What Now? Redefining Education for the 21st Century

The iPhone was introduced just 12 years ago and has radically changed our lives. In a short time, we have become dependent on millions of apps for daily living. (How did we survive without Google Maps, iTunes, FaceTime, Uber, and Instagram?) Technology has also dramatically redefined the workplace, with project-focused networks replacing corporate ladders. We have all had to adapt–that is, except our schools. With their bureaucratic structures, organized like the DMV, they can’t hope to keep current with the astounding pace of change. Even if teachers went into the business world to learn new systems and technologies, these would be outdated by the time they returned to teach them. Our children need to be prepared for life in our continuously transforming world. What now? 

The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” – Dan Millman, Way of the Peaceful Warrior

When our landline phone systems became limited by global expansion, we did not double down on improving landlines. Instead, we built an entirely new cellular system. We need to build the equivalent of the cellular network for education, only this network involves humans–living and working in the community–rather than cell towers. We already have the physical space needed in the form of libraries, community centers, businesses, parks, and most of all, shopping malls. 

We have always adapted to economic changes by building new systems and this time, it will be no different. In 1900, agriculture represented 41% of the workforce and by 2000 it was 1.9%. As people moved to factories and eventually corporations, we developed our current school system to prepare workers. But now, with the rapid advancements in technology, we are unmoored from traditional educational pathways–and it has happened in a single generation. 

Like pioneers, we must band together to prepare students to adapt to this new economy, while schools undergo significant restructuring. Parents, businesses, and community leaders must take responsibility–individually and collectively–for building a community-based ecosystem that helps students develop vital skill sets (adaptability, collaboration, creativity, tech-savvy, critical thinking) and gain exposure to the real world. 

Schools have a role, but they cannot be the center of what we define as education. Education happens everywhere, in a myriad of forms, and each student will respond differently depending on their interests and individuality. The focus on mass-producing a single type of standardized smartness that fits every child, based on their age, has done untold damage to millions of children and left them ill-prepared for life in the new economy.  

In order to prepare students, we need to focus on four essential tasks: 

1. Create work-based education opportunities at local businesses and organizations.

We must look at every child in our community as “our” child.  Internships, apprenticeships, part-time jobs, and shadowing programs can expose students to new technologies, while at the same time providing them with mentors and the beginning of crucial networks. In order to engage learning, these must be centered around the student’s interests and promote responsibility as well as civic engagement. 

Businesses recognize the disconnect between our education system and the economy and are feeling the constraints. In a recent survey, only 11% of business leaders felt colleges were preparing students for the workplace while 98% of Chief Academic Officers thought they were adequately handling the task. Colleges, like the school system, have been slow to respond to economic change. 

Allowing students to gain skills and explore potential work pathways before committing to college is critical. The IowaBig program in Cedar Rapids–initiated by the business community–offers a successful prototype. Students attend high school in the morning and then work on real-world projects in the afternoon.  It involves five high schools and three school districts and has unified the entire area. 

2. Develop vocational training programs in the community rather than reintroducing them into school systems.

In addition to those currently offered, we need programs targeting “new collar” jobs in healthcare, manufacturing, and information technology. The demand for healthcare technicians is as high as expertise in  3-D printing, robotics, cybersecurity, blockchain, and cloud development. Of course, traditional trades like electrical, plumbing, and welding are in high demand and need training centers. These community-based programs can be up and running more quickly and efficiently than if they are under the school’s umbrella.   

Empty shopping mall space would be ideal for vocational and new collar training programs. These could be located alongside co-working spaces (like WeWork) to facilitate apprenticeships and internships. Students taking proven online programs could benefit from the physical location to collaborate and create community. Numerous training programs are offered through Udacity, Coursera, and edX for the most in-demand new skills–data science, UX design, digital marketing, etc. Additionally, boot camps, extension courses, apprenticeships, and community college certificates could be incorporated into the community-based ecosystem. 

Alternative pathways are not a consolation prize for those not going to college. They are being created to fill a severe shortage of workers with the specialized skills needed to grow our economy. The imbalance of supply and demand for these workers is keeping wages high and causing companies to revise their hiring criteria.

 The field of cybersecurity offers an excellent example. Fifteen major companies including Apple, Facebook, Google, IBM, and PwC are working to fill 3 million cybersecurity job openings over the next two years by dropping the requirement for a college degree. Currently, colleges produce only one-tenth of the workers needed. A 6- to 12-month certification can open the door and salaries in the field average $84,000.

3. Encourage every member of the community to contribute to the ecosystem.

Community organizations can develop transportation systems and spaces for the human network to be connected. School administrators can help coordinate access for students. Parents can role model what it means to be a fulfilled adult and a positively engaged citizen. Our courage and efforts will be needed to help our children, as well as neighboring children, navigate the new ecosystem.

4. Integrate social infrastructure into the community.

This will alleviate some of the physical and emotional isolation felt by the 3 out of 4 students who don’t go directly to college or who drop out and return home. Schools act as silos, not only in relation to learning and the real world but also in terms of social interaction. Our society has become situationally-connected through intense school and extracurricular activities which can leave us adrift when they end. 

We need to rebuild social infrastructure in our communities to provide support and lifelong learning opportunities for ourselves and our children.  This new ecosystem can become the “town square” where we interact around varied interests and activities such as learning a new skill or working in a community garden. 

Pointing fingers at teachers (who take the brunt of our frustration and the system’s failure) and schools does little to solve the issue of economic disruption. Each of us is responsible for our children’s transition to this new economy. By connecting students to real-world projects, experiences, and mentors, we can create an educational ecosystem that allows for different pathways and choices–one that responds to the needs of our economy, fits student individuality, and allows for financial viability. In this environment, whether or when a student goes to college would not matter. They would have the social support and freedom to develop into the best version of themselves. In the end, isn’t that the goal of education? 

Leave a Reply