Automation is stripping away jobs from entire industries in the United States — and the pace of job loss is accelerating. Whole segments of the population are forced to work harder for less money. Our education has been stagnating for centuries.
Leaders like Alibaba CEO Jack Ma argue that we are heading for disaster if we continue to train students to compete with machines. Employers, and our society, need to train individuals for the new world of work, where automation will rule.
It’s natural to assume technology will spark a massive change in the way we educate our citizens. It has not just disrupted, but completely remade entire industries in the last decade. Retail, manufacturing, transportation, media, and even hospitality companies are all being deeply reshaped thanks to advances in software from companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Lyft, and others. Even though the internet has put the sum of human knowledge in our pockets, it has so far failed to disrupt, much less solve, the education puzzle.
Schools like the Mark Zuckerberg-backed AltSchool, which touts a personalized learning platform, have not produced improved results so far either. Parents report, in fact, that they have to provide “tutoring to supplement what our kids aren’t learning.” The school decided to close several locations last year.
It was also predicted that Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) would completely change education with all the knowledge that students needed becoming accessible at their fingertips. But we soon realized that MOOCs might not be the silver bullet that education was waiting for. Even the vice president of Udacity, which is among the leading MOOCs, has said that “MOOCs are dead.”
The education crisis cannot be solved by putting students in front of tablets. George Mason University professor of economics Tyler Cowen argues that if humans would follow rules and behave rationally, MOOCs might be the solution. The problem is we don’t. He suggests that students will not learn as efficiently when sitting alone in front of a computer than when surrounded by peers: Students learn better when they are within a community of learners.
Technology might not, this time, be the main source of disruption. This is because education, which is arguably one of our society’s most important industries, might be different: It’s about working with people.
John Hennessy, a former Stanford University president and board member of Google and Cisco, sees promise in the flipped classroom model, in which students consume knowledge online, on their own, and class time is devoted to discussions and interactive problem-solving. The teacher in this scenario would not act as a gateway between knowledge and students (which in the middle ages made sense because of the scarcity of books) but instead act as learning facilitators. Finland, known for having among the best school systems in the world, has already moved toward this approach. Instead of having students sitting passively in front of their teacher listening to lectures and waiting to be questioned, students work on group projects, developing their soft and problem-solving skills.
This concept is also core to project and peer-learning based institutions such as Holberton School, 42, and Epitech. Students learn by working on projects with their peers — there are no formal lectures and no teachers — they acquire knowledge by searching the Internet, reading books, and chatting with their peers. By working in groups, students become mentors; they are able to communicate and listen, developing their soft skills.
As we are entering the fourth industrial revolution, bringing advanced robotics, autonomous transport, and artificial intelligence, the World Economic Forum ranks problem-solving as the top skill for workers to have. And Google reported that its top-performing employees were all exceeding at soft skills.
While regular schools give students the solution and then the problem (the exam), project-based schools do the opposite. By doing so, students develop their ability to problem solve, using their creativity and ultimately becoming self-learners. That produces professionals who can follow and, even better, lead the continuous evolution business must maintain to stay relevant.
Another similar path forward is through apprenticeships, which emphasize learning-on-the-job. The methodology recently received a boost when Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff argued that the U.S. should create five million apprenticeship opportunities within the next five years and President Donald Trump agreed. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos doubled down on this by saying that apprenticeships should not only be for “welders and carpenters.”
Tech companies are also starting to embrace apprenticeships. IBM’s New Collar initiative, Microsoft’s LEAP, and LinkedIn’s REACH program are now filling white-collar positions with apprenticeships — in particular to reach learners who decide against the long and often costly four-year-college route.
Obviously, the education puzzle will not be solved by one type of education that fits us all. We all learn differently, and this diversity should be reflected in what the education industry offers.
So while we should not force students to sit in classrooms to passively take in crumbs of knowledge, we also cannot ask them to learn without guidance, mentorship, and personal attention. We should urge students to explore for themselves, and to learn how to learn for themselves — a life-long skill who everybody will need.
Sylvain Kalache is the cofounder of Holberton School.