27 November 2006

The End of Education as We Know it

I once did a calculation, projecting that we'd increase the level of education as much in this century as we did in the last. In the last century, only a small percentage of 13 year-olds were in school and even a smaller percentage of the twenty-something population was. By 2000, about 97% of the 13-17 year-old population was engaged in formal education and about 20-some percentage of adult population had a college degree. This has helped to fuel a huge increase in productivity and economic growth and the importance of education is widely accepted. The problem is, we can't continue with the same model of more formal education for more people as a means for continued economic growth.

If we continued to increase education as much in this century as we did in the last, we'd have a generation of 50 year-old graduates in 2100. Barring some wild innovation in student loan programs, this is probably not feasible.

So given that education is so vital, how do we improve it as much in this century as the last? The answer will probably take a century to articulate, but I suspect that it will start with an observation made by one of our great thinkers.

Russell Ackoff points out that we've taken a classically analytic view of work, play, and learning - approaching them each as separate. We build schools where people are expected to learn but not play or work. We build stadiums and playgrounds for play. Factories where people are not expected to play or learn. Although the human experience defies such neat boundaries - play, work, and productivity are not so neatly contained within proscribed environments - we nonetheless pretend that it is.

Perhaps the answer to learning is to break down the walls between work and learning and play, changing our expectations of all institutions. Montessori's high schools are much rarer than Montessori preschools. Why? Perhaps part of the reason is that she felt that teens were ready to run businesses as a means to both feel productive and to learn. Imagine how much that could benefit communities? And what of requiring any MBA grad actually manage a community improvement project - some activity directed at addressing a problem of road salt dumped into creeks reducing the number of trout spawned? or homeless populations that lower property values? or intersections with accidents? or creating a voice for residents trying to influence local government? Imagine a work place that actually awarded a group of employees a degree for deciphering the code of their culture and how to change it for the better - a task that may involve a blend of formal education, assessment and practical changes to policy?

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