So, here we are! We entered the 21st century and it sucks. Suicide rates are going up in teenagers, science killed our Gods and artificial intelligence is taking our jobs. Plus, we now know: Sleeping with a celebrity porn star will not prevent you from remaining the president of the United States. So our value system is going down the toilet too. Somehow, it feels like we are going through some strange transition. But a transition to what? Let’s see!
I don’t know about you but I hated school. I have grown up in an insignificant town somewhere in the North of Bavaria. Going to high school wasn’t something I enjoyed. For starters, I wasn’t part of the cool kids in class and had to sit next to the nerds, probably because I was nerdy myself. My mum up decided on the selection of my clothes until I was 15 and they were not cool choices. I struggled a lot, sitting in class endlessly for six hours straight. Perhaps, I was an undiagnosed ADHD but I constantly felt like getting up and having a break from being broadcast to. Somehow, I graduated from school though and ended up in university. Here, it wasn’t much better except I was an adult now and the system felt less rigid. I could turn up whenever I wanted to as long as I passed the exams.
Sitting in file and rank at school seems to be something very unnatural to children. So, why are we doing it? To understand it we need to trace back in history. In my last article, I mentioned this American dude called Frederic Taylor. I don’t know why I keep obsessing about him but you need someone to blame for our misery. And he can’t defend himself since he has been dead for like a 100 years.
Actually, he was probably the right guy at the right time. He lived from the 2nd part of the 19th until the early part of the 20th century. He was the impersonation of the industrial age. Frederic introduced what now is known as scientific management. In a nutshell, he observed how workers worked in factories and followed a rigid scientific approach on how to optimise what he saw. In his philosophy, he propagated certain principles in terms of how labor should be conducted for it to be efficient and scalable. Some of the principles included:
- Detailed specification of the working method: there is “one best way”
- Extremely detailed and disassembled work tasks
- One-way communication with fixed and narrow contents
- Detailed targets which did not have to be understood by the individual in terms of their connection to the overall company strategy
- External quality control
Now, I want you to reread this list and then look at the guy who created it. Looking at the list closer though, he could well have been born in the 1970s because of the way many of our organisations are structured pretty much up to the present day. Again, this made a lot of sense in the early 20th century. After all, we needed to create organisations which had to be geared towards productivity, scalability, and efficiency. We were about to enter a period of heavy industrial growth where the entire focus was mass production. In this period, we needed functioning assembly-line workers, obedient soldiers, and a protestant work ethic. So, it made sense to create schools, where we would pour knowledge into our kids and pray that most of it would stick. And it kind of did. Some people are better at learning stuff by heart than others but overall our school system gave us a pretty good comprehension of physics, math, languages, and history and most importantly taught us the current memes and value system of our society: centralised governance, strict rules, and predictable biographies.
Check out the image: It shows a typical Prussian school probably in the late 19th century. If you remove the helmet and the sabre, it does not look so dissimilar when compared with many of our schools today: one guy talking and lots of students listening (ok, the handlebar moustache is a bit out of fashion, but you get the point).
So if you would like to summarise some of the characteristics of a 19th-century school, it would be:
- Command and control
- Predominantly one-way communication
- Learning content by heart
- Lack of collaboration between students
- Spartan and mostly uninspiring classrooms
Social Innovation lagging behind technological innovation
It is interesting to see how a specific cultural meme at a certain time seems to resemble the architecture of how we build our society, including how we compose our schools, structure our organisations all the way to how we play football or design websites. Richard Dawkins has eluded to this idea eloquently in his first book: “the selfish gene”. Here he views culture as a spin-off from biology following similar evolutionary principles. Just like the gene is the core element of biology, a meme is the smallest unit of culture. Genes are copied across organisms and so are memes across societies. Memes, however, compete for memory and attention in order to survive and to be carried on. This would explain why we are still stuck in terribly unfulfilling job roles and schools where the way we operate them just doesn’t seem to make any sense anymore. A meme which is 150 years old still appears to be the underlying principle in terms of how we run our education system. It wants to survive. And just like genes are hardwired to survive, so do cultural artefacts linger on until something better comes along and has received enough attention to overrule the status quo.
I know it sucks, but this is how our world operates. It needs a lot of entrepreneurial initiative and some serious failure to the current system so that we start changing. But change what? Good question! According to Gallup research, 70% of employees in the U.S. are disengaged at work. Seriously? 70%? I couldn’t find any credible studies in terms of engagement levels in schools but my sense is that it may be similar. So, if this is true, how do we explain this? For starters, we know that technological innovation accelerates at an incredible speed. People refer to this as exponential growth. The issue is that social innovation (in other words: how we organise our companies, schools, and society) usually lags behind any technological revolution. To inspire change, you have to deal with politics, resistances, conflicting points of views and a political system which is struggling to keep up with the number of decisions necessary in an increasingly complex world. There are alternative models on the horizon such as liquid democracy, but as always true transformational change will need to be piloted and will take time. And because education is a particularly contentious topic, it will polarise people even further.
So what to do?
Now, the first thing to say is, that our society is in transition and perhaps we need a little patience. Brexit, Trump, radicalisation in Europe, rising inequality: these are all symptoms of a society, which is trying to catch up with itself. Have you ever been in transition before? What does it feel like? Usually, it is yucky, uncomfortable and full of inconvenient truths. We don’t quite know which road to take. We feel lost, sometimes depressed and are looking for answers in the stars. Suddenly, the horoscope in the local newspaper is gaining popularity again. However, times of crisis is also the most valuable period, where (if we care to listen) start resetting, reevaluating and reprioritising. It is the most vulnerable state but let me say this loud and clear: It is a necessary state as it is typically in this frame of mind where we are broken open, willing to overthrow old dogmas and start afresh. However, when transition happens not just on an individual level but rather on a societal or even global level, then we have a problem: People feel lost and left behind at scale. So, now we are potentially dealing with the stuff that revolutions are being made of.
What the heck has this to do with education?
Glad you are asking! If we assume that our whole society is in transition, then there is a good chance that the education system is too. We can still smell the bureaucratic pillars of an old world, however, glimpses of hope are knocking on the gates of the 21st century. Agile, collaborative working models, self-organised company structures and new school models are on the rise. In a small town near Munich there is an Australian lady who was fed up with the existing school system and so she decided to open her own school. If you enter Createschools in Tutzing, you immediately feel something different. Kids are exposed to a teaching method which we refer to as project-based learning. A fancy way of saying that instead of just sitting and absorbing knowledge in classrooms, the kids are encouraged to work in groups together, co-create and deliver project-work. As a side-result, they learn emotional intelligence because they need to negotiate strategies amongst each other.
Where Robots meet Buddhas…
Apart from the usual suspects, the curriculum also offers coding and mindfulness as subjects. Mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and coding are all topics which are typically neglected at school (or at least not taught to the degree we would like to see it). In a world with increasing complexity, smartphone addictions, and the resulting ever more frequent life transitions, it is even more important to provide our kids with the tools to regulate their internal emotional states. Plus, if we agree that one of the key requirements in this day and age is collaboration, then it follows logically that emotional intelligence is a key ingredient to this. By incorporating stand-ups and retrospectives (specific meeting formats), agile methodologies already have communication built into the DNA of their system. It is one of the scrum masters core tasks to make sure that the team is working productively together. This doesn’t mean there is no conflict but rather that conflict is encouraged, brought up and managed constructively. We always jokingly refer to the Scrum Masters as the new psychotherapists of agile groups.
Equally, we need to become much more savvy, when it comes to digital technologies. That doesn’t necessarily mean, we will all become coders, however, some basic coding skills will help to think like a programmer (dividing a complex task up into subtasks and solving them one at a time). The management of basic digital tools from MS Office to Slack and being able to conduct an intelligent search on Google should all be part of the curriculum. However, it doesn’t stop there. It makes sense to start thinking critically around new technologies such as artificial intelligence and blockchain. What will their impact be on our society, our organisations and the future of work? What kind of ethics do we need to apply? How do I hack my smartphone addictions? Will there ever be a super-human robot? These are the questions, that will require answering and the earlier we expose our kids, the more they will be able to find solutions.
The four Superpowers of the 21st Century
In summary, we need to teach our kids (and adults) new Superpowers, which will enable them to thrive in the 21st century:
- Responsive Mindset: to deal with the constant change around us and the proliferation of Smartphone addictions, we need to foster a reflective and sharp mindset. Tools like mindfulness, emotional self-regulation and journaling will become essential skills on our path into the 21st century.
- Execution Power: once upon a time we had 5-year-plans. Our business world was more predictable. If you did x then y happened with a certain degree of probability How this has changed! In an uncertain and complex world, we need tools to deal with these uncertainties. This is why design thinking, business model canvas and other prototyping and lean Startup methodologies are valuable tools: they help us to design carefully crafted experiments and move from concept design to prototypes in lightening speed in order to test our assumptions.
- Adaptive Tribes: Social workers have understood for a very long time that teams require supervision. If you don’t resolve conflicts and do not provide a platform for self-expression, the group cohesion will be threatened. Agile methodologies have started bringing these ideas into the IT and business world. We start to bring the elephants on the table. It is the emotional stuff, which prevents us from being productive at work. Communication, online collaboration and Stand-ups all help us to let other people in our team know where we stand.
- Digital Fitness: this one is close to my heart. So many people talk about digitisation, IoT and Artificial Intelligence but they often stay on the level of buzzword bingo: abstract and without any substance. At the same time, digital is very concrete, inspires playfulness and is highly practical. We need to emphasise these inherent qualities and bring the fun back to the digital playground.
So, let’s do this together! Education not only fosters new skillsets and competencies but will be the driving force to change mindsets and create a more adaptive society by at the same time reinforcing age-old values, which may never be outdated.