It’s a well-trodden path to observe that not all school systems of today are appropriately preparing children for the jobs of today, let alone tomorrow. However, what changes to our school systems are necessary in order to address this challenge?
For centuries, schools have been focused on content; to be educated is to be knowledgeable, and to be knowledgeable you have to know a lot. Yet the 21st century has transformed our access to content. In just 20 years, the content of the best libraries in the world are now available to us through the Internet and on mobile devices in a matter of seconds. What’s more, it has been enhanced by videos and interactive learning material in order to enable us to engage with that knowledge more easily.
The pace and volume of change in just about every major discipline now means that lifelong learning is no longer an option, but absolutely essential. However excellent your education was at school, within a few years of entering the workforce, a gap will be opening up between what you need to know, what has recently been discovered, and what you were taught while at school.
There are many opportunities for lifelong learning available at the click of a button, so why is it that many employers still report a “skills gap” when looking for talented members of the workforce?
Taking advantage of lifelong learning opportunities demands certain skills. Students need to be motivated to learn, without the constant supervision and support of a teacher. Students need to be able to ask questions and relate the knowledge gained to real-life challenges. Students need to stick at a challenge even when the work gets hard. Students need to be prepared to try something; fail; adapt; then try again until it works. Students need to think creatively using various ideas and solutions. Finally, students need to be able to critically analyse and evaluate the content that is found within seconds on the Internet, rather than simply memorise it.
Lifelong learning does not begin when students leave school. There is a growing understanding that the gap between the outputs of our education system and the needs of employers are not a failure of the last few years of formal schooling alone, but the cumulative consequence of years of education built upon a foundation set down in early childhood. In other words, both the problem and the answer start early. The youngest children have an in-built curiosity to learn and ask questions. When a toddler repeatedly asks “why?” or works with other children to create something using building blocks, they are setting down the basic foundations of inquiry-based, active learning. They are learning by asking their own questions rather than learning rote answers to other people’s questions. This is the foundation of lifelong learning, an approach that should continue throughout school, not just stop at kindergarten.
Being educated is no longer just about how much you know, but about having the skills and motivation for lifelong learning, so that one can learn new knowledge whenever you need to. By reducing the content demands of the national curriculum, schools could be encouraged to use some of the time saved in order to focus on developing the skills for lifelong learning. School success should be measured not just by children’s ability to answer exam questions, but also by the extent to which children demonstrate a passion and capability for lifelong learning based around their own questions and challenges. By doing that, then we could have confidence that our schools are preparing children for the jobs of tomorrow; and through our own lifelong learning, we might just all know more as well!