There’s never been a perfect formula for success, but a generation or two ago, things were arguably more straightforward. If you worked hard in high school, got good grades, graduated, and went on to college or a vocational program, you’d find yourself well on your way to a solid career. You could safely rely on an education as a way to improve your life.
Not so much today, as this path seems to lead more to mirages than any promised land. Even as the high school graduation rate is at an all-time high, and the college enrollment rate is growing steadily (from about 50% in 1975 to 68% last year according to the National Center for Education Statistics)—unemployment too has risen sharply. In 2012, a whopping 53% of recent college grads (age 25 or under) were jobless or underemployed. The United States spends more annually per school-aged child (ages 6-23) than any other country, and yet we trail many countries in math and science proficiency. We seem to be achieving more and more, only to become less relevant.
Our economy has changed. Just as the world's agrarian society gave way to manufacturing in the 19th century, so the industrial age has now given way to the information age. At the same time, our ability to stay ahead of this change has diminished.
Thomas Friedman calls it the "Great Inflection"—this "hyperconnected" era in which "the skill required for every decent job is rising as is the necessity of lifelong learning." And not only do workers today need more skills, they need vastly different skills than they did a few decades ago—skills that for the most part are not being emphasized in primary, secondary, or higher education.
Friedman argues that success in this new age requires more "individual initiative;" he cites the importance of "P.Q. (passion quotient) and C.Q. (curiosity quotient)" in addition to plain old I.Q. This is undoubtedly true—but passion and curiosity won’t materialize out of thin air. We have to give people the room and ability to flourish. More specifically, we need to ensure every student and young person has the foundational knowledge and skills he or she needs to play a role in this new economy. And not only play a role, but revolutionize. We need people who can help solve the big problems of our time—food shortages, access to education, climate change, income inequality, the global water crisis and so on.
How do we cultivate such people? Continuing to increase the emphasis on STEM, as well as reading, writing, and critical thinking skills, is key. Without a proper foundation in these areas, students will inevitably struggle as they move through secondary and higher education and into the workforce. Phil Regier, Dean of Arizona State University Online, calls this the "Swiss cheese effect." Students can’t fill in gaps of knowledge at the same time they build upon them—and so instead of continuing to grow into more sophisticated thinkers, learners, and doers, they spend all their time just trying to keep their heads above water.
The result? Instead of developing passion and curiosity in new areas, students just end up dealing with frustration and failure. Many shy away from entire subject areas, mistaking a lack of foundational knowledge for a lack of talent or ability. This is particularly prevalent in STEM subjects. "I’m just not good at math," a student says, and just like that whole career opportunities disappear—engineering, architecture, economics. Nearly 60% of U.S. students who express an interest in STEM at the beginning of their high school careers have changed their minds by graduation. Meanwhile, "science and engineering careers are forecasted to grow more than 20% by 2018, twice the rate of the overall U.S. labor forecast." At that rate, we won’t have enough people who are even minimally qualified to fill the jobs of the future, let alone those who can initiate major breakthroughs. How many Alexander Flemings, Marie Curies, and Thomas Edisons will we miss out on?
Outstanding teaching, education content, and instructional design, in combination with personalized learning tools, will address this issue. Teachers can do even more of what they do best: motivate, provide individualized instruction, provoke discussion, and encourage critical thinking. Meanwhile, personalized learning tools facilitated by innovations in technology can ensure that high-quality and highly relevant content is delivered to each student in the most effective way, allowing every learner to master fundamental skills more efficiently and freeing up time for deeper learning, creative thinking, and tinkering (think about how Apple and Facebook were founded). Those that are struggling with a given subject can quickly get back on track and gain confidence; meanwhile, those that are already excelling can extend themselves to new heights.
Success will not come easily. It will require plenty of hard work and dedication by everyone in the education eco-system, including students. But by using technology and data to inform and tailor instruction, and placing a high value on the best instructors, we can better equip more young learners to not just keep up, but to break through.
The potential for greatness is there. We just need to unlock it, not continue to waste it.
—David Liu is the Chief Operating Officer at Knewton, an education company using adaptive learning technology to personalize the education experience for students around the world.
[Image: Flickr user Rok Lipnik]