Redesigning Education

We've talked a lot about user-centric design and its sibling, human-centred design. It's time to apply what we've learned and redesign our education system.

In many ways, we’re still children of the Industrial Age. In the field of learning and education that’s even more obvious. Despite the several transformations over the course of the last two centuries, our schools and universities continue to be biased towards the needs of an industrial society. What industries in the classical sense of the word (lat. industria: diligence, purpose) need are workers who reliably show up at the right time and the right place to do what they are told to do. Their habits and skillsets are standardised, making them easily replaceable. The education system preselects its clients and marks them with formal certificates, basically some kind of guarantee to possible employers for certain qualifications.

This is a far cry from what Wilhelm von Humboldt had in mind when he founded the University of Berlin in 1810 (which was in 1949 named after him and his brother Alexander). The German new humanism was driven by strong views about a humanistic idea of knowledge, referred to as Bildung, and to the idea of humanity, the intellectual, physical, and moral formation of a better human being. In some respects this is the sheer opposite of today’s education system. Especially the Bologna Process, ironically named after the oldest European University, made things a lot worse. Critics have already proposed to finally replace the students by robots, because what they are required to learn in post-Bologna universities could best be performed by learning machines.

In a world where machines are about to take over job after job that can be automated, this is not only ridiculous but also dangerous. Human beings need to focus on everything genuinely human that cannot be automated or simulated by machines. On this blog we already discussed the need for a new Digital Humanism. Of course, if you believe that there is nothing genuinely human (that cannot be automated or simulated by machines), you end up with a dystopian view of a world with a universal basic income to tranquilise the great majority of the population, and with armies of useless people: Nutzlose, as Marc-Uwe Kling in his social satire Qualityland calls them.

In the end, this could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we don’t educate people in a way that helps them leading their own life, they won’t be independent, self-directed citizens. Again, we face the question of how we conceive the human being. In his book The 3rd Alternative, the late American educator Stephen R. Covey proposed to abandon the Industrial Age framework of schools as factories with children as commoditised products – instead of people. In his view, eduction shouldn’t train children to be dependent, good followers. Instead, education should

unlock the potential of all children to lead their own lives instead of being led. This would be a transformational change.

Covey defines leadership as being the active, creative force of your own world.

True leaders define and achieve enduring success by developing character and competence and taking principled action; they don’t wait for others to define it for them. Because they see themselves as uniquely gifted, they compete against no one but themselves. In economic terms, they are the only providers of what they provide, so they can auction their talents to the highest bidder. These leaders create their own future.

Clayton Christensen has written a whole book about what he calls student-centric learning. Sounds familiar? We’ve talked a lot about user-centric design and its sibling, human-centred design. It’s time to apply what we’ve learned and redesign our education system.

Adam also delved into the underlying needs of a 21st century digital education system.

Photo by Roman Mager on Unsplash