SOCIETY VIEW

Rethinking education

Innovative technology and changing demographics mean that what, where, how and when we learn should evolve.

The blunt truth is that the skills that have sustained workers in previous generations may not be useful in the future. Just as there is little call for blacksmiths or switchboard operators, so many of today’s jobs could disappear or be changed beyond recognition.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and automation are expected to eliminate many tasks while any newly created jobs could utilise entirely new capabilities. Meanwhile, the ways in which we learn are also changing, with new technology and techniques being introduced around the world. Moreover, learning is likely to become spread out over a lifetime rather than concentrated at the beginning, as longevity results in prolonged careers and the fast pace of innovation requires workers to retain regularly.

New skills

Today’s students have often been taught yesterday’s skills – and the problem is getting worse. “Employers struggle to find recent graduates prepared with the right skills for success,” says Tacy Trowbridge, head of Adobe’s Global Education Programmes. “A poll asking ‘Are students ready for today’s dynamic workplace?’ revealed that seven in 10 employers say ‘no’.” She adds that employers need employees with the ability to communicate through digital and visual media, technical competence and greater creativity.

Students are also eager to gain these skills, according to surveys. But in most schools they are not on the curriculum. Indeed, with just a handful of exceptions – such as IT – most school curriculums have not changed in decades.

There is widespread agreement that creativity and associated attributes such as curiosity, experimentation and problem finding and solving –will become critical in a world where AI will be able to do many of tasks currently performed by people. Moreover, such skills are recognised by companies as being a business differentiator. “Curiosity fuels business development and enables companies like ours to maintain our competitive edge,” says Stefan Oschmann, chairman and CEO of pharmaceuticals company Merck.

Trowbridge says that adding new technical or communications skills will not distract from core subjects but will enhance them. “Graduates with digital skills possess big advantages over their peers. Imagine business school graduates who tell effective stories through brief videos. Imagine biology graduates who build animations to explain complex research. Imagine students who build apps to solve real-world problems,” she notes.

Different ways to learn

Many observers believe that just as the skills taught in schools need to be updated, so do teaching methods. However, there is little consensus about how they should evolve.

Some politicians in Europe and the US believe that the rote learning style often adopted in Asia delivers better results and recommend a return to traditional methods. They point to Singapore, Taiwan and China’s dominance of science, reading and maths in the OECD’s global education ranking study, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) as evidence that such an approach works.

However, in China, while learning remains extremely regimented by Western standards, there is growing recognition that a looser, more creative-focused style of education may be necessary if the country is to continue to grow and broaden its economy.

Meanwhile, others think a fundamental rethink of teaching methods is necessary to accommodate the new challenges students face and the broader changes in their lives. “The way we learn today is just wrong,” says Peter Diamandis, founder of 17 companies and co-founder of Singularity University, which offers education programmes. “Learning needs to be less like memorisation, and more like… Angry Birds.” Diamandis explains that the current education model needs to be transformed using technologies like AI and virtual reality.

Diamandis advocates ‘gamification’ of learning. “In the traditional education system, you start with an ‘A’,” he says. “Every time you get something wrong, your score gets lower and lower. In the gaming world, it’s just the opposite. You start with zero, and every time you come up with something right, your score gets higher and higher. It completely flips the way we currently learn, and it’s fun.” Diamandis says that when playing a video game, you observe a problem, form a hypothesis, test it and learn from feedback so you can try again. Using a similar “scientific method” in education will “make kids as addicted to learning as they are to gaming,” he believes.

Using technology effectively

Many schools now make extensive use of iPads or laptops in the classroom and Deloitte’s 2016 Digital Education Survey found that three quarters of teachers expect printed textbooks to disappear within a decade. But while some advocate greater use of technology in teaching, the benefits are currently unclear. An assessment of digital skills by PISA notes that “countries which have invested heavily in information and communication technologies for education have seen no noticeable improvement in their performances in PISA results for reading, mathematics or science. However, the OECD believes the right use of technology would work wonders.

“School systems need to find more effective ways to integrate technology into teaching and learning to provide educators with learning environments that support 21st century pedagogies and provide children with the 21st century skills they need to succeed,” said Andreas Schleicher, OECD director for education and skills. “Technology is the only way to dramatically expand access to knowledge. To deliver on the promises technology holds, countries need to invest more effectively and ensure that teachers are at the forefront of designing and implementing this change.”

One possible solution is to use AI to tailor teaching to each individual’s needs. AltSchool, a private education group partly backed by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, operates six schools in the US that use so-called adaptive learning. Each child completes a personalised list of activities on their tablet; their answers are automatically uploaded for the teacher to assess; performance is constantly tracked so that lessons can be adapted; and there is instant communication between home and school. The Gates Foundation and many other organisations are funding similar adaptive learning initiatives. AI also has other potential uses in education: some apps such as Duolingo allow language learners to converse naturally with a chatbot in order to practise their skills in a realistic setting.

Marieke Blom, chief economist at ING says that rather than getting hung up on the specifics of how learning should change, we should instead accept the need for a variety of approaches. “We know that everyone learns in different ways – by doing, by reading, by playing or by discussing,” she notes. “What we need to ensure is that the most effective way is used for each individual. As importantly, the emphasis needs to be put not on knowledge, which will be easily available online or augmented by AI, but on developing skills that enable people to live a pleasant and productive life. These might be dealing with stress or deadlines, cooperating with others, communication, creative skills, such as finding solutions for problems or coming up with a great idea, or technical skills, such as working with new software or equipment.”

New centres of learning

Although schools and universities will remain central to learning in the future, the ways we access knowledge are broadening.

The advent of the internet has facilitated what are known as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which offer online lectures, automatic marketing mechanisms and message board tutorials and discussions.

Prestigious universities such as Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology collaborated to create a MOOC called edX while platforms such as Coursera and Udacity have signed up many of the world’s leading universities: the Financial Times newspaper runs an online MOOC tracker, which currently lists 417 individual courses. MOOCs mostly resemble traditional university-style courses (apart from being solely online) because of their set start and end dates. They also offer recognisable credentials, with some courses ultimately counting towards qualifications such as an MBA.

However, MOOCs do not work for every type of learning and a number of other learning models have also emerged in recent years. For example, the Khan Academy is a self-paced learning tool offering thousands of free exercises and instructional videos across a huge range of subjects as well as a personalised learning dashboard. Long-established online education company Lynda.com, which was acquired by business networking site LinkedIn, offers a subscription-based model, with courses designed primarily to help people to improve their professional skills.

Lifelong learning

Traditionally, many individuals in developed countries have spent roughly the first 20 or 25 years of their lives studying, followed by 40 years of working and 15 years of retirement. The introduction of technologies such AI, increases in longevity, shortages of workers in some industry sectors, and the potential challenges faced by both governments and individuals in funding retirement could change this pattern significantly.

“The idea of studying for years in a row at the beginning of our lives will have to change,” says ING’s Blom. “It doesn’t reflect the new reality of how people learn, the skills they need and the way they will work. Education will have to occur in shorter bursts and be designed to fit individual’s needs.” Multiple careers in a lifetime will become normal and workers will have to periodically update their skills even if they stay in the same career.

“AI will affect us all and is here to stay,” says Vishal Sikka, chief executive of technology services company Infosys. “It is in its infancy and there is an immense opportunity to transcend the disruption; as AI develops, this disruption will be repeated again and again. The only certain strategy in our world is for us all to become life-long learners.” He adds: “Organisations need to make life-long learning resources available for employees to enhance skills development. Indeed, they should be required to dedicate a percentage of their annual revenue to reskilling staff.

Recharging creativity

Some people are taking a more radical approach to managing longer working lives and focusing as much on the third stage of life – retirement – as the first.

Stefan Sagmeister, a renowned graphic designer who has designed packaging for leading brands and artists such as the Rolling Stones, decided to cut off five of the 15 years traditionally dedicated to retirement and intersperse them between the 40 working years. He closes his New York-based studio for an entire year every seven years to enable himself and his employees to recharge their creativity. “The work that comes out of these years [off] flows back into the company. Everything we designed in the seven years following the first sabbatical originated in that year.”

While Sagmeister’s initiative may be extreme – few companies can simply shut their doors for a year – many technology companies recognise the importance of giving employees freedom to experiment. Materials and technology company 3M has allowed engineers to use 15% of their work time to pursue their own ideas since the 1930s: post-it notes and scotch tape were both developed during personal time; and Google allows software engineers to spend 20% of their time on personal projects. Creativity and inventiveness will become increasingly important, both to employees and companies in the future (see article on Survival of the smartest).

Of course, the majority of workers may not have the skills, resources or initiative to stop work for a year or dedicate time to experimental projects. In sectors that could face large-scale redundancies, such as road haulage which could be transformed by self-driven vehicles, an easier route to re-training will be needed – not least to avoid worsening inequality. In most countries, governments will need to become involved to ensure fair access to education opportunities. Singapore, which operates ‘individual learning accounts’ giving citizens over 25 a S$500 (€336) credit for courses from 500 approved providers including MOOCs and universities (and generous subsidies for longer course fees) could provide a model for the rest of the world to emulate in the coming years.


  • www.raconteur.net/technology/learning-new-skills-to-spark-creativity
  • curiosity.merckgroup.com/docs/Curiosity_Full-Report_English.pdf
  • www.21stcentech.com/learn-today-wrong-peter-diamandis/
  • www.oecd.org/education/new-approach-needed-to-deliver-on-technologys-potential-in-schools.htm
  • www.ft.com/content/5bf845fe-b7c2-11e6-961e-a1acd97f622d
  • www.ted.com/talks/stefan_sagmeister_the_power_of_time_off

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