Ed­u­ca­tion in an un­cer­tain world

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Un­til the In­dus­trial Revo­lu­tion, nei­ther for­mal ed­u­ca­tion nor ad­vances in tech­nol­ogy made much of a dif­fer­ence for the vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple. But as tech­no­log­i­cal progress ac­cel­er­ated, ed­u­ca­tion failed to keep pace, leav­ing vast num­bers of peo­ple strug­gling to adapt to a rapidly chang­ing world and con­tribut­ing to wide­spread suf­fer­ing.

It took a cen­tury for pub­lic pol­icy to re­spond with an ef­fort to pro­vide univer­sal ac­cess to school­ing. In re­cent decades, re­mark­able strides have been made to­ward re­al­is­ing that am­bi­tion world­wide. But in an era when tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion is once again out­pac­ing ed­u­ca­tion, the ef­fort to pro­vide ev­ery­body with an op­por­tu­nity to learn must not only be re­dou­bled; it must also be re­tooled for an in­creas­ingly un­sta­ble and volatile world.

Ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion has been sig­nif­i­cantly broad­ened. The world is no longer rigidly di­vided be­tween rich, welle­d­u­cated coun­tries and poor, badly ed­u­cated ones. The qual­ity of school­ing re­mains a pow­er­ful pre­dic­tor of na­tional in­come over the long term, and many low-in­come coun­tries have be­gun lev­er­ag­ing ed­u­ca­tion in the ser­vice of eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment. As a re­sult, among 80 coun­tries with com­pa­ra­ble data on the qual­ity of learn­ing, GDP per capita now ex­plains only 6% of the vari­a­tion in per­for­mance.

Much work re­mains to be done – even in high-in­come coun­tries. Many oil-pro­duc­ing coun­tries, in par­tic­u­lar, have suc­ceeded in con­vert­ing their nat­u­ral wealth into phys­i­cal cap­i­tal and consumption; but they have failed to build the hu­man cap­i­tal that can sus­tain their economies in the fu­ture. If the high-in­come non-OECD coun­tries equipped their stu­dents at least with very ba­sic skills, they would, as a group, ben­e­fit from added eco­nomic value equiv­a­lent to al­most five times their cur­rent GDP. Even with their abun­dant nat­u­ral re­sources, far greater wealth lies un­tapped in their pop­u­la­tions’ un­de­vel­oped skills.

Ed­u­ca­tion has a much wider i mpact than sim­ply im­prov­ing earn­ings or em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties, which is why it is a com­po­nent of the hu­man de­vel­op­ment in­dex. In all coun­tries with com­pa­ra­ble data, adults with lower lit­er­acy skills are far more likely to re­port poor health, have less trust in their fel­low cit­i­zens, and per­ceive them­selves as ob­jects – rather than ac­tors – in the po­lit­i­cal process. For coun­tries that fail to equip their res­i­dents with the proper skills, tech­no­log­i­cal progress is un­likely to trans­late into eco­nomic growth, and large swaths of the pop­u­la­tion risk lan­guish­ing on the mar­gins of so­ci­ety.

And yet, for­mal ed­u­ca­tion alone is not enough to en­sure greater op­por­tu­nity and pros­per­ity. In many economies, too many un­em­ployed grad­u­ates co­ex­ist with a large num­ber of em­ploy­ers who can­not find work­ers with the skills they need. If in­di­vid­u­als and coun­tries are to con­tinue to reap the ben­e­fits of ed­u­ca­tion, pol­i­cy­mak­ers must fo­cus on the skills re­quired to pros­per in a rapidly chang­ing world.

In the past, ed­u­ca­tion was about im­part­ing knowl­edge. To­day, it is about pro­vid­ing stu­dents with the tools to nav­i­gate an un­cer­tain, volatile world. Un­for­tu­nately, the skills that are eas­i­est to teach and test are also the eas­i­est to au­to­mate or out­source. State-of-the-art knowl­edge re­mains im­por­tant. But the global econ­omy no longer re­wards work­ers for what they know (Google knows ev­ery­thing); it re­wards them for what they can do with what they know.

Ed­u­ca­tion needs to fo­cus on im­prov­ing how stu­dents think, work, and em­brace tech­nol­ogy, and on pro­vid­ing the so­cial and emo­tional skills needed to col­lab­o­rate with oth­ers. In the past, ed­u­ca­tors im­parted knowl­edge by break­ing prob­lems into man­age­able pieces and then teach­ing tech­niques to solve them. To­day, value is of­ten cre­ated by syn­the­siz­ing dis­parate bits of in­for­ma­tion. And for that, work­ers need more than tech­ni­cal knowl­edge; they must be im­bued with cu­rios­ity, open-mind­ed­ness, and the abil­ity to make con­nec­tions be­tween seem­ingly un­re­lated ideas.

In the tra­di­tional ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, stu­dents typ­i­cally learned on their own and were judged in­di­vid­u­ally. But as tech­nol­ogy pro­gresses and once sep­a­rate economies be­come in­ter­de­pen­dent, work­ing with oth­ers is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly im­por­tant. To­day, in­no­va­tion rarely re­sults from in­di­vid­u­als work­ing in iso­la­tion; far more of­ten than not, it is the prod­uct of shar­ing and col­lab­o­ra­tion. Schools need to in­cor­po­rate this new re­al­ity into their cur­ricu­lums, preparing their stu­dents to work across cul­tures and equip­ping them for a world shaped by is­sues that tran­scend na­tional bound­aries. Part of the pol­icy an­swer is pro­mot­ing skills-ori­ented learn­ing through­out work­ers’ lives, rather than fo­cus­ing on ed­u­ca­tion that ends when work be­gins. De­vel­op­ing skills is eas­ier when learn­ing is in­te­grated into the work­place. Do­ing so also al­lows young peo­ple to de­velop hard skills on mod­ern equip­ment and learn soft skills through real-world ex­pe­ri­ence.

Re­tool­ing ed­u­ca­tion for the mod­ern econ­omy will re­quire the in­volve­ment of ev­ery sec­tor of so­ci­ety. Gov­ern­ments will have to de­sign smarter fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives. Ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems will have to pivot to foster en­trepreneur­ship and of­fer bet­ter vo­ca­tional train­ing. Em­ploy­ers will have to in­vest in their work­forces. And la­bor unions can con­trib­ute to en­sur­ing that train­ing trans­lates into bet­ter jobs.

Ed­u­ca­tion is in­creas­ingly a col­lec­tive en­ter­prise, and this must be re­flected in the skills it pro­vides to grad­u­ates. Ul­ti­mately, how­ever, the fu­ture of ed­u­ca­tion will de­pend on in­di­vid­u­als and their will­ing­ness to take ad­van­tage of learn­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties and in­vest in their own fu­tures.

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