fully understand.
Clear and cogent writing, critical thinking and learning how to learn — to take in disparate facts, put them in context and express them clearly — these are all skills that will be even more crucial for professionals in the future than they are today.
Learning patterns rather than numbers
Of the “three R’s” that we learned in school, arithmetic was generally the most dreaded. Multiplication tables, long division and deceptively constructed word problems have been the bane of every young student’s existence. In my day, at least, the utility was clear, but now children can rightly ask “why can’t I use the calculator on my phone?
Clearly, in our increasingly data driven age, mathematical skills are more important than ever. Yet they are not the same ones we learned in school. It’s not so important to be able to count and multiply things — those tasks are largely automated today — but it’s imperative to be able to ascribe meaning from data.
Valdis Krebs of Orgnet explains that, “Schools are still stuck on teaching 20th century math for building things rather than 21st century math for understanding things” and suggests that curricula focus less on the mathematics of engineering (e.g. algebra and calculus) and more on the mathematics of patterns (e.g. set theory, graph theory, etc.).
This may seem like a newfangled idea, but in actuality it is a shift to higher level math. As the great mathematician G.H. Hardy put it, “A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas.”
Focus on exploring things rather than knowing things
Take a look at any basic curriculum and there are lists of things that kids are supposed to know by the end of the course. Dates of historical events, mathematical formulas, the name of specific biological structures or whatever. Yet today, knowledge is truly a moving target. Much of the information in textbooks today will be obsolete by the time our kids start their careers.
Clearly, the notion that education will give you knowledge that will prepare you for an entire career is vastly outdated. Today we need to prepare our kids for a world that we don’t really understand yet. How can we possibly make good judgments about what information they need to know?
So instead of cramming their heads full of disparate facts, we need to give them the ability to explore things for themselves, take in new information, make sense of it and communicate what they’ve learned to others. In a world where technology is steadily taking over tasks that were once thought of distinctly human, those are the skills that will be most crucial.
In an age of disruption, the most crucial ability is to adapt. That is what we need to prepare our kids to do.