JOHANNESBURG – Our current education system is a product of the economic, political and social systems of the past few hundred years, one that reflects a strongly masculine world view, shaped by power, dominance and control.
In all these systems, those with power set the rules, and require others to follow. The role of the education system is to ensure that the rest (those not in power) see the world as they do, and are capable of performing the tasks required of them in line with their rules and requirements.
In addition to being power and control-driven, our education system is also biased towards memory and IQ, the capabilities most useful in consistently recalling and executing instructions. Successful learners are those who can recall large volumes of data, and can apply given formula to different situations, accurately and effectively. Education and training techniques focus on optimising memory recall through mind-mapping, repetition and multi-sensory stimulation.
Times have changed, however.
Just think about the last decade. It was only 2007 when the iPhone was released and made it possible for us to access the internet and its wealth of information anywhere, anytime. Suddenly everyone and everything could be constantly connected, and with this connectivity, digital intelligence could grow rapidly thanks to increasing access to global data.
Ten short years’ later, information and logic can be accessed equally by engineers in Nasa and rural farmers in Nigeria. Combine that with innovations such as cognitive computing and 3D printing, and the pillars of the old economy are beginning to shake. And along with them, the concept of work as we know it, and the value of people within an economy.
The industrial-age learning model and approach does not equip learners or employees to effectively deal with a world where technology can do what people do, better, faster and with no errors. It’s time to take a radical approach to education and start teaching people how to “do” rather than how to “learn”. And we can we do this in a number of ways.
Ask learners to critically review rather than trustingly accept – With the explosion of information comes the reality of “fake news”, information that is factually incorrect and unfounded. Whereas in the past learners were expected to blindly accept and learn the “truth” provided by their teachers, today they need to be taught to research and validate; to question; to look for multiple sources and only then to form an opinion.
Offer people access to more digital expertise – A huge amount of information we currently ask people to learn serves to get them to apply a set of decision-making formulae that we want them to repeat. This comes in the form of content, rules, processes, and policies. As noted above, this logic is increasingly being applied by artificial intelligence. The sooner we can move away from capturing information and rather look to capture logic, the sooner we can offer people access to intelligent tools that help people perform activities that no longer need to be learned.
Focus learning forward not backwards – If we can capture known logic into “virtual experts” that people can use in real time, we can shift the focus of learning from known content to unknown content. It means focusing on learning how to come up with new ideas and solutions, rather than learning to repeat old ideas and solutions. It means rewarding people for innovation, not replication.
Track what people do and how they do it, not what people learn – This means shifting our focus away from the courses learners have completed to the tasks or projects learners have tackled. It means assessing capability based on a person’s performance track record, not their academic track record. It means rewarding those that have done the most, not studied the most.
Prioritise learning skills, not content skills – The half-life of information has reached the point where knowing something is less important than being able to do something. And to do something requires the ability to learn and adapt quickly. Institutions need to become more obsessed with teaching people adaptive skills, rather than memory skills. This includes developing the ability to work effectively in diverse teams, to collaborate, communicate, innovate, and motivate.
Doing this requires changing learning triggers from courses to activities. At school, for example, imagine offering learners the choice of three mega-projects that will define their year. For each project, they need to apply and motivate why they should be awarded the opportunity. They also need to agree on the team they will work with.
Projects could include building a house for an under-privileged family, a permaculture garden for a local community or an app that helps a local old age home monitor people’s vital signs. To complete each project, students may be given a budget (or challenged to raise it), access to a trove of online information and expertise, and a coach who is available to help them reflect on the journey, solve problems and handle conflicts.
The outcome of each project would be defined in clear performance terms that everyone buys into, and that will be assessed by their team, the project beneficiaries and the coach at the end of each project. The feedback would not be a score, rather a detailed set of feedback that aims to help students learn, reflect and improve.
This same concept can be applied to university and the workplace and change the measures from what people learned to what people did. Learning institutions need to move towards assessing people against what they actually did ie proven capability, rather than what they memorised.
And just like people on LinkedIn currently list their education background, in future they should be listing the last 10 projects or challenges they actually tackled, along with the assessment of how they actually performed (rated by peers, customers, and coaches).
It’s a bit like how Uber drivers are rated – by tracking the feedback of clients after every ride and giving everyone a clear running total of their proven performance and capability. This allows people to choose drivers who demonstrate capability, not simply promise it.
If we’re going to transform our education systems, and our people, we need to ask them to move their attention to what is unknown, and to help them get better at adapting to rapid change. We also need to see learning as a value-adding activity, not a cost. Learners must deliver something of value, not simply extract value.
It means exploring a new win-win social contract, where society defines the outcomes it values, and learners choose to deliver this value in return for the personal growth and capability they can gain. And it means seeing learning as a social and organisation profit centre, where performance opportunities are traded for learning growth.
Ryan Falkenberg is co-founder and chief executive of Clevva, a technology that allows non-coders to capture expert logic into Navigation Apps.