Moving forward means going back… to school

Jan Kupec Jan Kupec
Principal, Geotechnical – NZ Transport
25 June 2019
6 min read

Ask the average five-year old whether they're an artist, an astronaut or a president-to-be, and chances are good they'll say all three. There's no braver, more formidable force on earth than a child's imagination. Nothing is too out-of-reach for children, not even the stars themselves. Pablo Picasso once said, "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he or she grows up."

Picasso was right. Somewhere between our kindergarten classrooms and the high school podium, we take off our show-and-tell capes, and we put down the paintbrush for good. We stop marvelling at the universe and our infinite capacities to make a mark on it. We go safe and rather boring.

But herein lies the crisis. Never have we needed to unleash the human imagination as we do now. The digital revolution is constantly pulling down the out-of-reach and placing the impossible before our eyes. For us to keep thriving in the innovative darkroom, we will need the same boundless courage, curiosity and willingness to risk that we started with.

This means we need to get back to ground level and have a look inside our classrooms. It's education that will take the next generation into their future, but it's a future that none of us can frankly grasp. Are our schools currently equipped to take us into that future? And, if not, what needs to change – now – so that the future doesn't take us over?

If we're going to flourish in the digital age, we need to reconsider what our schools value as ability and intelligence, and rethink the fundamental principles on which we're educating our children. Today's talk of industrial revolution isn't only digitisational; it should be educational too.

A broken model

Our current model of public education goes back almost two centuries, when industrialisation ushered in a new working class and age of utilitarianism. Khan Academy's Sal Khan explains that learning was based on a Prussian factory model: "age-based cohorts" moved through successive grades along an "assembly line" of standardised curricula with "information being delivered at every point".

The classroom became the ideological and intellectual incubator to breed a new factory workforce. It was impersonal, streamlined and, to a large effect, mechanised. And, although some strides have been made to improve public education models over the past 200 years, Sir Ken Robinson would argue that the model is fundamentally broken.

It serves the circumstances of a previous paradigm, where occupations assumed a high level of permanence and durability, and came encoded with certain skills and knowledge to secure a long-standing career in the field. Your identity formed around measurable, external validations like degrees and job titles, and learning was largely a pragmatic tool to get the job done.

A critical shift

But today, research by the Foundation for Young Australians suggests that young people in the developed world could have more than 17 jobs across five different industries in a single generation.

The age-old question, "what do you want to be when you grow up?", is becoming irrelevant for a future in flux. The way we define ourselves and validate our occupational identities demands a radical shift; from external applications that can be replicated and uniformly applied, to internal processes that are deeply unique and anchored in purpose and passion.

Says future work strategist, Heather McGowan, "This is a shift from 'learning to do' to 'learning in order to continuously learn and adapt'. This is a shift from storing stocks of knowledge to working in flows of emerging knowledge with a transdisciplinary mindset of human and technology collaboration. This is analogous to learning to master a single instrument versus learning to conduct an orchestra."

A new metaphor

So, what does that mean for our schools? Robinson would say we need to change the metaphor before we change curricula. For centuries, we have treated our educational system much like industrialised agriculture – mechanising learning processes so that we can maximise the yield and output of a monocrop culture.

But, Robinson says the metaphor of organic farming is more apt, because it takes a living environment into account. Our job is to cultivate the soil – the conditions under which human flourishing can happen – so that a diversity of talents and intelligences can surface.

Creativity is the process of having original ideas that have value. It's also the third most sought after skill in 2020, according to a World Economic Forum on the Future of Jobs. That's why it should be pulled into every subject – not compartmentalised and relegated to the fine arts subjects that get the curriculum's least amount of airtime.

Whether it's a scientific hypothesis, dance performance or theorem, the same processes of critical thinking and problem solving are at work: the end product must be valuable and original, and require out of the box solutions. To the degree that the classroom breeds this kind of dynamic, interactive engagement, creativity can flourish as a foundational mindset as much as a lifelong methodology to win the future.

A corporate burden

The reality is, nearly half of job tasks may be overtaken by automation within the next two decades, and attributes such as creativity, communication and problem solving will be the business gold. But as it stands, four out of five CEOs say that they are struggling now to find the calibre of talent who can effectively master these softer skills. We need to change the narrative our schools are telling in order to close this crucial gap.

What's more, we need to co-own the problem as local community stakeholders, and frame education as a matter of corporate responsibility. Particularly when it comes to STEM, professionals and organisations would do well to avail their time, talents, and mentorship as strategic long-term investments in their organisations and the overall STEM landscape.

Engineering New Zealand's Wonder Project is a good example of this, connecting STEM professionals and primary school teachers in a programme designed to excite young Kiwi learners towards a future STEM career.

"In the face of an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, education can make the difference as to whether people embrace the challenges they are confronted with, or whether they are defeated by them. And in an era characterised by a new explosion of scientific knowledge and a growing array of complex societal problems, it is appropriate that curricula should continue to evolve, perhaps in radical ways," according to OECD's Learning Framework 2030.

We should not fear the future we can't imagine. But to adopt the kind of brilliance, resilience and cognitive agility, we're going to have to go back to kindergarten to get it.

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Jan Kupec
Written by
Jan Kupec

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