Education is one of the triumphs of modern civilization. According to census data, over 40% of the U.S. population has an associate degree or higher. With higher education attendance continuing to rise, it’s only a matter of time before half the population has degrees. But is all of this education really serving our needs, either as a society or as a business community?
Stirring the pot of debate
This is not an issue confined within the borders of the U.S.; it can be seen across multiple developed countries and regions. As an example, while every pronouncement of the UK government’s controversial educational secretary, Michael Gove, is stirring a storm of outrage and argument, at least he is triggering debate about education. But he has inadvertently highlighted a fundamental problem: The different sides cannot even agree on what they are arguing about because, as in the U.S., no one is asking what the education system is for.
When we set up a process within a business we ask what it is meant to do. We set it up to achieve those ends, and refine it to ensure that they are met. To do otherwise is to set ourselves up to fail.
This should also apply in education.
To what end
If the education system is to serve the needs of business, then we need to start by asking what those needs are.
Businesses need creative thinkers who can apply their skills to a variety of situations. The markets and the companies that work within them are constantly changing, as shifts in society and technology create a need for constant adaptation. The ability to think creatively, to adapt and apply, to act with initiative is as vital to business success as it is to human fulfillment and creating happy employees.
Interpersonal skills are essential. The ability to empathize with others, to understand their point of view and effectively communicate with them has two big advantages. First, it allows employees to work productively together, creating a successful working environment. Second, it allows employees to understand and communicate with their customers, to hear their needs and to meet them.
Stemming from all of this, employees need the ability to work with the information they are given, whatever that information is. To use it to understand and shape their work.
Another brick in the wall
Sadly, this is not what our education system is built around.
Our system rewards rote learning and rote thinking, using the ideas and solutions of others rather than creating your own. If every assignment is marked on citing past sources, where is the reward for coming up with your own ideas?
We don’t set out to teach interpersonal skills and communication at all, instead acting as if people will learn them by osmosis. But these are difficult, complex areas, and the proliferation of counselors and speaking coaches shows how much value we can gain from training.
As for information, we may talk about teaching how to process it, but we exam on the ability to recall facts, and so that is what the education experience focuses on. We aren’t teaching how to process information, we are teaching a small part of that information, a part which in the Internet age is already available at the push of a button. It’s not the recall of facts that matters, it’s the ability to find and sift them.
Implications and assumptions
There are many implications and assumptions behind our current education system. Some of them are old fashioned, some have emerged over time, but unless they are directly addressed they will continue to shape our education system in unhelpful ways. If we want education to meet the needs of business, then we need to state, clearly and explicitly, what those needs are and build a system designed to meet them.