Is Education Keeping Up With Us?

It has become abundantly clear in the past few years that our current model of education is not perfectly suited to today’s world. People are funneled into post-secondary institutions regardless of whether they actually need or want to – it’s almost impossible to get a good job otherwise. It has become an expected, essential step in our personal growth, but is it really necessary? Furthermore, is it even beneficial at all anymore?

Accelerating Change

A hundred years ago, a ten-year-old product was still perfectly good and generally up-to-date. The pace of change was moderate; much faster than it was 2000 years ago, but still slow enough to allow for easy adaptation to it.

That often isn’t the case anymore. A ten-year-old cellphone is almost laughably archaic. Self-driving cars are a reality. Manipulation of genomes is widespread to a point that would have been unthinkable in 2002.

Progress builds upon itself and accelerates – is this reflected in our educational system? By the time a child finishes their twelfth grade, the world is radically different from the time they were in the first grade. Did the curriculum change along with it? Is information obsolete by the time it’s ready to be taught? Is it even possible to have a good curriculum in the most rapidly-evolving fields?

Self-Learning

It used to be possible to get a job in a field simply if you knew what to do and how to do it. Now you need a piece of paper with your name on it from an expensive institution. Is that really necessary? Can we learn things on our own?

Take this study in remote Ethiopian villages:

[…] the One Laptop Per Child organization is trying something new in two remote Ethiopian villages—simply dropping off tablet computers with preloaded programs and seeing what happens.

After several months, the kids in both villages were still heavily engaged in using and recharging the machines, and had been observed reciting the “alphabet song,” and even spelling words. One boy, exposed to literacy games with animal pictures, opened up a paint program and wrote the word “Lion.”

Children there had never previously seen printed materials, road signs, or even packaging that had words on them, Negroponte said.

Maybe that’s a way to address this ever-increasing pace of change, by learning on our own. That way we can start learning something almost as soon as it’s discovered and published, rather than waiting for the school to add it to the curriculum, for the textbooks to be printed, for the teachers to be trained… by which time the new discovery has been supplanted by something else.

We’re already seeing a shift away from catch-all programs to narrowly focused (and often free) courses from online sources like Coursera and uDacity. Not only are they more flexible in adapting to new material, but they are often taught by leading experts in the field – the people doing the research in the first place – rather than the more workmanlike educators of most institutions.

Now the biggest obstacle is actually getting recognition for that kind of learning. Precious few employers put much stock in self-learning, preferring the safe choice of hiring the MBA instead. There’s a hundred-plus years of inertia to overcome, but it seems as certain as the way the automobile replaced the horse and buggy. We’ve simply found a faster, more efficient way of getting to our destination.