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We Cannot Go Back to the Future

by Richard Gerver

It’s natural, right? We feel like we’re losing control, we have a lack of clarity, of certainty and even a sense of a loss of value and place. People are unsettled, anxious and angry. So, what do we do? We hanker after the past; to a time when we felt safer, happier, more secure. We look to the past to find the future. It’s like feeling poorly and craving a sofa, a duvet, an old movie and some of your grandmother’s chicken soup. 

So much of the policy and politics we are living through today is based on trying to make us feel better by taking us backwards. We can be safe again, happy again, even great again, if we invoke nostalgia in order to seize back control and rediscover the warmth of simpler, happier times. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love the sofa, the duvet and especially the soup but when I’m ill, it’s medical science that makes me better; a science driven by innovation, challenging current thinking and exercising the confidence to explore and embrace the new.

I don’t want to discuss the issues around Brexit, the rise in nationalism and anti-globalism or the clear polarization not just in our politics but what is clear, is that as the world turns, our children will face at least three great challenges, which are defining the present and will ultimately decide tomorrow. Issues around the environment, the economy and socio-ethnic integration are major catalysts in and around world events. 

Education holds the key to how the next chapter plays out and I am concerned. Very concerned. As a civilized society, it is our responsibility to use education for, amongst other things, preparing our children for the challenges of their future. We must ensure that the system is designed to reflect the knowledge, skills and experiences our young people will need to live long, fulfilling, healthy and purposeful lives. Education, like medicine, cannot afford to deliver what we’ve always delivered the way we always have or even with more efficiency, we need to have the courage and confidence to evolve and at times, even transform. 

Over the last 40 or 50 years, I fear that we have spent far too much time focusing our time, energy and passion on making education more efficient, not making it more relevant. I recently interviewed two people whose views somewhat supported that belief. Former U.S. President Barack Obama told me that, “We have to understand that the education system, designed to take people from farms to factories and then into offices, is no longer fit for purpose.” Barry Barrish, the 2017 Nobel Prize winning scientist, explained to me that, “Qualifications were simply not enough and that the school-based teaching of science, was, too often, far too concerned with content and not enough with approach.” When he recruited his 150-strong team for the ground-breaking work in to gravitational waves that saw him awarded his Nobel Prize, he was clear that he would only appoint people who could ask “stupid questions” and that, if possible, had arts in their backgrounds as well as sciences. 

In January 2018, at the Davos World Economic Forum, the following concerns were raised about education trends globally:

The McKinsey Global Institute, stated that their research suggested robots could replace 800 million jobs by 2030, while the World Economic Forum suggests a “skills revolution” could open up a raft of new opportunities.

Jack Ma, founder of the Chinese multinational ecommerce giant Alibaba Group said, “If we do not change the way we teach, 30 years from now, we’re going to be in trouble.” 

“The knowledge-based approach of 200 years ago would fail our kids, who would never be able to compete with machines. Children should be taught soft skills like independent thinking, values and teamwork.”

“Anything that is routine or repetitive will be automated,” said Minouche Shafik, Director of the London School of Economics, in a session on Saving Economic Globalization from Itself. She also spoke of the importance of “the soft skills, creative skills. Research skills, the ability to find information, synthesize it, make something of it.”

She went on to suggest that overhauling our education system will be essential to fixing the fractures in our societies and avoiding a tilt towards populism.

So, we need to have a braver, more constructive and innovative vision for the future of our world and that begins with education. The pursuit of nostalgia may make us feel warm and safe for a while but will only exacerbate the real issues we face. Education has never been about efficiency. At its best, it has always been about preparing the next generation to lead us forward. The world is changing exponentially and chicken soup, therefore, is sadly not the answer.

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