We live in an era of momentous change. The industrial revolution feathered out and the information revolution feathered in over the course of the last century and the world is a different place. The digital revolution is transforming every aspect of our lives and economic activity is becoming more and more virtual.
This massive shift in the economic activity of our workforce required and continues to require a retooling of the American worker. Retooling is achieved by re-educating the existing workforce and by reforming the educational system of the future workers. Corporate America has done well with retooling its human resources, offering training, guidance, career paths and so on that facilitate the shift. Our schools, however, don’t appear to be making the grade.
In 2002, UNICEF compared public education in 24 industrialized nations worldwide. The United States ranked 18th amongst its peers. In the 1960s America had the highest graduation rate in the world, now it is struggling to hold onto #19. Why this alarming trend? Let’s consider it for a moment.
Our present educational system traces its roots to a time when the great need was for industrial experts, white and blue collar workers capable of running the machinery that drove the American economy. Industrial thinking is very linear, inputs go through a process and become outputs. Raw materials go in, finished goods flow out. The more standardized a process, the better. Our schools, to put it bluntly, were designed in large measure to produce reliable factory workers. The institutional architecture, the bells ringing on the hour and the standardized curricula created an environment and a mindset that produced an ideal worker for the era.
Enter the information and digital revolution. The world, once highly centralized, now is much less so. The American workforce as a result is now more mobile than ever, job changes often mean geographic changes and the idea of life-long employment one company quickly gave way to workers who change employers on average every two years. An increasing number of the American workforce never visits the office, taking advantage of the opportunity to telecommute, working from home or perhaps a beach somewhere.
The needs of the former age – uniformity, conformity, predictability – are quickly giving way to the needs of our common era, namely: creativity, diversity and adaptability. Sir Ken Robinson, a fascinating and inspiring speaker presented a compelling talk at TED 2010. He argued that education dislocates people from their natural talents and that human resources, like natural resources, tend to be buried deep underground.
Sir Robinson feels that simple reform is insufficient can calls for a revolution in education. A revolution requires innovation, but how do we innovate fundamentally? By challenging what we take for granted, what we think is obvious. Robinson makes the point that the challenge in any revolution is found in the tyranny of common sense. It can be quite difficult to get people to look beyond the model that they have been shaped by and the model in which their lives are deeply woven.
Robinson uses this brilliant quote from Abraham Lincoln to emphasize the point: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.”
Enjoy his presentation:
We, as a nation, tend to be enthralled by the concepts of conformity and linearity, which as I said is the filmy overlay of times gone by. Much like biofilms in nature, these old memes can be hard to shake. Perhaps we can agree on one thing, for starters. Human talent is tremendously diverse. Wouldn’t you agree? I am often amazed at the depth and breadth of talent contained in one person let alone across the spectrum of humanity.
Our education system, to be effective, must meet today’s needs. There is little point in asking W.W.H.M.D? (What would Horace Mann do?) as the world now is a very different place than when Horace Mann instigated educational reforms in Massachusetts that made educational available to all via a new public school system based on the earlier Prussian “common school” model. What must we do now, in our era, based on the unique configuration of factors that we face, to design an educational system capable of creating morally and intellectually strong young adult workers?
Robinson makes the case that the “industrial” model of education must yield to to an “agricultural” model. The need is for an organic model, not a mechanical one. We must create conditions under which children will flourish, just as a farmer or a gardener would a field. We must personalize education so that the inherent and unique configuration of talents can be drawn forth, rather than stamped or painted on as would be the case in the linear, conformist model.
What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
By the way, Sir Ken Robinson has a great website worth checking out. See it here: www.sirkenrobinson.com.
Have a fabulous day!