Radical educational transformation means a shift from learning to doing

By Ryan Falkenberg

Education and training techniques need to move away from optimising recall and replication to peer-reviewed innovation.

Our current education system is a product of the economic, political and social systems of the last 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 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 formulae 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.

It was just a decade ago that the iPhone was released, making 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.

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.

There are a number of ways we can do this.

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 we want them to repeat. This comes in the form of content, rules, processes, and policies. But 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 forwards, 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 ones. It means rewarding people for innovation, not replication.

Track what people do and how they do it

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 which 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, but a detailed feedback set 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 have actually done — that is, proven capability — rather than what they have memorised.

Just as people on LinkedIn currently list their education background, in future they should be listing the last 10 projects or challenges they tackled, along with the assessment of how they 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 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 organisational profit centre, where performance opportunities are traded for learning growth.



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