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Future of Education

If the people of today are to adapt to the winds of change better than those of previous generations, then education is going to have to change.

By: Adi Gaskell, Katerva’s Futurist 

The schools we know and love around the world today bare a striking resemblance to the schooling famously proposed by the then Secretary of Education Horace Mann back in 1837.  His concept of an organized curriculum taught by professional teachers remains the foundation of schooling today.

It’s an approach that seems increasingly unfit for purpose.  British educationalist Ken Robinson has been a longstanding critic of modern education, and his TED talk holds the distinction of being the most viewed in the history of the conference.  He believes that the industrial era that forged the schooling we know today has long gone, yet the factory-like schooling has largely remained.

We’re in the midst of a perfect storm of growing demand for education throughout our lives, at the same time that higher education is ballooning in cost.  It’s a challenge that has prompted the likes of JPMorgan Chase to invest $350 million over the next five years to hunt down innovative solutions that can help to transform education.

The five year project builds upon previous work from the company that ran from 2013, and is particularly targeting educational initiatives that support greater economic and social mobility, and create career pathways for underserved parts of the population.

“The new world of work is about skills, not necessarily degrees,” JPMorgan Chase boss Jamie Dimon says. “Unfortunately, too many people are stuck in low-skill jobs that have no future and too many businesses cannot find the skilled workers they need. We must remove the stigma of a community college and career education, look for opportunities to upskill or reskill workers, and give those who have been left behind the chance to compete for well-paying careers today and tomorrow.”

Reinventing education

This need to reskill and upskill workers is all too evident in a world that is awash with technological innovations that threaten to disrupt the workplace.  The past few years have seen huge numbers of reports published speculating on the likely impact of technologies such as AI and robotics on the workplace, and while the predictions range spectacularly, what they do all share is a belief that change is on the way.

Oxford University’s Carl Benedikt Frey, who with co-author Michael Osborne kicked off the speculative arms race with their 2013 paper predicting that over 40% of jobs will be disrupted by technology by 2023, highlights, somewhat more soberly, the historical precedent for technological disruption of the labor market in his recent book The Technology Trap.

He describes the perpetual cycle of disruption and opposition, not just from the famous Luddite rebellion, but throughout human history.  He argues that historically, the march of technology has been a positive one for mankind, but what is good for the majority so often causes short-term pain for those who lose out and are forced to adapt.  If the people of today are to adapt to the winds of change better than those of previous generations, then education is going to have to change.

This, and the comments of Jamie Dimon, hint at the fundamental challenge society faces today, for while it’s great that Amazon and their ilk are committing to investing hundreds of millions of dollars in educating their workforce, those working at world-leading companies are already in the box seat in this race against technology.  It’s unlikely to be those who are significantly disrupted by the changes unfolding across society today, yet it’s largely those who engage in education today.

Disengaged from education

A recent report from UNESCO highlighted the poor levels of engagement with adult education around the world, but especially among the disenfranchised people identified by Dimon, but also those who are most susceptible to disruption from technology.

“Troublingly, in many countries, disadvantaged groups – adults with disabilities, older adults, refugees and migrants, and minority groups – participate less in adult learning and education,” the report says. “In some countries, provision for these groups is regressing.”

They cite data showing that in over half of the 96 countries covered in the report, engagement in adult education is lower than 10% of the population, with this figure significantly lower for those with low-incomes, disabilities or who are living in smaller towns and rural areas.

A report from the UK Government’s Foresight team highlighted similar issues in the UK, and found that various psychological and cultural barriers were preventing people from disadvantaged backgrounds from engaging in education as adults.  These ranged from a lack of appreciation for education, a sense that it wasn’t for them, and a lack of belief that it would benefit them.

If society is to adapt to the changes upon us better than we have in previous generations, then it’s beholden upon us to look at education in a wholly new way.  This will, undoubtedly, involve some deployment of technological innovation, but also looking at changes in approach and delivery to ensure the gains from the 4th industrial revolution are felt across society, and don’t instead result in huge swathes of the population being left behind.  Over the course of this month, we will explore some of these innovations in more depth, and highlight some of the progress being made thus far.

If you loved this article–our ‘Future of’ series will explore new topics released weekly every Thursday–stay tuned!