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Future Education and Applied Learning

What If The Education System Isn’t Broken — Just Irrelevant?

Future Education and Applied LearningThere’s a lot of discussion about our broken education system. And many people offer solutions for “fixing” education. But what if what’s really ailing education isn’t the fact that it’s somehow fundamentally broken? What if the system we have today is actually functioning perfectly as designed? And what if that system is no longer relevant?

It’s something I think a lot about. So much time, resource and attention is applied to “fixing education.” But what if nothing is broken?

Indeed, we live in a world that no longer needs the education systems we’ve perfected – a factory model of education where every child memorizes the same information and which became the engine for the recently ended Industrial Era. As Sugata Mitra, an innovating researcher from India, points out, our current system isn’t broken – it’s perfectly engineered and working well – it’s just irrelevant.

At the recent TED2013 Conference, Mitra made a compelling case that the education system we know and increasingly hate simply must be replaced. While he offers his own specific ideas about what should come next, what he argues for, essentially, is the concept of applied learning. It’s a vision for learning that takes teaching as we’ve known it and turns it on its head.

I chaired a panel last week at SXSWedu focused on the idea that we need to move beyond the creation of mere human capital—that we need to help people to learn how to learn. Today’s system of education does a wonderful job of creating citizens for all the necessary jobs of the 20th century, including factory workers, cubicle workers and bureaucrats. There’s just one big problem. We don’t need those kinds of people any more.

Individuals called entrepreneurs, sole practitioners, consultants and contributors are replacing what we once called “human capital” – the highly interchangeable, identically trained workforce of the last century. Which is why I admire Mitra’s work so much. He’s been conducting research over the last 15 years exploring what happens when children in remote places are given a computer that works in a language that is not their own.

The results are stunning. These children are completely self-directed. They return to the computer day after day and first learn the language the computer uses. Then they work to solve some often-complex question posed by the computer. Each time, the children worked both independently and in groups, without little or no adult intervention, and typically arrived at some form of mastery.

This sort of learning-by-doing, or what is called applied learning, represents the future of education. Instead of a teacher standing in front of a class teaching the multiplication tables, they ask students to solve a problem. Perhaps the students are also given some clues about how to solve the problem. Then the kids team up and use all the tools at their disposal – which is most often the Internet – to solve the problem through collaborative and independent research. Where real learning comes into play, however, is when those same students apply what they learn in some way—perhaps in a project or via an illustration. More magic happens when those students present the evidence of that application to their teachers and fellow students.

Rote learning and testing is replaced by inquiry, search, discovery, application, presentation, encouragement and validation. Students learn how to learn. They learn how to identify the deficits in their own knowledge and which may be keeping them from achieving an objective. They develop a portfolio of learning artifacts that they are able to reflect on and use as new problems crop up.

These are the very skills the early 21st Century demands of us. And the sorts of skills an unknowable late 21st Century will almost certainly require. Employers no longer want citizens that are nearly identical widgets who, when interchanged, can do the same rote work any other citizen can do.

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