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A Matter of Survival: The Future of Education
September 2nd, 2008

I recently spoke about the future of education to the faculty of an elite, K-12 private boys school. Money had clearly been lavished on the campus, which looked like a small private university. And it was clear that only people with deep pockets could afford to send their boys there. During the Q&A after my presentation, one teacher commented that I seemed to be talking about survival. On reflection, I agreed with him – I had indeed spoken about survival, and on many levels: the survival of our country as an affluent society; the survival of our school systems; the survival (or success) of today’s students; and the professional survival of teachers. All of these are at risk because of the changes ahead of us. And although that wasn’t the only thing I spoke about, I would like to summarize some of those thoughts here.

Our country – The currency of the future is brains, creativity, imagination, innovation, and the ability to take ideas and turn them into successful reality. In a world where workers in developing countries may be as qualified as us, but receive a small fraction of what we get paid, more and more jobs are going to be outsourced to those workers. Meanwhile, to survive, domestic companies are automating wherever possible in order to minimize the importance of the wage differential. Yet, when they succeed, although the businesses remain here, the number of jobs declines. (If they don’t succeed, none of the jobs survive.) The result is that routine work of almost any kind is rapidly disappearing, and the only jobs that remain will be creative, innovative work requiring higher levels of education, imagination, and real world practicality. Accordingly, the future affluence of our society depends on our ability to shift our education system from one that teaches facts towards one that teaches creativity, critical thinking, and the ability to conceive and execute a plan of action in the real world. If we do not succeed at this, then the number of people employed will decline, and especially the number of people employed in high-paying jobs will decline dramatically.

Our education system – Our country’s demographics spell trouble for education. The number of young children entering school is dropping precipitously as the baby boomers, who are 61 at the leading edge and 41 at the tailing edge, are leaving their child-bearing years. Meanwhile, today’s seniors are living longer, and will need more support, especially in health care, from society. And the health care needs of the boomers themselves, the biggest generation in history, will explode because health care costs, which are reasonably stable until around age 55, start to grow almost exponentially from then on. As a result, the costs of publicly-funded health care will skyrocket from their already high levels. And, since education is the second biggest area of policy spending (after health care) below the federal level, governments will look first to take money from schools, especially as their student base shrinks. This is inevitable. What we should make sure, though, is that the per-student spending rises, even as total spending declines, and that the assets and resources we retain are the most important and most effective ones, even as we close less valuable schools and sell off or eliminate less valuable resources.

Today’s students / tomorrow’s workers – In a world that is more exciting, but less forgiving, tomorrow’s workers will have to manage their own careers, including their own retirements. They will be burdened with the debts we leave them, higher levels of taxation mandated by the costs of health care, and the more competitive world created by a global economy, which will offer them enormous opportunity, but little or no security. Many of them will be self-employed, but even those who collect a paycheck signed by someone else will still need to plot out their own career-paths; the day of the paternal employer is over.

To do this, they will need a different kind of education than we received. They will need a broad background in traditional fields of knowledge, perhaps broader than today, but knowledge alone will not be sufficient in a world where any fact is available in fractions of a second over the Internet. They will need to understand the context surrounding that knowledge so they can put it to use, and the creativity and imagination to invent new ways of using it. This implies knowledge of fields as diverse as history, geography, philosophy, comparative religion, economics, government, science, mathematics, and more. They will need to be able to communicate, clearly and effectively, so as to put their ideas forward persuasively. They will have to know how to market their own ideas, and the close the sale in order to get them accepted. They will need to know how to present ideas in enticing, attractive ways, requiring a working understanding of art and communications of all forms. They will need to be able to perform new research, come to new, unique insights, and deduce the implications and consequences from them. And they will need to be able to work as a team member, making themselves attractive to others as such, as well as have the ability to assemble and lead a team of others. But all of this is just the common background of what they will need, the base on which their real education will be built.

No matter what of work they choose, they will be competing with the best minds in the world. Therefore, their best chances of succeeding will be if they focus on those things they are best at doing, which is often the things they are most passionate about. To do that, they will need an education system that helps them identify their particular talents, then tailors a curriculum specifically for them, to help them grow and mature that talent, as well employ all of the skills above in support of their endeavors. This requires an education system that is centered on the individual student, not a theoretical common curriculum. And since students have different learning strategies, each student should be taught at their own pace, and using those strategies that are most likely to succeed for them. This is a dramatically different kind of education system than we have today.

I’m often asked how we can afford this kind of system, and I reply with an aphorism from the military: the most expensive thing in the world is the second best army because failure is so costly. Spending billions of dollars but not providing the education today’s students will need is incredibly wasteful, and therefore far more expensive than the kind of system I’ve outlined.

Teachers ¬– Teachers are not held in the esteem they were a century ago. Then, they were among the highest educated people in the community. Now, because of their success, the community is far better educated – and therefore, teachers no longer stand out. Moreover, every parent has been to school and thinks they know what goes on there. They also think it’s easy, and therefore that teachers are lazy. As well, our society has fostered a sense of ‘me first’ among many people, with the result that a growing minority of parents believe that their entire responsibility is to get the kid’s body to the school building. They hold the school and the teacher responsible for everything else, and they are unreasonably abrasive (and often abusive) when they don’t like the results, yet sidestep any of the responsibility. These perceived failures can be anything from a mark their consider too low (as if that’s the teacher’s fault), or the way their child is treated in class (as if they knew), or the fact that the child has no manners (as if that’s the teacher’s responsibility in the first place). Moreover, our society seems intent on corrupting children though television, videos, games, and online experiences far beyond what’s appropriate for their ages. One sociologist calls this our ‘toxic society.’

As well, boomers looking for ways of supplementing their incomes are retiring from one job, whether in teaching or elsewhere, and going in and teaching for a limited number of days, hours, subjects or classes, competing with the next generation of teachers. And the declining enrollments of schools, starting with the primary grades, will mean fewer teachers are hired, and opportunities for advancement become limited.

Add to this the changes that I think are in prospect, both as outlined above, and in the increasingly powerful and sophisticated computer-supported materials that will become available, and it will be a difficult transition for teachers as well as schools.

So, as one of my audiences asked after I’d outlined problems ahead in their field: What do we do about all this?

The first, and most critical, decision to make is whether to act on these issues – or just sit back and keep doing what you’re doing now. Inertia implies that we won’t change, that we’ll keep doing the same things and hope for a different outcome. But that’s also one definition of self-delusion: that we keep doing something that fails, yet expect a different result.

And the choices we make truly will truly be a matter of survival on many levels.

© Copyright, IF Research, September 2008

by futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

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