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Three Challenges to Education

Three Challenges to Education

We hear a lot about, “the knowledge economy.” But unless we live in a part of the world where countries face hundreds of thousands of people unemployed, we may not have considered what this change in the fabric of our world means for education and the economy in the developing world. I put education and economy together, because they are so closely linked that policymakers consider them jointly. It is still true that education must be the answer to the extremely poor people everywhere learning, growing, and eventually fully participating in the world. These are modern countries where some people enjoy all the same luxuries and access that people in the West enjoy, but who are challenged by large percentages of their populations living in extreme poverty at the same time. We have to remember that the school, as we know it, developed under very similar circumstances during the early days of the Industrial Revolution. It is not uncommon in the world’s history for education to be looked to, and eventually become successful at, helping the poorest of the poor understand the challenges and learn the tools that make them unemployable, therefore feeding the growth of the new economy. That is what is being looked for here.

This article is the first in a series on the challenges for education on an international scope for the next decade or more. Having just returned from a conference initiated by Crown Prince H.H. Shaikh Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, of the Kingdom of Bahrain, I have had the privilege of participating in discussions that make up the substance of these articles. My writing here is meant to be an overview, and to propel the interested reader to think deeper. Let’s look first at three challenges that the dignitaries and policymakers agreed need to be addressed.

Challenge number one: students coming out of school are not prepared to take jobs

Employers in international settings, increasingly require what has been termed, “soft skills.” These include: an ability to work in teams, communicate, speak up with challenges and new ideas, and participate fully in group design process. The school design that came out of the Industrial Revolution wanted something entirely different, the person getting a job in those days needed to sit down, passively take instruction, and do what they were told. We can see, therefore, that the student who sits, listens, and is able to repeat back the content given to them, is not well prepared to step into these new roles.

The modern well-paying job requires a higher degree of literacy and problem-solving as well. The skills that used to be relegated to academics and scientists are now required of teams of designers everywhere. Here we are talking about: an ability to search out information, write out a short synopsis of the details, use technology to disseminate it, and build an argument that is based upon facts and data, one which will stand up to debate. These are not management skills. They are what is required for entry-level positions.

Challenge number two: changing the culture to entrepreneurship

The figures in the Gulf alone are staggering. In the next 10 years 100,000 new jobs need to be created in order for the increasing population of young people to be well employed. Similar to the challenge that was experienced by the United States during the 1950s by the baby boomers, these countries need to prepare their young people to be able to create their own jobs. Her Majesty, Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan has made this her main mission. Moving past the initial goal that every child in the world has an opportunity to go to school, educators now focus as well on changing curricular requirements to include problem solving, critical thinking, business economics, and other requirements that encourage entrepreneurial ideas.

This is a bigger challenge though than just teaching some new skills. In much of the world the goal of education from the student’s point of view has been to prepare them to be able to get a job in government. That job would ensure that they and their family were taken care of, and that prosperity would be ensured. The economics of this no longer function. Modern governments cost a lot to run today and cannot be the main source of jobs. Modern governments require a diverse tax base on which to continue to increase services. Even the oil-producing countries are looking for a strong and varied range of companies to employ this growing population of young people.

Challenge number three: preparing teachers and reorganizing education to meet these needs

The last challenge, and the one that the rest of this series of articles will center on, is that education is not prepared to shift as quickly as needed to help the world meet these needs. Any person who has been taught to do a job a certain way has more difficulty retooling themselves to work under different conditions, than someone who is taught in the new way, right from the beginning. The world has seen this as a regular story for the last 15 or 20 years, as technology has changed the face of most work environments. It’s a harder challenge still when you were taught to train people, because you first have to understand the new requirements and then completely redo almost everything about your job, and finally you are ready to roll out new work to new standards. Unfortunately education asks teachers to take this on while they are still teaching. It’s a train wreck, or as a more apt analogy, a train trying to transform itself into a rocket wreck.

As I mentioned at the beginning, world leaders, great thinkers, problem solvers, policymakers and governments are focused on these three issues. The world needs to address how to retool our societies, but especially those in the developing world, so that students coming out of school are prepared to take jobs in the knowledge based world, looking to join that world rather than asking the government to take care of them, and that they will have been taught in educational systems set up to meet those needs. Throughout this series of articles, I will be looking into the ideas people are discussing and implementing to take on these challenges.