Thursday, March 12, 2009

Here comes the future: Is education ready?

Vancouver Sun: 2009 March 12
Mitch Joel

It's not enough to just worry about how your revenues are going to look at the end of this quarter, and it's also not enough to be thinking about how your business is going to adapt to new realities in the coming years. We need to take a serious step back and also analyse the state of education, and what it's going to mean (and look like) in the future.

None of us are going to have any modicum of success if we can't hire, develop and nurture the right talent out of school. It's also going to be increasingly challenging if those young people are not prepared for the new realities of the new workplace.

While in New York City recently for a series of meetings, I was introduced to a senior publishing executive who was intrigued by the topic of my forthcoming book (Six Pixels of Separation, expected in September). It turns out said executive has a son who is about to complete his MBA at an Ivy League school. The problem (according to this industry executive) is: "Where is he going to work? All of those jobs are either gone, or people with tons more experience are willing to do them for a fraction of what they were paying only six months ago."

It's not an uncommon concern, and the obvious fear in this father's tone of voice is becoming much more apparent in conversations with other business professionals who have young adult children about to enter the workforce.

The reality is that the education system is going through some of the most dramatic changes it has faced since the industrial revolution, and schools are struggling to stay ahead and to keep their teaching as up-to-date and relevant as possible.

And with all of these dramatic changes in the economy, universities are even more strapped when it comes to funding new technology, bringing in the right people to teach with it, and providing a high level of results. It's an indictment on how our society operates, and it's going to hit businesses bottom line this year.

Sir Ken Robinson is widely regarded as one of the leading thinkers on the topic of education, creativity, leadership and innovation. In his must-see presentation at the TED conference a few years back, he stated that young adults entering the post-secondary school system today will statistically be working at a job that does not even exist today. The world is changing that fast.

There are educational institutions and teachers doing everything they can to keep their students either ahead of the curve or, at the very least, using newer tools and technology to inform and educate.

Another great story from Robinson's TED talk is about a young girl, Gillian, who struggled in school back in the '30s. She just couldn't concentrate. If it were 2009, this child would have probably been diagnosed as having some form of ADHD. Her mother took her to see a specialist. Here's how Robinson describes what happened next to little Gillian:

"As they [the doctor and mother] went out of the room, he turned on the radio sitting on his desk. When they were out of the room, he said to the mother, 'Just stand and watch her.' The minute they left, she was on her feet, moving to the music. They watched for a few minutes, and he turned to her mother and said, 'You know, Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn't sick. She's a dancer. Take her to a dance school'."

Little Gillian is actually Gillian Lynne -- the famed choreographer behind Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. Her mom wound up sending her to dance school with other people who had to "move to think," as Lynne explains the story. Robinson concludes: "She eventually auditioned for the Royal Ballet School and had a wonderful career at the Royal Ballet and became a soloist. She later moved on, founded her own company, and met Andrew Lloyd Webber. She's been responsible for some of the most successful musical theater productions in history, she's given pleasure to millions, and she's probably a multi-millionaire. Somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down."

It's not that more kids should be dancers and not thinkers. It's that schools were (and still are) very much built like factories: Boys and girls, all the same age, sitting at desks, in a row, all expected to learn the same things at the same pace. In recent weeks, the New York Times ran two interesting news items: The first, Students Stand When Called Upon, and When Not is about a school near Minneapolis where kids are learning from new school "desks" that allow them to stand while they work. "Teachers in Minnesota and Wisconsin say they know from experience that the desks help give children the flexibility they need to expend energy and, at the same time, focus better on their work rather than focusing on how to keep still."

The second story, In Web Age, Library Job Gets Update, highlights Stephanie Rosalia, a school librarian at a elementary/middle school in Brooklyn, who is working with students by showing them how to use PowerPoint, build blogs, and much more. The library is becoming a multimedia centre that is blending how to best use Wikipedia along with knowledge that comes in the more traditional, paper format.

There are many examples of how schools -- at all levels -- are doing everything they can to update not just the computer labs, but the new reality of a world where professionals are working from anywhere and from everywhere. The bigger question is this: Are young people really getting the right education for this brave new world, and how ready is business for the next wave of employees who work virtually, collaboratively, on their iPhones, and -- to a certain extent -- without paper?

Mitch Joel is president of the digital marketing and communications agency Twist Image.