It’s a well-trodden path to observe that the school systems of today are not preparing children for the jobs of today, let alone tomorrow. But what changes to our school systems are necessary to address this challenge?
For centuries, schools have been focused on content–to be educated is to be knowledgeable, and to be knowledgeable you have to know a lot. Yet the 21st century has transformed our access to content. In just 20 years, the content of the best libraries has been made available to us through the internet and on mobile devices in a matter of seconds. What’s more, it has been enhanced by videos and interactive learning materials to enable us to engage with that knowledge more easily. Want a university level course on, say, “understanding the neurobiology of everyday life” or “the role of global capital markets”? They are available free and now, provided you have access to a computer (visit www.coursera.org).
The pace and volume of change in just about every major discipline means that lifelong learning is no longer an option, but absolutely essential. However excellent your education was at school, within a few years of entering the workforce, a gap will be opening up between what you need to know, what has recently been discovered, and what you were taught while at school.
There are many opportunities for lifelong learning available at the click of a button, so why is it that many employers still report a “skills gap” when looking for talented members of the workforce?
Taking advantage of lifelong learning opportunities demands certain skills. We need to be motivated to learn, without the constant supervision and support of a teacher. We need to be able to ask questions and relate the knowledge gained to real-life challenges. We need to stick at the challenge even when the work gets hard. We need to be prepared to try something; fail; adapt; then try again until it works. We need to network with other students, sometimes virtually, often across cultures. We need to critically analyse and evaluate the content we find in seconds on the internet, not memorise it. We need to play creatively with ideas and solutions.
Lifelong learning does not begin when you leave school. There is a growing understanding that the gap between the outputs of our education system and the needs of employers are not a failure of the last few years of formal schooling alone, but the cumulative consequence of years of education built upon a foundation set down in early childhood. In other words, the problem–and the answer–starts early. The youngest children have an in-built curiosity to learn and ask questions, to learn through play. When a toddler repeatedly asks “why” or works with other children to create a city using building blocks, they are setting down the basic foundations of inquiry-based, active learning. They are learning by asking their own questions rather than learning rote answers to other people’s questions. This is the foundation of lifelong learning, an approach that should continue throughout school, not stop at the kindergarten.
Being educated is no longer about how much you know, but about having the skills and motivation for lifelong learning so that you can learn new knowledge whenever you need to. It is time to reduce the content demands of national curriculum, and to encourage schools to use some of the time saved to focus on developing the skills for lifelong learning. It is time to measure school success not just by children’s ability to answers exam questions, but also by the extent to which children demonstrate a passion and capability for lifelong learning based around their own questions and challenges. If we did that, then we could have confidence that our schools are preparing children for the jobs of tomorrow–and through our own lifelong learning, we might all know more as well!