Tipping Point – The Coming Changes in Education

A sociological tipping point is that magical time when a paradigm falters, when it is revealed to be no longer unassailable, and when it gives way to a new paradigm.  A tipping point can happen for a person, or a whole society.  A tipping point is beginning for education.

The paradigm long-presumed is that we need a formalized education, one that culminates in the granting of a formalized diploma.  It has been presumed that we needed a high school education, and more recently a college degree.  It has been presumed that we need to do whatever the formalized system says because we need to get that graduation paper at the end so we could show it to a potential employer.  But, this path is faltering, under its own weight.  Formal education programs take longer and longer – too long.  At one time a high school education was the norm and the student would be done and ready for work when he/she was about 18.  A few people with particular interests or skills invested in going on to a college degree.  Then a college degree became normal, and graduate was about 22 when completing the degree.   A few people invested and went on to an advanced degree.  Now even people with advanced degrees have problems finding jobs – and they can’t start looking until they are well into their mid or late 20’s, or in some cases even early 30’s.   Further, students now finish these excessively long curricula burdened with significant (or major) debt.  Backlash is coming.

Step back and see the situation as it is now.  For most young people the primary goal of advanced education is work opportunity.   Therefore, while there are also other agendas for education, the primary goal for advanced education is typically the ability to earn a living.  But, students wait a long time to start.   In spite of this investment students are no longer reasonably assured it will pay off.   A CNBC editorial asks, “Four years in college and decades in debt – is it worth it? (CNBC: 26 August 2013).  Business Insider asks, “How much is a college degree worth?” (27 August 2013).  There are many other articles with the same sentiment now appearing – the idea that education may no longer be worth the investment made to obtain it.

There is another problem.  The information gained during a very long educational process may be forgotten or obsolete by the time the student is finally prepared to use it.  A very interesting video available on the net is “Did You Know?”.  The video is in several versions.  Here is a link to one of them: http://youtu.be/YmwwrGV_aiE.   The video offers a fascinating look at the rate of change in the world, summarized as “We are living in exponential times.”  Whereas education might once have been fashioned to load a student with information that he/she would later use, either explicitly or as world perspective, the long educational processes of today ensure that a lot of the information will be wrong or even irrelevant by the time a student is prepared to use it.  And as for a world perspective…well, that is changing almost daily.

To maximize education’s effectiveness in achieving it’s primary goal – preparing a student to be useful (to self and/or others) – education needs to be efficient.  The graduate needs to be still young when all the preparation is finished.   The information that has been loaded into the student’s brain needs to be relevant.  Most importantly, the student needs to be an expert at dumping outdated information and replacing, or adding to it, with new information from the myriad resources now available

Neuroscience has long been recognized that innovative skills – abilities to come up with new ideas – tend on average to reach maximum by the late 20’s or early 30’s.  (Intellectual skills that are based on deep experience peak later. Pure science creative skill might peak earlier.)  So, in a society that needs to be innovative it is highly desirable to have young minds begin the application of “book learning”  either at or before intellectual skills begin to decline.   In short, this means education needs to be efficient so that young minds can be applied to real-world problems before those minds pass their peak of productivity for the tasks at hand.  Certainly there is room for debate regarding when young minds have reached their peak of effectiveness for differing tasks.  Nonetheless, there is ample reason to accept that completing education relatively early is advantageous to the individual and to society.  The early-completer has more years to earn a living and likely less debt from the prior educational experience.  Further, in those cases where a young person enters the workforce and discovers that “the work isn’t right for me”, there is more time to re-group under another pursuit.

There was a time when a “broad” education was useful to create an informed public and to raise the average level of intellectual sophistication in the public.  This concept still has some merit; but, it must now be tempered by the huge burden of information that characterizes most fields of pursuit.  If society is going to be productive then students must finish education while still bearing youthful enthusiasm and spirited intellectual abilities.  In contrast, one of the most viewed TED talks – viewed 20 million times – is Ken Robinson’s talk titled: “How schools kill creativity”.

There was a time when the pursuit of education more-or-less needed to proceed in academic institutions.  Not only were these the places of formal classes for learning, but also they were the places for meeting with peers and professors.  That time is fading.  New internet systems like Salmon Khan’s Khan Academy and Andrew Ng’s Coursera are not only bringing advanced materials to the computer-user’s home, but they are also doing it for free!  Further, such resources now arm the older student with the ability to learn new information after the formal education process has been completed.  For several reasons (rapid information change, worker career mobility, longer tenures in the workplace, etc) we can expect such ad hoc education to expand dramatically in coming years.  Such learning tends to be much more effective because it is driven by specific intents and focused desires for outcome.  In contrast, the usual formal education is “academic” – “book learning” segregated from actual real-world needs.  Whereas students in academic institutions tend to be driven by grades, with the actual course information being only a path to a grade (and often soon forgotten), students in pragmatic education (delivered to create specific capability) are focused on the information itself, because life will test them to determine what they really learned.

This takes us back to the original (and often unremembered) reason for education – to be effective in life.  A deer prancing off into the woods – looking back with relief at the hunter’s poor efforts – made clear to the early student-hunter that it didn’t matter whether the teacher gave the student a good grade.  What mattered was whether the student could be effective.  If the student-hunter didn’t learn to hunt then it was the student that paid the price.  We would be wise to remember this now.

Businesses used to rely on certificates of graduation as a “seal of approval” that a student had adequate background preparation for the needed work.  But that assumption is now challenged by a variety of social confounders.  There are pressures on educators to give better grades than might be deserved.  This result might satisfy a student for the moment (and give a desired false impression that the student is doing well) but “the truth will out”.

Students buoyed by a false belief in academic excellence may be led to careers for which they are not really a good fit.   This will eventually lead to career failure, resulting in personal and professional angst (with illness and social dysfunctions as additional results).  Further, current regulatory systems hamper the educator’s ability to respond to students as individuals bearing individual strengths and weaknesses.

As a consequence of these various social pressures (and others) a diploma doesn’t necessarily mean what it once did.  The illusion is not unnoticed.  Employers now easily discern that a student’s pieces of academic paper (diplomas) may not really mean very much.  Thus businesses ask for more and more requirements in the effort to find employment candidates who are actually prepared to do the work.   Unfortunately, the employer’s pursuit of more and more requirements feeds back to the education system and fosters it as an industry.   The dynamic becomes self-serving to the education industry, burdening students with more and more requirements, longer delays until graduation, and greater educational costs.

The real losers in all of this are students, employers and society.  Since diplomas mean less and less, and employers thus ask for more and more, the student becomes obligated to go to school longer and longer, with more and more debt, and less time to pay it off.  Employers get older employees with less youthful enthusiasm.  Society gets less productive years from its members.  This issue that is really going to hit home as the world goes through the dilemmas of population aging – with more elderly to support and less workers to support them.

Last, as introduced earlier, what about the problem of people wanting to change professions?  The focus might be on a young person who finally reaches the real world only to discover he/she doesn’t like the original career choice.  Or, the focus might be on an old person who still has ability and energy but does not wish to devote more years to a long-practiced career.  Or, the focus might be on an ill person who can no longer do the work he/she set out to do.  In many forms there are people with capacity who want to go a new direction but find this daunting in the face of work that requires excessively long courses of study to enter a new opportunity.

When educational programs are longer this works to the advantage of the educational institution.  It means more income for the institution from education fees; more “donated” work by students, who often perform the mundane portions of research work; and a greater career path for those who work for the institution (because the longer training makes the institution bigger).  Thus, longer education programs that are not efficiently providing the information needed by the students may be of greater benefit to the educational institution than to its students.

All of this culminates in placing us at the brink of a tipping point.  Education systems must change.  The good news is that they can change, and they are changing.  Computers, new education paradigms, and a “flat” world (vis a vis Friedman) are changing the rules of the game.  The focus of education is shifting from an arguably excessive focus on “what does the educator want to teach” to a relevancy focus of “what does the student need to learn?” The ultimate consumers of most education are actually businesses, because students seek education overall as a path toward gaining work.   Thus in real-world terms, the employer is actually the final arbiter of the utility of education.  Businesses care that their employees are capable of doing the needed work.  They will look for sources of new employees from educational systems that actually produce effective workers.  In this era they can look all over the world.

To be sure, work-effectiveness depends upon much more than a mind crammed full of facts (particularly since these will become obsolete).  It depends on emotional resiliency, intellectual flexibility, adaptive capacity, creative energy, work tenacity, interpersonally-effective personality, reasonable expectations, and other characteristics.  Thus effective education is about much more than facts. It is about building effective capacity to be productive.  Businesses will look for systems that provide students bearing these qualities.  If long-established educational systems don’t provide graduates that are young and prepared to get the job done then business will look elsewhere.  The tipping point will tip, and current educational systems will be forced to abandon old paradigms and old beliefs.  In this perspective The following article, from Wired magazine, is interesting: How a Radical New Teaching Method Could Unleash a Generation of Geniuses.  It emphasizes that we are inherently inclined to learn – when the motivational structure for doing that is correctly orchestrated.  Cramming heads full of academic facts untied to relevant questions is not the correct orchestration.

Overall, education is for the student, not for the educational system.  In most cases the primary goal of education is for the student to gain an ability to do effective work in increasingly specialized areas of focus.  Overall, students want to leave an education system armed with some reassurance that their training means an ability to get a job, and they (quite appropriately) want this reassurance without undue delay or excessive training debt.  Students no longer feel confidence that this is what educational systems produce.  The emergence of the internet is clearly a “game-changer” for education.  Education is now at a tipping point.  In the broad view this is good for the planet.  There is a great deal to know, and the information is changing quickly.  The old paradigm of education is…well…old.  Time for a change.

2 thoughts on “Tipping Point – The Coming Changes in Education

  1. An interesting article.

    I recently went to a seminar where the key note speaker was a Nurse Educator who worked at a university in Australia.

    The theme of his presentation pertained to how educators have to look at how education is being delivered to accommodate the needs of the complexity of the student demographic being multi generational.

    Some key points that stuck with me were –
    – Students now refer to lectures as “word vomit”. This is not derogatory but rather indicates that students want information and they want that information now and in a medium that is specific to their needs. Having to sit hour after hour at prescribed times and a venue to receive this information is not how students want to acquire knowledge. This is not to say they don’t want to do away with access to the lecturer but rather access them on an ‘as required’ basis. It had a lot to say about how students want to control how and when they acquire information.
    – Traditionally the focus was to ‘load’ students with information to permit it to be recalled at the appropriate time. The new direction is to look at helping student’s access information and acquire skills to assimilate and process the information. The use of ‘open text book’ exams in part is indicative of such a direction. It is not taking away from the importance of memory and data recall but rather looks at how to acquire and utilise information to get the required outcome is of perhaps greater import.

    • Nice thoughts David. Thanks for adding them. As you said, the old paradigm was to “load” students but that has become obsolete as an overall strategy. The information simply changes too quickly, and there is too much of it.

      The other day we were sitting around chatting and someone began to reference the three ships Columbus used to get to the Americas. Quickly my mind produced: “The Pinta, Nina, and Santa Maria!” But then I thought, “What a waste. That information is completely irrelevant to any practical thing I do. Why did someone think I should learn that??” I went on to think about how much similar information teachers pounded into my brain as a child, advocating it as “something you need to know because you’ll be tested on it” when actually the information is useless. That sort of teaching needs to go! Notably, while pounding useless facts of this type into my brain the teachers completely ignored the world perspective of why exploration was of value at that time, what else was going on in the world at the same time, or perhaps any of the dilemmas of longitude that plagued early sailors. What children need to learn is useful overall perspectives of life, the human journey, and how to live in the world – not facts they can look up, if the need ever arises.

      Thanks again David.

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