Why Education Has Not Caught Up With The 21st Century


Stakeholders in education need to urgently wake up from the 20th century slumber. Reality check is; we are already in the 21st century but our education is still wired for 20th century society. It is important to do a genuine self-assessment, even when the facts may not favor you and may instead make you uncomfortable. This is the main point of reflection that hit me when I first read Global Trends 2030, a strategic surveillance report published by National Security Council of the US government. The US intelligence usually takes a 15 strategic study of all regions of the world to project what the world will be like fifteen years later. In GT 2030, the US has projected that China will have taken over as the most powerful economy of the world. It also unpacks a lot of other bitter truths for the US and the Western world in general. But they published it anyway. The education industry too needs to do such a candid soul searching and take remedial action sooner than later.

From a global perspective, a whirlwind is sweeping across the world, changing everything around us, turning things upside down, crushing others into extinction and ushering in new things not within the scope of human imagination just ten years ago. Unprecedented advancements in the three interconnected facets of technology, scientific inquiry, and better understanding of human potential have converged to precipitate a tipping point for exponential and uncontrollable change in every sector of life. As a result, we live in an era of demystification. Everything has been or is in the process of being demystified courtesy of these three forces. For example, the bank has been demystified; virtually everybody who has a mobile phone moves with a mini bank in their pockets. Anyone with a gadget connected to the internet has virtually unlimited access to the classrooms and research labs of world-class universities all over the world. The wave is too strong no one can resist it or dodge it. There is only one way: continuously learning to navigate it or get crushed. Education is certainly not an exception. Over the coming two decades, education world-over will go through a major transformation. In the end, the old will struggle to identify itself with the new.

The foundations of the traditional school as we have known it are being disruptively shaken. The core business of the traditional school was to sell knowledge and information alongside corresponding skills. But that has been dramatically overtaken by events. Moving forward, the core business of the 21st century School will be to sell the learning experience; not knowledge and information. “Learning Experience” will be the major differentiator among education providers. Advancements in information and communication technologies, heavily supported by the internet, have demystified access to knowledge and information. There is scarcely any of this that the teacher can access that the student cannot. What the teacher has and knows is a drop in the ocean compared to what is openly available and accessible out there. The teacher’s role has therefore changed from being the provider of knowledge and information to being the one who designs processes that enable learners to make life-impacting meaning out of knowledge and information. In the new disposition, the teacher is a designerof learning experiences rather than an ‘imparter of knowledge and skills’. This calls for a new set of capabilities on the part of the school.

In effect, here is the core challenge for education in the 21st century as aptly captured by Karl Fish, Scott Mcleod and Jeff Brenman. “We are currently preparing students for jobs that do not exist yet. Using technologies that have not been invented yet, in order to solve problems we do not even know are problems yet”. In their eye-opening presentation, the trio quote the US Department of Labor which estimates that today’s American learner will have worked 10 – 14 jobs by the age of 38. It will become normal for an employee to stay on a job for less than 2 years. They reflect on the fact that technical information in any discipline currently doubles every two years, meaning that half of what one studies in a four year degree is pretty much obsolete by the time they graduate. And here is something scary too: that about 50% of today’s jobs will be replaced by artificial intelligence by 2028. To this effect, Daniel Pink has worked out the logic; if the work you do can be reduced to a logical step by step formula, then it can be automated. Effectively, you can be replaced by a machine. This is not fiction; we are already experiencing it. To the extent that we are part of the global village, these trends will pretty much be part of Africa’s reality too. In fact, they already are. Very importantly, these insights should wake us up before we crush into the rude disruption of the looming future. This is our final boarding call, or the flight to a strategically planned future leaves Africa behind.

But clearly, our education was not designed to produce the kind of graduate suited to operate in this kind of environment. Our definition of quality education and excellence focuses on measuring the wrong things – memory-based grades. And it does that quite effectively. In other words, those considered the best are the ones who have excelled at doing the wrong thing. They go on to occupy the most important offices because they are the winners in that paradigm. And that is our definition of success. That is how Africa’s great academic grades have not commensurately translated into development. This is also the case with many other educational systems around the world, not just Africa.But elsewhere, societies which have advanced despite a faulty education, have banked on the myriad of the complementary institutions and systems that help to neutralize and partially mitigate education’s damaging effects. Such complementary institutions and systems are largely absent or dysfunctional in Africa.

Simply put, ‘preparing young people for the future’ means something different from what it meant even as recently as the year 2010.We need to recognize this fact, reboot our education to and take due action.Elsewhere, in my new book, Teaching Deep without Teaching Hard, I have elaborated how we can effect this shift.

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