Here Comes The Future Of Education. Are We Ready?

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It’s not enough to just worry about how your revenues are going to look at the end of this quarter, and it’s also not enough to be thinking about how your business is going to adapt to new realities in the coming years. We need to take a serious step back and also analyse the state of education, and what it’s going to mean (and look like) in the future.

None of us are going to have any modicum of success if we can’t hire, develop and nurture the right talent out of school. It’s also going to be increasingly challenging if those young people are not prepared for the new realities of the new workplace.

While in New York City recently for a series of meetings, I was introduced to a senior publishing executive who was intrigued by the topic of my forthcoming book (Six Pixels of Separation, expected in September). It turns out said executive has a son who is about to complete his MBA at an Ivy League school. The problem (according to this industry executive) is: "Where is he going to work? All of those jobs are either gone, or people with tons more experience are willing to do them for a fraction of what they were paying only six months ago." It’s not an uncommon concern, and the obvious fear in this father’s tone of voice is becoming much more apparent in conversations with other business professionals who have young adult children about to enter the workforce.

The reality is that the education system is going through some of the most dramatic changes it has faced since the industrial revolution, and schools are struggling to stay ahead and to keep their teaching as up-to-date and relevant as possible.

And with all of these dramatic changes in the economy, universities are even more strapped when it comes to funding new technology, bringing in the right people to teach with it, and providing a high level of results. It’s an indictment on how our society operates, and it’s going to hit businesses bottom line this year.

Sir Ken Robinson is widely regarded as one of the leading thinkers on the topic of education, creativity, leadership and innovation. In his must-see presentation at the TED conference a few years back (you can view it below or right here: TED – Sir Ken Robinson – Do Schools Kill Creativity?), he stated that young adults entering the post-secondary school system today will statistically be working at a job that does not even exist today.

The world is changing that fast.

There are educational institutions and teachers doing everything they can to keep their students either ahead of the curve or, at the very least, using newer tools and technology to inform and educate.

Another great story from Robinson’s TED talk is about a young girl, Gillian, who struggled in school back in the ’30s. She just couldn’t concentrate. If it were 2009, this child would have probably been diagnosed as having some form of ADHD. Her mother took her to see a specialist. Here’s how Robinson describes what happened next to little Gillian:

"As they [the doctor and mother] went out of the room, he turned on the radio sitting on his desk. When they were out of the room, he said to the mother, ‘Just stand and watch her.’ The minute they left, she was on her feet, moving to the music. They watched for a few minutes, and he turned to her mother and said, ‘You know, Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn’t sick. She’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school’."

Little Gillian is actually Gillian Lynne – the famed choreographer behind Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. Her mom wound up sending her to dance school with other people who had to "move to think," as Lynne explains the story. Robinson concludes: "She eventually auditioned for the Royal Ballet School and had a wonderful career at the Royal Ballet and became a soloist. She later moved on, founded her own company, and met Andrew Lloyd Webber. She’s been responsible for some of the most successful musical theater productions in history, she’s given pleasure to millions, and she’s probably a multi-millionaire. Somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down."

It’s not that more kids should be dancers and not thinkers. It’s that schools were (and still are) very much built like factories.

Boys and girls, all the same age, sitting at desks, in a row, all expected to learn the same things at the same pace. In recent weeks, the New York Times ran two interesting news items: The first, Students Stand When Called Upon, and When Not, is about a school near Minneapolis where kids are learning from new school "desks" that allow them to stand while they work. "Teachers in Minnesota and Wisconsin say they know from experience that the desks help give children the flexibility they need to expend energy and, at the same time, focus better on their work rather than focusing on how to keep still."

The second story, In Web Age, Library Job Gets Update, highlights Stephanie Rosalia, a school librarian at a elementary/middle school in Brooklyn, who is working with students by showing them how to use PowerPoint, build blogs, and much more. The library is becoming a multimedia centre that is blending how to best use Wikipedia along with knowledge that comes in the more traditional, paper format.

There are many examples of how schools – at all levels – are doing everything they can to update not just the computer labs, but the new reality of a world where professionals are working from anywhere and from everywhere.

The bigger question is this: Are young people really getting the right education for this brave new world, and how ready is business for the next wave of employees who work virtually, collaboratively, on their iPhones, and – to a certain extent – without paper?

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business – Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:

Montreal Gazette – Educators must embrace change.

Vancouver Sun – Here comes the future: Is education ready?


  1. the future? as J.Jarvis says in ‘WWGD?’ atoms are a drag. We can already learn anywhere, anytime. Schools in the future will only serve one (important) purpose – to facilitate face to face and other human experience. They will learn how to differentiate themselves on that and leave the brain stuff to others.

  2. Mitch,
    I got the kid’s report cards yesterday. There is no future in education.

  3. Are children getting the right education? I think the knee jerk reaction would be to say, “No, they are not. They’re in for the fight of their lives.” But in reality – they’ll probably do just fine.
    Computer science didn’t exist once, nor did rocket science. Cell phones and telephones both were invented. The history humanity has one common trait, it adapts.
    Yes, children of today will have to adapt faster than any other generation – but so did ours, so did our parents. As as much as they have to adapt and learn, they have that much technological support to help them along.
    So. Are people getting the right education? Perhaps. But in the end it doesn’t matter. Our kids WILL find a way to manage. They always do.

  4. Have you seen Dr. Schmidt on Charlie Rose? There is a brief piece which may lend some insight into Google’s view of education.
    The interview as a whole is also interesting if only as a sign of the top guy at Google’s willingness to admit that the internet is not a replacement for life, but rather a tool meant to enrich it.

  5. Ken Robinson is spot on. The other half of the equation is that the education system currently sees no internal motivation to change.
    Principals are not viewed as leaders (historically) they do run the school and boss the teachers but that is not the same as a leader.
    When was the last time a teacher/principal lost their job because they failed the students they teach? When was the last time a teacher could actually fail a child (without a parents permission)?
    The education profession is made up of so many individuals, that it will need to be these individuals who decide to change it at ground level. To do this they need to be/feel empowered. To be empowered there needs to be propper leadership.

  6. Education goes beyond the hours spent in school. I agree with Jim, schools teach sociability.
    The world we build for our own children is our responsibility as parents. It’s up to us to watch for the clues, stimulate their interests and creativity. The early signs of artists are always there, clearly visible.
    As for Gillian Lynne’s ADHD near miss…”Labels are for cans, not for people” ~Anthony Rapp

  7. I watched this video a bit ago with similar concerns Mitch. Think about the fact that change is accelerating all around us in the business world, motivated by the death and birth of industries. I think it is good though and hear me out – the smartest of those graduating will emerge as leaders and inspire a new generation of businesses to develop. No sympathies for these MBAs that don’t have a personal plan, time to look at the world and figure out where you fit in.

  8. We have seen the progression (or regression) of universities in essence becoming trade schools, where knowledge and information trumps over the learning and development of critical thinking skills (including the fostering of creativity). With the pace of change moving exponentially, it is impossible to create a knowledge base in school that will equip a graduate for the challenges facing the world.

  9. Here in South Africa, education has taken a turn for the worse. In what appears to be a move with the times, we’ve adopted OBE: outcomes-based education, where the answer is more important than the method. On the one hand, it’s great because its aim is to teach kids to think independently. On the other had, it’s horrendous because they act without thought for the process.
    The thing is that like a pro-sports team, you can’t succeed in the majors unless you’ve built a strong foundation of basics. Take basketball: passing, shooting, stealing, dribbling need to be perfected before moving on to the trickier stuff. Now say you can shoot a 3-pointer from anywhere on the court but you can’t play defense or dribble without travelling. You’ll be ok for a while, but as a one-trick pony, you’re not gonna last long.
    The same is true for education (and personally, I feel the current system is outdated and ineffectual). You need to master the basics first. So nail the 3 R’s and once they’ve got that down, expose them to career choices. Teach them the rote stuff through junior school. And treat high school for what it should be: life preparedness. Expose them to career options, to life skills and continuously assess them to help them figure out what they need to do to get where they want to go.
    Give them context for what they’re learning. If a child shows no interest in Shakespeare or trigonometry or REDOX reactions, then rather find something she is interested in and teach her that.
    Teachers need to step up and realise that it’s not about what’s in the textbook…it’s what’s in the kid’s goals for her life. Do we know what we want to be at 16? Maybe. Maybe not. But with the proper guidance, maybe the next generation will. And kids who get on that road earlier can succeed sooner.
    PS: Messrs. Eaton, Russell and Stassen – if you gentlemen ever read this, here’s a heartfelt thank-you for showing me the way. I am forever in your debt.

  10. I think there are some schools who are trying to remain relevant and introduce innovative technologies and ideas to students. Unfortunately, these are usually private schools or public schools in good areas.
    I do agree with the poster who said that we as parents are also responsible for our children’s education. If we see something lacking in the schools, parents should teach these voids at home.

  11. Albert Einstein said something like – Education is what you remember years after the school…

  12. Is the question “What should happen?” Or “What is likely to happen?” The answer to the first question is that technology changes everything with regards to optimality, even if it’s only determining which people are the best teachers. The answer to the second question is that very little is likely to change in K-12 and higher education anytime soon because schools and colleges and universities aren’t subjected to the kind of competitive (market) forces that mandate radical changes (adapt or lose customers). That’s not an necessarily an argument for vouchers; it’s an argument that better mousetraps are quite capable of being ignored when institutions *can* ignore them.

  13. When you come to think of it, education lead generation companies also have the responsibility. They must be able to match prospects to the right schools, courses, or programs. That is why it is very important that one practices proper lead tracking to determine the level of interest of the lead and the possible offer that would be suited to him.

  14. First of all, thanks for raising the question Mitch! I’d love for you to give this issue more “air-time” as well since it will impact us all in the long-term and social media can play a huge role in formal education.
    Since I teach at a business school, I’ll stir the pot a bit and say that any significant and widespread change will take a very long time. After all, most universities have no real incentive to change – status quo “works”.
    Am I wrong? Well then, who is demanding change? Businesses? Really? Many are focused on credentials and see the real value of schools in simple terms: “filter” and “select” the top talent and then present them at a nice cocktail reception. They know that top people will succeed no matter what. Oh, and company-specific training is cheap. Students? Well, most of them genuinely want to learn, but they are often turned off in frustration (especially from being read to from PowerPoint). They also tend to be focused on the brand reputation of the school and the quality of the suits at the noted open-bar reception. The public? Are we?
    If nobody demands it, will it come from the universities themselves? Looking at the incentive structure, it is not likely to happen very quickly. After all, most significant performance measurement for faculty at large universities is often publication “production” (publishing in reputable journals, etc). Yes, this increases knowledge in the particular field. But no, it generally doesn’t lead to meaningful innovation in education.
    Change will happen, but slowly. Personally, I think the way forward in education is
    – more collaborative (including with the world outside the university – imagine!),
    – more flexible, and
    – more focused on critical thinking and problem solving.
    If anyone knows of some interesting projects with social media and business education, please share – I’d love to know!

  15. The future of education is exciting and will evolve – either by choice or have it’s hand forced – but it will change.
    Our children speak internet as their first language, it is the way that they intuitively seek out information and learn. This now-native user generated and user motivated dynamic will see major societal shift – especially in education.
    In keeping with the evolutionary rule of survival of the fittest, the current military-style hierarchy of copying by rote and learning a prescription will evolve into a format that is more consistent with these digital natives.
    Collaboration is key, as mentioned in the comments above, but also key is empowerment. Education needs to communicate the empowerment of participation.
    Ricardo Semler has some interesting things to say on education. He is famous for his non-conventional leadership style and approach to his staff in his successful business Semco in Brazil. He is now applying this approach to business to education, questioning the need to force children to learn when they don’t want to. He is advocating instead working on a PULL instead of PUSH model. His belief that all children want to learn, and that the objective should be to frame learning as an enjoyable act of discovery rather than a punishment and hardship to be endured.
    He speaks on his philosophy in education on youtube – if Ken Robinson’s ideas resonate then Semler’s should also.

  16. I think there is a divide between ‘ivory tower’ education like schooling and some university courses and education in an MBA where the professors are engaged in the business process.
    Certainly in every school I’ve seen all /most teachers do and ever have done is teach, so how can they groom pupils to do anything else in the world?
    the most relevant teacher I’ve known is someone whose done a lot of other things before arriving at teaching.

  17. I have a 5 year-old who should be in pre-school. I am depressed when I consider his upcoming schooling career. I don’t think it’s worth our time. He needs to learn to think, have an opinion based on objective/subjective reasoning (and know the difference), be responsible for making decisions and following them through, and be able to articulate his desires, etc.
    What kind of a parent would I be if my only involvement in his education was looking at his report card? I’m prepared to help him everyday, I just have to find the right process, etc.

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