Our world has changed radically over the past two hundred years. Our education system has not. The foundation for our current Western education system was designed for a very different time, one adapting to the nascent Industrial Revolution and moving from an agricultural society. This society shifted from most people working on farms, to a factory-based economy, with employment clustered in urban areas. They moved into denser cities and started working for a wage, instead of producing what they needed themselves.
Today, we find ourselves in a dramatically different world, with new technology and new challenges. Climate change is looming over all of us, soon to reshape our coastlines and causing more destruction along the way. Macro and microeconomic disruptions are causing uncertainty for people around the world. However, most people now have access to almost limitless knowledge at the click of a button, with smartphone penetration rates surpassing 83% globally in 2021, although strong disparities still exist in the developing world. Pakistan, for example, has a smartphone penetration rate of just over 24%, and these types of digital divides will become more important to address as the digital world becomes a more critical aspect of the global economy. AI and other technologies are reshaping the ways that we learn, collaborate, and work, while automation is dramatically reducing production costs and making more and more products affordable and abundant.
This means the type of work we need to advance to the next step of our social evolution has changed dramatically. Despite these dramatic changes in our society, our educational systems have largely remained static. School tends to be organized around a unidirectional transfer of knowledge from teacher to student. Beyond the elementary levels, there are separate classrooms for each discrete subject. Instruction is often designed with a one size-fits-all approach, and students are almost uniformly grouped based only on age, despite different ways of learning, different skill levels, and different educational needs.
An Education System Designed for Mass Production
The economy has changed in many ways since the Industrial Revolution, automating or making obsolete much of the repetitive, regimented work that employed masses of people in the past—and this trend is accelerating. More repetitive and process-oriented jobs are being automated by AI software or robotics—and overall this is a good thing. By eliminating these tasks, we empower human beings to be more, well, human. It’s not that AI will do everything for us, but it can become a great ally to humanity, just like any other tool—made better by our skillful and humanitarian use of it.
Our economy is shifting to one that needs more people who are creative, entrepreneurial, empathetic, and collaborative — people who can define and create the solutions that will help us overcome our grand challenges as a species and bring us closer together. With a world full of complex new challenges, education must prepare people to be adaptable and be creative solvers.
Setting Ideal Design Objectives for the Future of Education
Let’s start with the basics. What is education? Why have it? If we were to redesign anew, what would we be trying to achieve? The Dalai Lama has an interesting take: “The aim of education should be to train happy individuals who make up a peaceful society. It requires warm-heartedness and taking a broad-minded, holistic and far-sighted approach that enables people to cope, whatever happens. It entails focusing on the good of the community.” This reframes what education is for, from the older goal of training people for employment to a new understanding that education is for nurturing and growing fulfilled, resilient, and compassionate individuals. This vision describes peace not just as the absence of violence, but as the presence of compassion and happiness.
Another important aspect to consider is, how we can leverage all the tools and knowledge at our disposal to make education more effective? Our current educational system rarely uses all the technology available today. Further, smartphones, AI and analytics that are used in manufacturing, social media, HR, and medicine but are not widely used for one of the most important industries—education. If we were to approach educating people with the same level of sophistication as the Facebook or Twitter algorithms that hook our attention on their platforms, imagine what we could achieve. With all this in mind, how might we design an ideal education system?
Design Objective 1: Humanistic and Holistic
We can design an education system that helps people to be fulfilled and happy in their lives, not just as a worker but as a complete person. That includes a career, it includes being able to initiate and carry out tasks, but it also includes many other softer skills like communication, relationships, and self-fulfillment. We want to address the entire person and help them to be happy, fulfilled, and successful—and know what that means to them.
Design Objective 2: Personalizing Education
Education needs to address specific individuals’ needs and dynamics. When a class is in session, roughly half the students are at least somewhat bored, half are somewhat lost, and some small fraction of them are getting the education they want at the level and speed they need. That’s a tragedy for nearly everyone involved. How do we better personalize education to serve the needs of everyone in the class?
One way might be to learn from the activities that are already engaging people very effectively: social media and games. AI-driven games, interactions, and assignments could learn and adapt to each student’s own pace, track their progress, understand how they respond and learn, and then fine-tune the learning process to give students a continual challenge at the right level. In this world where technology takes some of the weight off teachers, human beings can take the lead in doing what human beings are good at. Humans are much better than AI at collaborating and communicating— helping each other understand themselves and their world, and figuring out what they want to do in life.
Design Objective 3: Collaborating with the “Real World”
What makes us a successful species? Is it our opposable thumbs, our advanced voice boxes, our frontal lobes? All of these are very helpful, but our species would not be nearly as successful without each other. We humans are a social and industrious species that has survived, advanced, and persevered because we collaborate. People who collaborate well are more successful.
Consider this: Instead of working exclusively on projects that are solely for in-class credit, what if students worked together on solving real-world problems, creating projects that contribute to their resume and could be continued beyond graduation? Students could launch a new startup, service, or new product that gets built while they’re in high school, with the help of teachers and the surrounding business community, and transition into the life that follows school by continuing to build the project. Suddenly that barrier between school and adult life begins to fade away, and we not only bring school into the rest of the world but also bring that world into school.
Self-Actualizing Education Contributes to a Self-Actualized Society
Finland is widely recognized as a leader in education, with a focus on equity as well as excellence, a higher collaboration-to-lecture ratio, focus on collaboration, real-world training, and dedicated time for teachers to advance their own studies. Finland also happens to be the happiest country in the world.
Despite the fact that Finland has no standardized tests, teachers don’t assign much homework compared to Western peers, and students spend only twenty hours a week in school on average, most Finnish children graduate with command of two languages and score above average in math, science, and reading, and their socioeconomic status has a lower impact than average on overall performance. Maybe there is more we can learn from their society to become a happier society ourselves.
If we want to have a happier future, we need to update education to meet both our collective needs and the needs of each individual. Now that we live in a world of sophisticated technology that can influence how we think and who we are, perhaps we should be asking ourselves “Who do we want to be?” Instead of our previous view of ourselves as “cogs in a machine,” this holistic approach to education will help us lay the foundation for nurturing self-actualized people, and therefore a self-actualized society.
About the author
An impact-focused leader with global expertise working with organizations around the world, from Fortune 500s and governments to Silicon Valley startups, Justin Bean brings a fresh, hopeful perspective to a world in crisis. In his new book, What Could Go Right? Designing Our IdealFuture to Emerge from Continual Crises into a Thriving World, Bean argues that despite all the doom and gloom we hear about every day, our world is actually in much better shape now than ever before in human history. In fact, there's more opportunity now to make a positive impact on our world—personally, professionally, and politically.