By Richard Worzel, C.F.A.
“Lots of people claim that the education system needs to be radically changed, but when I challenge them to tell me how they would change it, I never get any answers.” This challenge was recently thrown at me by the Deputy Minister (“DM”) of Education for one of Canada’s provincial governments.
I had just ended a presentation on moving our education system from a 19th century mass-production model to one that prepared students for the 21st century. The audience was a group of about 300 provincial civil servants from different ministries. Afterwards, I met with deputy ministers of three ministries for a private conversation. This was when the challenge was presented. Fortunately, I’ve been writing this column for 17 years now, and have been thinking about the future of education even longer so I was prepared to respond.
First, I agreed when he said that there are lots of good things happening all over the country in education. There are bright, capable educators doing innovative things, both with and without technology. However, my point to the DM was that few of these initiatives are making much of a difference beyond individual schools. There’s no cross-fertilization or sharing of best-practices. As a result, these initiatives are not doing much to raise education results on average. Therefore, I would create an online community for educators across the country and around the world to share thoughts on what works and what doesn’t work, on new approaches to curricula, courseware, and educational software. This website would also allow educators to trade and rate new tools, software, and programs, much in the same ways as users of Amazon or TripAdvisor. Along with this, I would initiative a national program to encourage innovation in education by teachers and put some cash behind it in conjunction with private sector companies. I want teachers to come up with innovative ways of educating students and to publicize these efforts with the potential to have them commercialized. If they become successful, I would make sure the innovative teacher got a significant royalty. The DM had a problem with this, commenting that it would be hard for the public to swallow the idea of a public employee getting rich on the government’s dime. I acknowledged his point, but said that providing incentives to teachers to innovate was the best way to produce real world change. Teachers are the ones on the front lines and know what works and what doesn’t. Therefore, perhaps a system could be worked out where profits are split by the organization that commercializes a given innovation, the provincial government, the school board, and the teacher, but I would make sure that the teacher could make significant money if they introduced significant advances. I’m not sure I convinced him on this, but I remain convinced.
Next, I would take the best ideas and try them out with young students in designated schools. Unlike so-called “experimental schools,” that try novel approaches, but whose successes are never replicated elsewhere, and are therefore largely irrelevant, the purpose of these schools will be to produce superior results that can be repeated throughout a provincial education system. And by starting with young, incoming students, I don’t have to retrain students out of old ways of doing things. Then, every year, I move the new system up a year, in effect growing the new system so that it gradually replaces the old.
The focus of my new system would be to tailor a customized curriculum to each student based on their interests. At senior grades, I would encourage an ever-increasing amount of self-directed learning, with teachers acting not as lecturers, but as tutors, mentors, and trouble-shooters to assist students where needed. In the younger grades, I would recommend a higher proportion of teachers than today, because the primary task would be to identify each student’s unique needs. These needs would include the learning strategies that would work best for them, their particular interests, abilities, talents, and emotional intelligence. The purpose in learning these things would be first, to fashion a pathway through the education system that would use their interests to lead them through the broad range of subjects they need to know in order to both exalt and educate their spirits and to enable their abilities in the marketplace. Next, each student would be matched with empathetic teacher-tutors who know how to get the best out of them. This would entail a lot more evaluation of individual students than we do today, but I see this as critical to empowering them for the future.
Eventually, each student would be studying a unique curriculum, design their own projects, and work on their own or in self-assembled teams that might include people from outside school or from other parts of the world. With communications technology being what it is, there is no reason to restrict a student’s access to only those people who live nearby.
Finally, I see schools extending their mandate beyond the education of children, becoming, in effect, the centre of their communities. If schools only educate children, then the future of education is one of continuing downsizing, budget cuts, and school closings, as the number of children continues to dwindle. But education is critical to the future of our society at all levels. If we permit this valuable resource to fade away, then we are doing ourselves a huge disservice.
As a footnote, I commented that I also saw a global opportunity in education for Canada. Among developing countries, there is a real thirst for quality education. If we can create software, courseware, distance learning techniques, and curricula that are transportable and online, then we can sell these things to school systems around the world. In commercial terms, Canadian education has a very high brand value globally. If we offer Canadian education, perhaps starting with people who want to immigrate here, and back it up with diplomas from Canadian governments for successful completion of curricula requirements, then we can, I’m convinced, make enough money globally to pay for our entire education system here at home.
And that really got the DM’s attention.
During our very animated conversation, we started in a state of what might be called, polite skepticism progressed through interested engagement, and ended in what I perceived to be excited agreement. Even though school enrollments are dropping in most parts of Canada, the future of our education system looks, to me, more exciting than at any time in our history if we take on the challenge of reinventing what education is, and how it’s delivered. We can lead the world in the most critical revolution of the 21st century – and why shouldn’t we?
Richard Worzel is Canada’s leading futurist, and one of the most sought-after professional speakers in the country. He offers to speak to high school students for free, as his schedule allows. Contact him through TEACH Magazine, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.