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Jeremy Chivers

Degree:

Diploma in Strategy and Innovation

Location:

United Arab Emirates

Industry:

Consulting

Year:

2018

By Jeremy Chivers

Education institutions are teaching the wrong things in the wrong way

So says the conclusion to a recent report I edited as a member of a team of ‘21st century globalists’ examining the knowledge, skills and attitudes required by learners to survive in this most transformative of centuries, and to thrive in economies that will be increasingly automated, integrated, and data driven. We considered whether global education is currently correctly geared to deliver. And after a series of conversations with leading education thinkers worldwide, we concluded that it is not.

We found that learning needs to be more collaborative, more digital and more human. And with a greater emphasis on the ‘how’ we learn, rather than the ‘what’ we learn. A balance between head, hand and heart, and a paradigm shift in learning goals that is echoed by, amongst others, the World Economic Forum, and the Pew Research Centre. You can read our report at globallearninggoals.com.

This conclusion may well puzzle many hard working parents, who save hard to send their children to the ‘best’ schools and universities, so they can secure the degree certificates they believe will stand out, as employers sift through hundreds, or indeed, thousands of CVs. It is a conclusion that will likely frustrate teachers and faculty, who design curricula and courses, with one eye on the relevance of content to the workplace of the present, and the other on their institutions’ rankings in league tables, in an ever tightening race towards the productivity frontier and competitive convergence.

But this is a conclusion that will not surprise many young learners, who wonder why they are forced to sit in classrooms, memorising lists of their country’s kings, queens, or presidents. To chant the dates of significant, but long forgotten, conflicts and conquests. To recall obscure principles of biology and chemical formulae, and to craft crib sheets for literary criticism. And it is a conclusion that will definitely not come as a surprise to those pioneering job creators pushing the boundaries of the data driven frontiers of the digital economy. Increasingly less concerned with where you get your degree, and more interested in whether you can work collaboratively and proactively, and adapt to new methodologies and skills throughout your ‘career’. And it is in this context that students are increasingly questioning ‘traditional’, classroom-based, three year university degrees, and looking instead to the almost limitless learning opportunities emerging online. Whether delivered by accredited bricks and mortar learning institutions, commercial providers, or mass open online courses, or even learning produced content, such as YouTube tutorials.

And so it is somewhat ironic, or perhaps even contradictory, therefore, that I write this in the week that I head up to Oxford University to begin a postgraduate diploma in strategy and innovation, at the Said Business School. Am I not ignoring the conclusions of our own report? Am I not like all those parents who understand the need for change, but in practice still want their kids, or in this case, me, to go to the ‘best’ university? Have I talked the talk, but not walked the walk? First some background.

I am now in my mid 40s. I have twenty years professional experience under my belt. And perhaps unusually, all twenty of them related to my specific fields of study. My bachelor’s degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies kept me gainfully employable for the first ten years, in the Middle East. I made very good use of my language proficiency and understanding of the region’s politics, history and culture.  My master’s degree in conflict analysis allowed me to build new knowledge and skills onto this foundation, and was extremely relevant for the five years or so after that. As the internet developed, I added a smattering of distance learning courses in management and development to my CV, to meet opportunities for the more senior positions that have rounded out my second decade in the workplace. With each ‘phase’ of my career, the institution where I had studied mattered as much to my employers as the subject. So in that sense, I have followed a fairly traditional university based education pathway, and one that has remained unchanged for hundreds of years.

So having started by saying traditional education is now failing learners, why am I turning back to a bricks and mortar university? What is it that I think that only Oxford University can give me, that requires my hard earned cash, and a return to the lecture theatre, and paper and pen exams in white tie and black gown. All this to obtain a piece of paper inscribed with a subject, grade, and the emblem of the three crowns, and the seven-sealed red leather book proclaiming that ‘the Lord is my light’. A piece of paper that, our own report argues, an increasing numbers of 21st century tech employers, such as Amazon and Google, are less and less likely to ask applicants to even mention during their recruitment process. Preferring instead their own in-house methods of testing knowledge, skills and attitude. So why am I not just dipping into online resources from the comfort of my own home, to refresh my skills?

There are three reasons. Firstly, a mea culpa. Although I fully embrace the essential ethos of lifelong learning, I am may be too old to learn new things in new ways myself, as I prepare for my next twenty years in this evolving workplace. Perhaps when it comes to my own money and my own education, like parents the world over, I too want the reassurance of an accredited qualification from a university perceived as one of the best in the world. In which case, then this is definitely contrary to the values of our report. But I have learnt that life consists of choices that are more often shades of grey, rarely black and white.

Secondly, and more importantly, if our report is ringing the alarm to warn of a digitised, data driven future that requires jobs that we haven’t even invented yet, and skills that we don’t yet know how to teach, and that this reality is coming regardless of whether we prepare the next generation appropriately or not, then I want to see first hand what the brightest minds at universities like Oxford are currently doing about it. How does a taught, postgraduate course in strategy and innovation approach this future, and what does it deliver of relevance to those thinking about ways to best address the rise of the robots, and the coming workplace revolution?

But thirdly, and arguably, most importantly, how can our project seek to convince employers, education institutions and parents alike, to build the kinds of coalitions we will need to design learning goals that are truly global, and truly appropriate? Learning that can equip future generations on the move. And that can best prepare them for a transformation in working practices that will be as profound as that which preceded it, in the shift from the rural to the industrial. How can we do this if we ourselves do not have the understanding, the language and the tools to clearly and convincingly make our case?

That is why, over the next year, as something of a poacher turned gamekeeper, I will be working my way through modules on strategy, entrepreneurship, innovation and globalisation, to apply new skills and knowledge to developing and framing the theories that Felin and Zenger remind us are critical to identifying and addressing ‘previously unrecognised problems’, in education, in diplomacy and consensus building, in youth leadership, and in community development in the digital age. The kinds of challenges outlined in our report.

I hope by the end of the course I will be able to revisit our original conclusion, and to argue convincingly that there is still a place for bricks and mortar learning, amongst a range of emerging learning strategies. And to show how universities like Oxford are putting the theories of Porter (HBR, 2000) et al into practice. How they are reinforcing their unique value offerings to learners, making trade-offs to maintain their competitive advantage, and deepening and broadening the ‘fit’ amongst their nested activities to ensure their own relevance and sustainability as a learning provider that is fit for the 21st century.

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