From education to employment

Does the education system prepare young people for the future?

woman in stem

The future of every economy and community will be determined by young people (YP) and their ability to imagine, innovate and deliver services and products to the global ecosystem. As learning objectives continue to evolve, skills will become the new currency, not content and knowledge.

Many jobs are already being automated. Driverless tractors are ploughing and harvesting our farms. In hospitals, surgery is undertaken using robotics, and in radiology departments AI is used to identify early signs of cancers. There are also driverless robots delivering groceries and small packages to local households. The future of work (FOW) is here.

Our current education system is a bit like a conveyer belt on a factory production line. Teachers and lecturers stand along its length, with YP the raw material moving down the line, and at each stage YP learn something. As a key performance indicator, ‘finished articles’ emerge at various end points, having reached a quality standard (or not) determined largely by exam results.

In many instances, this standardised finished article is a square peg trying to fit in a round hole. The education curriculum is dominated by science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) and the system still views YP’s ability to pass various exams as the roadmap to a good job and career.

The FOW does need YP talent with STEM disciplines, but market trends and insights from top global companies all point to a hybrid set of skills as the critical ingredient in the future workforce. These are uniquely human skills such as creativity and innovation, negotiation and persuasion, collaboration and teamwork, and the ability to flex and adapt to change.

Schools are judged, league-tabled and assessed based primarily on exam results. The silo mentality in our education system, with its emphasis on STEM subjects and the reliance on meritocracy in exams as a measure of intelligence and worth, needs to change.

Young people’s emotional resilience – is prevention better than cure?

Having presented keynote speeches and run sessions on emotional resilience for over fifteen years globally to businesses, universities, schools and the NHS, I am an enthusiastic promoter. This enthusiasm is due to the overwhelming scientific evidence behind the many benefits to mental health, wellbeing and cognition that are associated with the techniques I share.

Take as an example the HeartMath Institute’s ‘heart rhythm biofeedback experience’ included in my sessions with YP. Research has consistently shown the many benefits that coherence breathing has, which includes reducing anxiety and improving academic performance.

You’d think this evidence would be enough to make protecting the mental health of YP and improving cognitive performance a mandatory component in a school’s curriculum, but it’s not. The emphasis is still on reacting to mental illness rather than preventing it in the first place. Prevention would reduce human suffering and ease the pressure on mental health services.

There are a number of ‘disrupter’ educators who have taken the lead and demonstrated new initiatives in YP mental health and wellbeing. With growing academic research demonstrating the wellbeing benefits of mindfulness for YP, in 2010 Tonbridge School led the way in the UK by introducing mindfulness as part of their curriculum. It’s estimated that over 370 schools in England have adopted a similar approach, but we need mindfulness to be part of the curriculum in every school, now.

Another disrupter is the Wave Project in Cornwall where ‘surf therapy’ is used to support YP who face emotional or social challenges. Learning activity is not through traditional routes – one day a week, lessons take place on the beach. The ‘Speed Demons’ lesson, for example, uses bodyboarding to teach primary school children about maths and physics, with beneficial outcomes. This initiative supports YP by showing them innovative ways they can be motivated to learn, work in teams building relationships, and be a role model to less experienced peers.

Exam meritocracy – is it the only way to value a young person?

YP are subject to extensive testing under the terms of the national curriculum, yet meritocracy based on exam results clearly favours those who are privileged and capable. We are missing the huge potential that YP have when they fall outside this method of measurement. Regarded by many as having the most well-developed education system in the world, Finland has no standardised testing system for YP; rather, students are graded by their teachers and mapped by the Ministry of Education against samples from other school groups.

Meritocracy is a recipe with only one ingredient, but recipes often have ingredients that you can mix and match. A vegetarian can eat a Thai vegetable curry, as opposed to Thai chicken curry. Leaving the chicken out still allows the curry to be flavoursome. What is crucial here is the chef knowing which ingredients and amounts to concentrate on to awaken the consumer’s taste buds. For ‘chefs’ read ‘teachers’ in an educational setting. Our teachers are stymied to a large extent by having to follow a fairly rigid national curriculum, for which they will be appraised on YP test performances. This is hardly an incentive to promote personalised learning. The education system should be about preparing YP for when they leave academia, and the recipes should not just be flavoursome to YP, but also to prospective employers.

Teachers can encourage YP to thrive in whatever area ignites their interest, and not hold them to strict boundaries on what they must learn. They can nurture, coach and mentor YP to be the best they can be, and recognise that diversity is something to celebrate when developing YP’s potential.

According to PwC, by mid-2030 up to 30% of jobs could be replaced by automation. With the FOW being so unpredictable, it must be difficult for YP to find their purpose in how they might contribute to this new world. We need to educate them so they can thrive in it, and we need to allow the huge potential of YP to flourish through the education system.

Education disrupters – what’s the call to action?

While overnight change to adopt best practice by education policymakers may be a stretch, we can all, as a community or ecosystem, put pressure on those in power to drive the change needed. If we use the example of Sir David Brailsford’s success in inspiring peak performance in Britain’s Olympic and Team Sky cyclists, we can do this with marginal gains. Here are some suggestions for how this might be achieved:

  • Provide a curriculum that enables emotional resilience skills learning as a core mandatory subject. With these skills YP can change their behaviour to be proactive in techniques that prevent mental ill health, rather than relying on the current practice of reacting to it.
  • Provide a curriculum that has fewer exams, more of a balancing emphasis on human skills and less weight on STEM subjects. Using meritocracy linked to exam results in preparation for the FOW fails to recognise full potential and fails to prepare for the diversity of all the skills that will be needed.
  • Provide a flexible curriculum that supports teachers in their crucial role of developing every YP to take responsibility for developing their potential to be the best they can be. This can only be done if teachers are truly valued by policymakers and the community and given adequate free time for continuing personal development and to prioritise their own mental health and wellbeing.

Learning is not the real goal of education. Education should be a means to develop YP to adopt behaviours that have meaning and are fulfilling for both themselves and the community ecosystem they serve.

By Roddy Herbert, founder and CEO of Koru International, an international award-winning health and workplace wellness consulting and training firm.

He is also the co-founder of a start-up team of international experts gamifying resilience and high performance for young people. He is passionate that, irrespective of privilege or diversity, all young people should have access to opportunities to learn behaviours that are both emotionally resilient and encourage innovative thinking.

Roddy is also a contributing author to Success Secrets of Disruptors.

This is an extract from Success Secrets of Disruptors by Roddy Herbert and other contributing authors.

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