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August 10, 2013 / trajsingh

Personalized education

I’m interested in education, as I believe it to be the only way a country can improve its quality of life and standard of living in a sustainable way. I don’t think this is a particularly controversial view – most people would agree. (A lot of the work I did in Innovation Consulting came down to improving the educational system.) The debate starts around what a ‘good education’ entails.

In Europe and North America, education policy is set and run largely by governments, local and national. There is little or no experimentation beyond the regulations. There are some exceptions (Sweden, but the company in question has recently pulled back due to a lack of profit), and there is government-sponsored change as well (such as charter/magnet schools, and vouchers), but in general it’s pretty monolithic.

So, a ‘good’ education is decided by the state. In these countries, there tend to be parallel state and privately owned systems. Generally you need to be wealthy to go to the private ones, and again generally, your child will get a better education there. (It’s historical – before the industrial revolution, most children didn’t go to school at all, but factories eventually meant that some level of literacy and numeracy was required).

But even in these countries (and other less developed ones, too) is a good education being delivered? Largely speaking, it isn’t, IMHO. This is in part due to the monolithic nature of education (one size doesn’t fit all) and in part due to what teaching methods are used.

The monolithic aspect: the school curriculum is the same for everyone. Makes sense at a lot of levels, but just look at the results – the population as a whole is unprepared for the adult world they have to live in.

The teaching: we’ve seen south-east Asian countries achieve great test results through a regimented, fact-and-test-driven system. Other countries are more focused on a holistic approach, figuring that education isn’t just about turning out savvy employees.

I think both of these systems will continue to fail, because as noted above, one size doesn’t fit all, and because no teaching method will turn out smart informed citizens unless it focuses on teaching people how to think.

And that is my humble definition of a ‘good’ education; one that focuses on critical reasoning, on how to understand the world around you by asking the right questions, analyzing facts and figures, and drawing conclusions. In short creating smart, informed citizens who can participate in a democracy, and who can understand the nature of the world around them. (Of course, there is room for many other topics of study, but this seems to me to be the most important one that is missing). Get this right and you equip people to thrive in any situation, no matter how quickly things change. What better competitive advantage could you imagine? Surely it trumps all others, including geography, natural resources and population size?

It is analogous to the ‘teach a man to fish’ argument. Teach girls and boys to think, and never again will they be led down the garden by politicians and leaders. The apathetic and anemic democracies that we live in will slowly become more lively as informed debate accompanies every decision. Yes, we’ll need technology to enable this. But take a cue from the FMCG and medical industries. The ability to ‘mass personalize’ goods and services down the level of a specific drug for a specific person is now emerging. Why shouldn’t we do the same for education? And indeed we see the first stirrings of this in the MOOC space.

So, the building blocks are now falling into place to allow an individual focus on each pupil or student’s needs. The excuse for monolithic education is being eroded. Combining this with a focus on thinking would allow a country to build for the future.

Of course, what is not in place yet is a system that rewards governments for thinking (and funding) in generations rather than elections. I hope it is not the case that only a smart informed citizenry would vote for a government to create a smart informed citizenry… Not being a nihilist, I’m sure we can work this out, and the place to start is to allow some experimentation. Is anyone out there working on something?

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