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Winning vs Bridge Building: Why Education as we know it needs a massive shake-up

You are born to parents who could be doctors, lawyers, business executives, or small business owners, and your parents have great hopes that you will become like them. You go through primary school, middle school, high school, and university being told what to study, how to study, and the lucrative careers that await you. If you’re lucky and brave you break the habit and make your own path. If you aren’t brave, you follow the path that was designed for you. There is nothing wrong with either path.

But something bigger needs to be questioned here. What is the purpose of our education? To some it may be about making lots of money, to some it may be about pursuing their own passion, to some it may be about making a difference through their work. There is no correct answer. However, there are outcomes of our choices. It is those outcomes that bring to debate the purpose of our education.

Why are we working hard to be educated? So, that we can win and be the best company, organization, start-up, be the most profitable company, acquire smaller companies and garner market share, and so on so forth? More importantly who gains from this? Do we collectively gain?

This can be argued extensively, however, the current state of the world would tell a completely different story. Inequality, poverty, unfairness, unemployment, “democracy”, authoritarianism, and high levels of pragmatism to the extent where one can only see themselves. Its constantly pushing the world towards a path of growing misunderstandings, division, clash of ideologies, uncertainty, and unhappiness.

The world is inundated with prestigious universities, schools, educational programs, companies, and established international institutions. Most of them have great missions and visions, and reading them can give you goosebumps until you look around, and realize that words are simply words if they aren’t backed up by action.

Having said that this does not mean that we must not acknowledge the fact that humans have made monumental progress through hard work, literacy, education, innovation, creation, and made life better for most of us. However, we must also acknowledge that some parts of the world have made progressive strides forward, while other parts of the world have continuously kept falling into dark times. So, have we really been winning? Have we really built bridges? Far from it.

Looking back at the root cause of the problem

As Seth Godin puts it perfectly, the root cause for most of the problems we face today is our educational system. Education is not the same as learning. Yet our educational structure has been designed like a factory or industrial system with total control and compliance. We put our students through a strict standardized process for a set number of years, then confirm them and send them out into the job market. Students are never taught how to learn but taught all the necessary skills they would need at the workplace to help their company become successful. Does anyone stop to ask students what they really want to achieve? Rarely.

Furthermore, schools, universities put their students through standardized tests and hand me down teaching material that has continuously been used for the last 5-10 years. Almost often a class of 2020 is being taught with the material used and first made the class of 2010. Stop. Think for a moment of your time in university. It is true.

Standardized tests help no one. It is designed for someone to thrive in their 9 am-5 pm job doing the same thing repeatedly. Have we ever wondered why children come to like separate sports, toys, games, movies? Not every child loves football, not every child loves the same cartoon or movie. Why? Think hard! Oh, wait, it's easy. Children take a liking to a specific sport because they get to experience and enjoy it first. No strings attached. Children take a liking to a certain cartoon or movie because they can discuss it with their friends, find common ground and discuss their own version of understanding, also known as peer-to-peer learning. Children like different toys because each child is unique and has their own interests. This is not to say that children need to be given choices immediately as some would argue most can't make choices by themselves or are too young to know what is right. Fair enough. However, why does the same strategy and methodology of education and teaching continue until university? Aren’t students old enough by then?

Schools, universities, and other educational institutes are teaching. But they aren’t helping students learn. They are conducting standardized tests with mandatory requirements to pass an exam not designed for everyone, stopping them from progressing a year if students don’t pass and, in some cases, openly shaming students who aren’t “smart” enough. I think what they ought to be doing is helping students learn in such a manner that students show up to classes because they want to. Not because there is an attendance policy. Create an environment where they can fail safely and learn from what does not work. Helping and facilitating learning that carries meaning for students. Repeat.

The current state of the industrialized education system

Millennials dominate the current workforce. A poll conducted by Gallup 2016 revealed that up to 71% are not engaged in their work and feel uninterested and are likely to switch jobs. Around 60% of millennials in the US are keen to switch jobs. Similarly, a global poll conducted by Gallup found that out of the 1 billion people currently employed only 15% were engaged in their work which means a huge 85% of the global workforce was not happy in their jobs. That cannot be good news for the world. Millennials‘ key reasons were:

  • Misunderstandings with their bosses

  • Older colleagues and sometimes millennial colleagues

  • Type of work

  • Stagnant growth

  • Ethical issues

  • Commute

Barring the argument of commute which has inevitably been thrown into the spotlight due to the pandemic, all of the other reasons are due to generational differences, educational differences, and lack of purpose. This is not to say that we do need to be educated in the same way so that we can get along. But what we are not taught at our business schools and prestigious universities is how to understand people from different walks of life, how to communicate, negotiate and find common ground. It's all about the numbers, isn’t it? How many sales did we hit? What’s your product profit this quarter? How are we planning on increasing sales for next year? Not to mention there are plenty of examples of the biggest companies flouting the laws, using unethical methodologies to sell products and services, aggressive and unethical bosses creating a toxic work culture. Is this what we call winning? Are we really building bridges through our businesses?

From United Airline's shocking behavior of dragging a passenger off-board to an employee dead due to overwork at Pinduodo, from American millennials being disengaged at work to Chinese millennials lying flat on their stomach tired of life’s rat race. Is this what education was meant to produce? Surely, one might argue that these are picked instances only and the remaining millennials are doing fine. While it may be true, it also may not. We do not know until we really know about it. That’s how every dark chapter unfolds, slowly but surely.

What education should look like

I can continue and fill this article up with positive and negative examples but that is not the key. The key is to help the future generation become responsible workers, leaders, teachers, volunteers, parents. The key is to make them realize that winning does not mean high numbers on the leader board at the workplace. Winning is an infinite journey. Winning and building bridges for a life of purpose go hand in hand. All of that begins with education right from the early years until university and beyond. Learning never stops. Here are a few ways we should shake up the education system and forge a better path for generations to come, from the desk of a current university student:

  • Integrating creative thinking and learning workshops from realistic scenarios in society as part of the curriculum and not as an optional or highly expensive option.

  • Giving the arts, dancing, sports, equal importance as maths and science in early childhood education.

  • Replacing some strenuous exams with fieldwork, projects, and or internships. Writing a paper without experiencing the actual work never helped anybody.

  • Integrating cross-cultural communication, negotiation, leadership in an ethical manner.

  • Helping students find their own purpose, not an organization's purpose.

  • Create curriculums that allow students to try, fail and find what they really want, need, and can excel at. Life is not a hundred-meter race. It’s a never-ending marathon. Help them understand that.

  • Facilitating their own version of happiness. Not one that’s been handed down from generations.

I want to leave you with one last thought. In a world that is diving into chaos, kindness, ethics, planning, and brave decision-making can save us. But that cannot happen when we are being educated in the context of a previous century. As times change, we need to change as well. While there is still hope that leaders and educators of today come good on their promises, I for one am already thinking about the future. Creating a beautiful tomorrow starts from today. While some may argue that educators, educational ministers are highly qualified individuals who know what they are doing. I don’t doubt their qualifications but then again, qualifications and degrees never did account for anything much did they? Actions speak louder than words, paper/digital degrees. And the current outcomes of policies, teaching methodologies, and procedures have led to nothing short of confusion. It is of paramount importance for our generation to rethink how we look at winning. Create an education that bridges the world together for the years to come. Yes, it’s going to be hard. But yes, it’s possible. As the late Sir Ken Robinson said “given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed- it needs to be transformed”.

Author: Adit Rastogi


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