After three presidential debates and with just more than a week left until Election Day, it seems likely that the most critical education issue facing the United States in the decade ahead won’t get an airing in this campaign: How we prepare our children and young adults to compete in a fast-moving global economy.
When education issues have come up, they have largely centered around college affordability. Except for a few comments by the candidates about the Common Core State Standards, we haven’t had a conversation about the state of the U.S. education system like we did in the 1992 or 2000 cycles.
That this issue hasn’t been debated in this campaign is surprising given the education divide that has clearly emerged among voters since the primaries. Simply put, those with a four-year degree who have benefited from the shift during the past several decades away from manufacturing to an information-based economy favor Hillary Clinton; those without a college degree who have struggled in this new economy back Donald Trump.
A discussion about how we educate our next generation is necessary in a day and age when digital communications has vastly changed how people access and process knowledge and then apply it in their careers. As I talked to employers of all kinds and sizes for my new book, There Is Life After College, I discovered that the structure and curriculum in our schools and colleges hasn’t kept pace with the evolution of the modern workplace.
Our education system is too much like the work world of old, where punctuality, attention, and silence were valued above all else. Until students go to college, school is managed for them and, in the era of No Child Left Behind, increasingly so, as elementary and secondary schools hew closely to curriculum guides and teachers are focused on preparing students to take standardized tests. Even college is very task based: take an exam, finish a paper, attend a club meeting, go to practice.
But after college and for the rest of our lives, learning is self-directed. We decide what skills or knowledge we’re missing, where to acquire that information, and how to fit learning into our daily routines. Unfortunately, by the time students graduate from college their brains are hard-wired to the cadence of the daily life laid out by the nine-month academic calendar. They tend to think about their work in terms of 50-minute classes and five courses during 15-week semesters, with plenty of lengthy breaks in between.
College students spend just about a quarter of their week on academic pursuits — going to class or studying, or working at a job — leaving about half of their week for socializing and recreation, according to one survey. No wonder colleges have spent hundreds of millions of dollars building palatial campus recreation centers with climbing walls in the past decade: students use them as often as they use classrooms. Friday has become the collegiate day of rest, with many campuses offering far fewer classes on Fridays than other days, effectively training students for four-day workweeks.
Meanwhile, the working world is unstructured, with competing priorities and decisions that need to be made on the fly. “People know how to take a course, but they need to learn how to learn,” John Leutner, head of global learning at Xerox, told me. At Xerox, young employees frequently request professional development courses on time management because in college someone else set their priorities for them.
The workplace is also a mash-up of activities with no scheduled end, and as a result, recent college graduates who succeed in their careers are flexible about how they learn. “They have ideas and act on them,” said Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, a design firm in Silicon Valley that gets some 20,000 job applicants a year for about 150 openings. “Being able to get stuff done is a capacity that is rather important.”
It’s not that our kids lack this flexible mind-set — most are born with one. It’s why young children never stop asking questions. On average, preschool children ask their parents about 100 questions a day. But eventually they ask fewer questions, and by the time they go to middle school they barely ask anything.
Educators and child psychologists have long wondered why kids lose their appetite for asking questions, and often they come to the same conclusion: school. In school, students are rewarded for having answers, not asking questions. By the time middle school rolls around, the peer effect takes over. Many kids worry about being embarrassed in front of their classmates for asking dumb questions or having the wrong answer. Young children don’t have those worries yet. And they have plenty of free time in the early grades to exercise their curiosity.
Despite Trump’s promises, the United States is not going to return to a manufacturing-based economy in the decades ahead. The rewards of this information economy increasingly go to young adults who can navigate the ambiguity of today’s jobs with a mix of hard skills and so-called soft skills, such as communications, problem-solving, and working in teams. Those sets of skills are often not learned within today’s traditional classrooms at most schools and college campuses. How we arm students with the skills necessary to succeed in this economy — and not the economy of a half-century ago — is the education and economic issue we need to be discussing in this election.