In response to the dramatic technological advances that have been triggered by the invention of personal computers, smart phones and the internet, education and training professionals have been looking to modernise their approach to child and adult learning.
For some, this transition began and ended with the rebranding of their titles – from training to learning professionals. For others, the transition was largely defined by how they packaged and delivered learning content. As technology became more accessible, many classrooms and lecture halls simply ‘digitised’ existing tools, replacing overhead projectors with digital ones, and chalk boards with smart boards. Others went further, shifting learning content increasingly online, from manuals to online courses, videos and documents (delivered via various world-class Learning and Knowledge Management Systems). Course notes became available to students online, assessments went online, and class discussions moved to online discussions.
Yet the core assumptions and paradigms underpinning the education and training of children and adults today have largely remained the same for almost a century. And while we err on the side of incremental change, the time has come for a fundamental review of our entire approach to human development.
This article aims to contribute to this debate by offering some principles and practical applications that could assist schools, universities and corporate training departments begin the shift that is so urgently required.
Our Current Education and Training System
Before exploring ideas for change, it is useful to reflect on the influence that the dominant economic, political and social systems have on our education systems – how we view and support learning, and how we determine learning success.
In truth, 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 therefore to ensure that 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 laid out rules and requirements. In effect, it is to increase control over the thoughts and actions of the masses.
Examples of individuals or collectives who have used forms of education and training to better control people’s thinking and actions include kings, dictators, religious bodies, governments, armies, industries, and even fathers (to control the behaviour of their wives and children). For many, this was thought of as benevolent control, done in the interest of the others. Yet it required conformity, and therefore sought to reward those who demonstrated the ability to learn quickly and execute as required. Questioning subjects, citizens, church-goers, soldiers, staff and children were not celebrated. Instead, these people were made to feel like outsiders. Distrust of those in power was considered to be taboo.
The education and training models we currently apply have been shaped within this patriarchal world view, and to a large extent mirror this fundamentally paternalistic framework. From the onset, the power difference between teacher and learner has been made to reflect that of a leader over their subjects. The teacher role decided what the learner should learn, where they should learn and how they should learn. They even decided when they could eat and when they could take a break. And to reinforce their power, they created a reward system that celebrated those learners who were most capable of remembering the ‘right’ information, and behaving in the ‘right’ way.
Our current education system is also biased towards memory and IQ, the capabilities most useful in consistently recalling and executing instructions. Successful learners have been those who can recall large volumes of data, and who can apply given formula to different situations, accurately and effectively. Education and training techniques focus on optimising memory recall through mind-mapping, repetition and multi-sensory stimulation.
In effect, the traditional education system has worked because it mirrors the systems it serves. It simplifies things, and allows large groups of people to perform like well-oiled machines.
It allows generals to co-ordinate the efforts of thousands of soldiers, because they can be relied on to do what they are told to do, even under pressure. It allows large factories to obtain amazing levels of efficiency because each person on the production line can be counted on to execute their tasks accurately. It allows corporate executives to control the work done by different people in different departments by defining roles and reporting lines, along with policies and procedure rules. It allows governments to control citizens through legislation, and by acknowledging those who do as they are told with social accolades and titles. And it allows parents to control the actions of their children, and to encourage them to always do what they are told, because then they are being ‘good’ children.
The key catalysts of exponential change
This centralised control system has worked well throughout the 20th century, and has allowed governments to build centrally-controlled systems that offer clarity and order, and align social energy in a common direction. It has also allowed companies to grow, using rules and structures to align staff decisions and actions across regions and continents.
It has allowed the ‘big guys’, through this system of command and control, to dominate the ‘little guys’, both at national and corporate level. However, this dynamic is now changing.
This change is being forced by the convergence of three powerful inflection points, explained brilliantly by Thomas Friedman in his book ‘Thank You For Being Late’.
The exponential growth of digital technology that started with non-networked personal computers is rapidly transforming itself into a globally connected world, an internet of things (IOT). This world is seeing an exponential growth in computing power, connectivity speeds and the ability of technology to sense and learn. The result is that human beings are rapidly finding their historic roles of executing prescribed formula, defined within organisational products, policies and procedures, being performed by technology. Technology is far more capable of memorising huge volumes of information, and then making decisions or taking actions based on prescribed rules. And within most current jobs, this forms a large part of what staff are being asked to do, and where most of training is focused.
As global trade has become increasingly interconnected, the ability for organisations to get work done in other parts of the world has improved. This has meant that people who, historically, were paid for expertise that was scarce locally are now in competition with a global workforce capable of and willing to do the same work at half the price. And in addition, with increased workforce migration, localised labour faces increased localised pressure from people trying to make a new life in a developed economy. The result is that people are being pressured to upskill and pivot every few years – as opposed to being able to claim the value of skills learned once and used as a differentiator for an entire career.
The effects of climate change impact everyone, but initially those in countries where huge parts of the population rely on farming for their livelihoods. As thousands of rural farmers move out of affected rural areas into cities and neighbouring countries, the pressure to find formal paying jobs increases. And coupled with the realisation that key eco-system indicators are now being stretched beyond critical markers, the resulting climate shift is set to have an increasingly dramatic impact on the global economic, political, social and ecological systems. And with that, the ability of people to work and earn a living.
The world is changing fast. And we better change quickly too.
As a result of these accelerating changes, many people are finding it extremely difficult to adapt. For their entire lives, they have been introduced to change at a speed that has afforded them years to onboard and adjust. Examples are the introduction of steam, electricity and even combustion engines. Old habits could die hard, without overly prejudicing the slow adapters.
Those times are over. Exponential change is the new norm.
Just think about the last decade. It was only 2007 when the iPhone was released and made it possible for us to access the global brain or internet anywhere, anytime. Suddenly everyone and everything could be constantly connected, and with this connectivity, digital intelligence could grow rapidly with increasing access to global data.
Within ten short years, information and logic could suddenly be accessed equally by engineers in NASA and rural farmers in Nigeria. Combine that with innovations such as cognitive computing and 3D printing, and one finds the pillars of the old economy beginning to shake. And along with them, the concept of work as we know it, and the value of people within an economy.
In the not-too-distant past, if we had learned the ‘code’ of any profession – for example the diagnostic logic of a doctor – we could extract a high value for our ability to apply this code consistently and routinely, simply because it was difficult for others to learn it themselves.
But with the advent of cognitive computing, if a decision-making code is known by one person, it can be learned by a digital brain and then improved on by connecting it to thousands of other digital brains that can jointly learn together. Soon knowing a code will only give you a short term advantage, not one that you can leverage across an entire career.
Think about the impact of this on many highly paid jobs, such as lawyers, accountants, consultants and technicians. What part of their jobs does not involve diagnosing known situations, and based on known variables, applying defined rules to make required decisions and to take required actions?
Surely a cognitive computer capable of accessing global data, and with the ability to learn from thousands of situations encountered by thousands of other digital brains will be able to offer more accurate and relevant answers, faster and without the need to attend conferences or to read journals in order to try stay up to date?
No need to sleep, eat or take paid leave. Just an obsessive focus on learning and improving.
Now add the competition of millions of people who can also access this digital code, and suddenly one starts to feel like the emperor with no clothes.
Because soon any decision-making code that your brain knows can be learned and digitised into a cognitive brain that anyone in the world can then have access to, instantly.
So how does this impact how we educate our children and train our staff?
As mentioned earlier in the article, we are still trapped in our industrial and knowledge era mindset. We still package ‘the code’ in books or e-courses. We still control what is learnt and how it is learnt. And we still reward people for learning what others already know.
As a result, children and staff are being programmed to believe that their value is based on their ability to repeat known logic, not in the generation of new or unknown logic.
In effect, we have worshipped the left brain over the right brain. We have made IQ the winner, and EQ the distant cousin. We have also, through our obsession with repetition of required formula, developed our ‘fast brain’ – as Daniel Kahneman coined it – the unconscious brain that specialises in auto-piloting our decisions and actions without drawing on too much cognitive energy. And we have done this at the expense of our ‘slow brain’, the part of our brain that demands more effort to engage as it raises our consciousness and asks us to contemplate difficult questions and conflicting patterns or beliefs. It is here where wisdom is derived, and where new ideas and thoughts are shaped and old patterns questioned.
As the global ‘digital brain’ increasingly makes our left and fast brain functioning less differentiating, there is an increasing realisation that our right and slow brain capabilities may well be key to unlocking our future role within the ever increasing digital world.
So what do we need to change to prepare people for this new digital world?
Things are moving quickly, and we as a society need to adapt. From an educational perspective, this means changing the way we think about learning. It means not simply doing what we have always done in a more digital way. Rather, it requires a complete rethink in how we approach learning, both for our children and our staff. Below are some principles that I believe should be applied.
Ask learners to innovate, not replicate
For people to develop their right brain functioning, we need to help them learn to create, design, innovate – not replicate. It means rewarding them when they add new value, not simply when they repeat old value. It means turning learning experiences into challenges that reward differences, not similarities.
Ask learners to think, not memorise
For people to develop their slow brain functioning, they need to be freed from repetitive learning, and be asked to consider difficult questions that don’t offer easy answers. It means encouraging regular reflection, developing a comfort with paradox, and the capability to be increasingly conscious and present. It means always starting a learning journey with solving a question or tackling a challenge, not taking a course or learning a formula. And it means acknowledging someone for asking a brilliant question, as opposed to providing a required answer.
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 have been expected to blindly accept and learn the ‘truth’ provided by their teachers, lecturers and elders, today they need to be taught to research and validate; to question; to look for multiple sources and only then to form an opinion. In other words, not to blindly accept what is fed to them, even if it’s what we as parents, executives and government officials would prefer.
Offer people access to more digital expertise
A huge amount of information we currently ask people to learn is effectively to get them to apply a set of decision making formulae that we want them to repeat. This comes in the form of content, rules, processes, and policies, and it makes up a huge proportion of what people are currently required to learn. As noted above, 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 forward not backwards
This talks to the previous point. 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 ideas and solutions. It means rewarding people for innovation, not replication.
Move from push to pull models
Currently most learning is prescribed to people. We need to change this, and ensure learning is shaped and defined by the learner. It means moving away the extrinsic motivators of degrees and certificates and moving towards intrinsic motivators shaped by personal meaning. It requires shifting away from a course-centric model towards a learner-centric model.
Blend learning into performing
We must move from ‘learning in order to perform’ thinking, and find better ways to blend learning into real time performance. This means allowing people to volunteer for performance opportunities that are meaningful and offer desired learning benefits. It means moving away from offering a menu of learning courses to offering a menu of performance opportunities e.g. projects or challenges.
Track what people do and how they do it, not what people learn
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. It means concentrating more on building people’s ability to learn and adapt rapidly than worrying about the content of that learning.
Implication for schools, universities, technical colleges and training departments
These principles have significant implications for formal learning institutions. They challenge the paradigms on which many are structured. And they demand an honest rethink into the role of educators going forward.
If I was to summarise the three most important changes that these institutions need to make, they would be as follows.
Change the learning triggers from courses to activities.
Currently learning institutions build learning around content. This is reflected in how they categorise courses, classes and degrees. It is also reflected in the learning professionals that are involved with each learning stream i.e. teachers, lecturers and trainers are usually content specialists.
In future, learning should be built around challenges, be they projects, tasks or activities. Learners should therefore apply to do something, so as a result they can learn something. And teachers and lecturers need to become more specialised in facilitation and coaching than in the content of the experience itself.
To illustrate this point, consider the following:
Imagine offering school kids 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 that 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, rather a detailed set of feedback that aims to help students learn, reflect and improve.
Imagine offering students a series of jobs (rather than lectures), sponsored by companies, that require them to learn quickly in order to deliver value. The company offering the job can jointly agree on the project deliverables and success measures, and the assessments would be done by the individual, their team and the company concerned. The lecturer would be their performance coach, helping them learn from experiences and tap into relevant content and ideas. Each job or project would be relevant to that student’s area of interest, and would offer them the opportunity to learn and gain valuable experience. And rather than complete a series of courses, students would complete a series of jobs that they opted into, and that collectively build their own unique portfolio.
Imagine company’s training department decides to move away from dishing out set courses, and rather looks to co-ordinate projects (workplace learning opportunities) offered by different departments or business units. Staff effectively volunteer for the projects they believe will develop them in the right areas, and look to build a portfolio of projects that align with their career aspirations. Trainers become coaches working to help people learn through their experiences. Companies, therefore, don’t sponsor training. They sponsor work opportunities that offer people access to support they can leverage and learn while doing. In other words, training moves from a cost to a profit centre, delivering impact not courses.
Change the measures from what people learned to what people did.
Currently education and training institutions assess people against the knowledge and skills they prove they have learned, even if that assessment reflects capability that is typically valid for a limited time, given how quickly memory fades and data changes. In future learning institutions should rather assess people against what they actually did i.e. proven capability. And just like people on LinkedIn currently list their education background, in future they should be listing the last 10 projects or challenges they actually tackled, along with the assessment of how they actually 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.
Differentiate more on the quality of projects and learning support offered, than the courses and lecturers available.
Top learning organisations of the future will be those that give people access to the best opportunities to learn by doing, and the best support systems (knowledge bases; virtual experts; performance coaches) to help them accelerate their learning. They will not be those offering the best courses presented by the best lecturers.
From a school perspective
Top schools will be those that give students more opportunities to tackle more challenging projects in more relevant areas. And teachers will be skilled coaches who specialise in the learning process, not the learning content.
From a university perspective
Top universities will have partnerships with the best companies offering the best short-term job opportunities and supported by the best coaches, peers and knowledge bases.
From an organisation perspective
Those able to offer the best array of projects that can grow a person’s capability and experience in line with their personal aspirations will be those in highest demand.
Some practical ideas for making this work in traditional educational environments
Given the above, and accepting that many learning and educational professionals operate within traditional systems, how does one go about making these changes without breaking everything down and starting from scratch? Here are some practical suggestions:
Start every learning session with a question that asks learners why the content you plan to cover is valuable and important to them. This discussion will help improve internal motivation and ensure they see the context to the content.
Find ways to prevent you becoming the medium through which information is provided. The facts are in the textbooks and online. Shift your role to being the person who sets challenges that compel learners to access the content to solve problems, and who helps them make sense of the content through reflection and discussion.
See how you can create projects or challenges that will force learners to apply the content being covered. Try do this regularly, so applied learning is the norm not the exception.
Look for ways to involve learners in the shaping of their own learning ‘curriculum’. Ask them for ideas to make it more relevant and more valuable to them. Ask them for projects they would like to tackle. Make them co-authors of their own journey – this increases ownership and personal accountability.
Find ways to allow learners to teach others. Step out of the spotlight and look to make the learners the stars of the show. People learn better when they teach others.
Try maximise group work, and help learners see diversity as a strength and collective efforts as more powerful than individual.
Try limit content-based tests – they discourage failure. See if you can offer learners more opportunity to try, fail, reflect, learn and try again. The more they can see learning as a process and not a destination, the more powerful you will make them.
Explore ways to link success to the value learners add to others, to the team, the school or the university and not simply to themselves (e.g. their own marks).
If you are in a company, don’t start with defining a learning curriculum based on the information staff need to know. Start by clearly analysing what staff must be able to DO in their jobs, and then look to build intelligent performance support that will help them do it (without needing to learn beforehand). Only then ask the question ‘what must they learn to add value to their roles’. It means building people performance navigators or virtual experts first, and courses second.
Link learning to career opportunities. Allow people to apply for career-linked projects that will allow them to learn and build new capability. Stop offering courses that have no link to real work, and rather create performance opportunities that unlock workplace learning.
We can begin today, changing how we help others learn. And each step we take will help move us towards a more relevant, impactful and value-adding learning system. A system more aligned with the technological, economic, political and social systems that are shaping our world today.
The world as we know it is changing – fast. Unfortunately many of those who have historically worked within education and training, as well as knowledge management fields, have been the slowest to respond to this change. Yet the impact they have on people’s futures is profound.
It is time for us to completely embrace the change that is barrelling towards us, and to let go of the mental chains that have for so long held us back.
It is time to embrace ‘radical education transformation’. A concept which looks to empower people to become relevant through action, not through their preparation for action. We need to stop asking people to repeat what is known, and gladly hand that role over to technology.
We need to ask people 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.
To do this, we need to stop asking them to learn known decision-making formula that technology can and will do, and rather ask them to tackle new problems that society needs solved. And in their adding value to society, they will benefit by being afforded the opportunity to gain new capability in an area they wish to develop.
It means exploring a new win-win 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 organisation profit centre, where performance opportunities are traded for learning growth.