Serbia, which has a very strong tradition in science and technology and a population with a proven capacity to excel in advanced fields of knowledge, should be striving to capitalise on these real strengths and invent new models of education that prepare the youth to become entrepreneurs instead of employees in other peoples’ companies. Don’t copy others, innovate
“We are on the cusp of a revolution in education that will shift from repetitive formal learning to student-centred, person-centred, trans-disciplinary education,” says Garry Jacobs, President and CEO of the World Academy of Art & Science, Chairman of the Board & CEO of the World University Consortium.
Jacobs, who recently became president of the World Academy, is known to the Serbian public. In November he and other prominent speakers spoke about the future shape of knowledge at the fourth international conference on future education in Belgrade, organised by the Serbian Association of Economists in cooperation with the World Academy of Arts and Sciences and the World University Consortium, the Serbian Academy of Sciences and the Arts, the University of Belgrade and the Serbian Chapter of the Club of Rome, thanks to Nebojša Nesković, a Trustee and the Secretary-General of the World Academy of Art and Science and the President of the Serbian Chapter of the Club of Rome.
It seems that we are on the cusp of a revolution in the way we organise the way we think about education. What forces are behind that change?
Multiple factors compel us to reformulate our approach to education. First is the exponential growth in the amount of information and knowledge being generated compared to earlier times, when the information was a scarce commodity. Five hundred years ago, Europeans learned their history from the theatre, e.g. Shakespeare’s histories.
No human being can absorb the huge and ever-growing volume of what is known. Second is the increasing speed with which existing knowledge becomes outdated or obsolete. Knowledge in all fields is evolving so quickly that most of what is taught today will no longer be valid or sufficient a few years from now. Therefore learning must necessarily become a life-long process that occurs in parallel with employment, rather than a stage that precedes a formal career – the conception of a Double Helix. Third, as a result of these first two, there has been a fragmentation of disciplines to enable scholars to concentrate on narrower specialised fields. American universities now offer more than 1,000 disciplines and subdisciplines. The problem with specialisation is that specialists who become more and more expert in one narrow subject tend to become less knowledgeable about other subdisciplines and the wider context in which their work exists. Thus, as in-depth knowledge grows, so does ignorance of context and interdependence between fields.
We are now working with the UN Office in Geneva on a project entitled Global Leadership in the 21st century, which should prepare government and business executives and educators to understand where humanity is headed
What is the new paradigm of education?
The World Academy of Art and Science (WAAS) and World University Consortium (WUC) are calling for fundamental change in order to reorient education for the 21st century. This requires a shift in both pedagogy and content. The shift in pedagogy is from emphasis on the subject to development of the student, from focus on teaching information to learning how to learn, from passive transmission of knowledge by instructors and books to active seeking of knowledge based on the interest and curiosity of the student, from competitive to collaborative, peer-to-peer learning in which students learn in teams and teach one another, from understanding what is taught to actively and independently thinking for oneself, from exclusive emphasis on analytical thinking skills to the development of systems thinking, synthesis, integrated and intuitive mental capacities.
The new Technology High School in Napa, California, introduced peer-to-peer active learning classrooms in the mid-1990s and that model has now spread to hundreds of school districts around the U.S. Ecole 42 software university in Paris has 3,000 students and only seven instructors who facilitate learning but do not teach classes. Learning is project-based rather than by instruction. Students complete a three-year course in anywhere from 18 months to 60, according to their interest and capacity. That model has already spread to Silicon Valley and a dozen other countries.
The shift in content is from abstract concepts and theory to contextual knowledge presented in a real-world context, so its relevance and significance are self-evident, from fragmented discipline-specific knowledge to multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary perspectives. A glance at what is taught in Economics or Management today will make it clear that neither subject can be understood without considering its interconnections with law, political science, ecology, technology, society, culture, psychology and other fields. Students of artificial intelligence need to be proficient in at least four different fields – computer science, mathematics, psychology and neuroscience. The same is true in the biological sciences.
Who has to lead the change and how will it be communicated?
This is the toughest question because educational institutions are much better at studying and teaching the past than preparing youth for the future. Because of the emphasis on preserving and perpetuating past knowledge, they are inherently conservative and resistant to change. Because teachers study subjects at the beginning of their career often taught by instructors late in their own careers, the time warp between what is taught and what is relevant continues to grow.
That is why non-formal education – through online courses, corporate training and other means – has become increasingly important.
The best way to facilitate and accelerate change will be to separate certification from instruction. Students should be encouraged to acquire knowledge from whatever source they find most accessible, affordable and effective – be it public or private, formal or informal, classroom or online. Then they can apply for certification based on what they know rather than where they studied. This one change will compel universities to become much more open and progressive and will liberate students from the enormous competitive pressures for admission driven by the need for a formal degree.
Students should be encouraged to acquire knowledge from whatever source they find most accessible, affordable and effective – be it public or private, formal or informal, classroom or online.
How does this revolution in education correspond to past changes in education? Were there similarly comprehensive shifts like the one we are witnessing today?
Education underwent a major shift 150 years ago in North America, during the Industrial Revolution. Prior to that, higher education was considered a luxury for the leisure class, the clergy and the governing class. In America, it broke out of that box. People sought education for its practical value.
Every newly founded state in America first founded an agricultural college to educate farmers, which later transformed into the well-known state university systems. Professional education became prominent to fill the need for physicians, lawyers and engineers. That occurred again early in the 20th century.
Before that, science and technology were relatively independent. Scholars studied. Inventors invented. But then the two fields became increasingly unified and inventors required more and more scientific knowledge in order to deal with the advances in every field. This made education essential for the industry.
Then, in the 1960s, management began to emerge as a science in its own right. Businesspeople hadn’t required any education prior to that. Entrepreneurs then began to seek higher education as essential. Another shift came with the introduction of the community college system in the U.S., which plays a very important role.
Unlike most of Europe, the choice of careers in the U.S. can be postponed until well into the higher levels of college education, because the early years are dedicated to general rather than subject-specific knowledge. Community colleges enable late-maturing students who perform poorly during schooling to make up for what they’ve missed by seeking a two-year associates degree to get job-specific vocational skills or go on to enter college in the third year and emerge with degrees from world-class institutions without being penalised for their late start.
What is the role of technology in this process? Is it a tool and connector or it is in the driving seat?
Technology is only a tool. It cannot replace learning. It can, of course, eliminate the need for people to learn to do things that can now be done by computers. That’s the rightful role of technology. It’s what enabled human beings to stop ploughing fields by hand and start letting machines do the heavy lifting. Why should students learn how to calculate square roots when their mobile phones can do it infinitely faster? Why should we memorise information that is accessible at our fingertips?
Technology will help us shift the emphasis of education from memorisation to understanding, independent thinking and creativity. It will help us differentiate ourselves from machines and become more truly and uniquely human. And I should add that, in speaking with most AI specialists, they completely agree that machine intelligence is a very different and far more limited thing than human intelligence. Machines may have much larger memories and faster processing speeds, but they will never be able to think with human comprehension, values and sympathy, creatively and intuitively, as human beings.
Technology certainly has an important role to play in education making information accessible, converting mechanical learning into interesting games, enabling distance and collaborative learning. Advanced learners, especially in specialised technical fields, may find technology-based education fully sufficient. But real education is a human process and it thrives on human interaction and relationships. This is especially true at higher levels. Thinking is a creative act that needs the stimulus of a meeting of minds. So, it’s unlikely that the most important educational functions can ever be taken over by machines. Even in early childhood education, the interest and attention of the parent and teacher is a powerful motivating force for children to learn. That is why we learn fastest at a very early age and everyone learns their first language before going to school.
It’s important to recognise that changing the education system at any level is a difficult and challenging task, but that is no excuse not to try. And there is abundant evidence that it can be done
How do conferences like those that you have in Serbia and around the globe inform the process of change?
We have completed four international conferences on future education at the University of California, Berkeley, my own alma mater; at Roma Tre University in Rome; in Rio and last month in Belgrade. The purpose of these conferences is two-fold. Second, to challenge mainstream educators to recognise the enormous importance of fostering rapid, substantial innovation at all levels and in all fields of education. Second, to bring together practitioners who have already adopted innovative approaches to sharing their knowledge and experiences to convince others that change is not only possible but is already underway.
It’s important to recognise that changing the education system at any level is a difficult and challenging task. But that is no excuse for not trying. And there is abundant evidence that it can be done. For example, one speaker at the Belgrade conference is the founder of the Global Institute for Integral Management Studies, a vocational business college based in Kerala, India. Eighteen months ago, the GIIMS overhauled its entire syllabus in a few months, virtually threw out the textbooks and radically altered its pedagogy. It is now regarded as a model for other colleges to emulate. The improvement in education is so great that companies are lining up to hire their graduates and even other colleges are recruiting them to be instructors in their own colleges.
Two other speakers, from Primrose School in Pondicherry, India, reported on the use of advanced methods for early childhood learning. Just last week they reported that KG and 1st-grade students have dramatically accelerated the speed of learning how to read in English through the adoption of simple, innovate methods.
What is the role of your institution in furthering this change?
Our role until now has primarily been to research existing and innovative practices and formulate what we call a paradigm shift in education. Over the past five years, we have conducted more than a dozen curriculum development programmes focusing on the integration of subjects in the social sciences. We are now working with the United Nations Office in Geneva on a project entitled Global Leadership in the 21st century. One aim of this project is to develop an original masters programme in global leadership in collaboration with an international network of universities. The aim is to develop a course that will prepare UN and national government officials, diplomats, business executives, educators, social entrepreneurs and world citizens to understand where humanity is headed and how they can act effectively foster our smooth transition to a more peaceful, prosperous and harmonious future.
How is your initiative complemented by other initiatives at the global and European levels?
WUC is an open network which has always welcomed collaboration with other organisations. The International Association of University Presidents is one of our founding charter members. Educators from many countries have participated in our conferences to exchange ideas. But now we are entering a more formal stage of collaboration, where we hope to establish relations with networks of universities around the world so we can share our findings and help them make a rapid transition to a new paradigm. In fact, we extend an invitation to interested universities and governments to collaborate.
To what extent do governments around the world understand the need for change?
There are well-known examples of governments taking progressive positions on education. South Korea has made remarkable efforts in recent decades to raise college graduation rates to the highest level in the world. But the pedagogy and content belong to the 20th century, not the 21st.
They may be teaching leading-edge science and technology, but they are not preparing youth with the understanding of society, global evolution or the kind of creativity needed to come up with entirely new perspectives and solutions. It may keep their companies abreast of the competition for a while, but it cannot prepare them to fully emerge in the political, economic and social leadership position they are capable of attaining. Finland is the best example of a real shift in paradigm to student-centred, person-centred, trans-disciplinary education at both higher and lower levels. They are an outstanding example with many admirers, but few other nations are willing to follow.
What do you see as the biggest challenges for emerging countries?
The biggest challenge is to stop imitating and start innovating. The whole world looks up to the mainstream Western universities as the model to emulate. Foreign students pay upwards of $20 billion annually for admission to American colleges and universities.
But countries striving to catch up with the West can only do so by overcoming the disadvantages of the market leaders. How did Amazon overtake huge competitors to become the leading bookseller and online retailer in the world? They took advantage of the fact that they were not invested in the outmoded existing model of retailing.They adopted a new model capitalising on the value of speed, customer service and product variety. Countries like Serbia, with a very strong tradition in science and technology and a population with a proven capacity to excel in advanced fields of knowledge, should be striving to capitalise on these real strengths and innovate new models that prepare the youth to become entrepreneurs instead of employees in other peoples’ companies. Transformation in education can become a powerful lever for the transformation of the whole economy and society. If tiny Finland can make such a mark in and through education, how much greater is the potential for Serbia to do so?
Society in the 21st century values individuality more than ever before. In earlier periods, conformity and obedience were highly esteemed. Now, increasingly, it is the person who really is a unique individual
What capabilities do young people need to have in order to join the world of work as we speak?
Research confirms that, in the global marketplace, personality is more important than subject knowledge, which is constantly changing and needs to be acquired according to the needs of the specific field and workplace. It is now widely recognised that business employees place greater emphasis on social and communication skills than on specialised knowledge for most occupations. But social skills are not enough at higher levels. There the focus shifts from social capacities to the development of personality. Employers look for the capacity to think independently and differently, to take responsibility, to embody higher values and to aspire for higher performance. At the highest level, companies look for real individuality. Society in the 21st century values individuality more than ever before. In earlier periods, conformity and obedience were highly esteemed. Now, increasingly, it is the person who really is a unique individual. This does not imply someone who simply thinks and cares about himself and no one or nothing else.
That is individualism. The real individual, what renowned humanitarian psychologists refer to as self-actualised individuals, value other people, understand their place in the wider society, are conscious of all they receive from the wider collective and all they owe back to it. The greatest gift that education can give to anyone is to help them discover and develop their own unique capacities and to value that uniqueness wherever they find it in others. This quality explains why now and then a single person comes forward to change the world in one way or another. Centuries ago, French socialist Charles Fourier foresaw a time when there would be 37 million geometricians equal to Newton and another 37 million with the literary capacity of Homer and Moliere. I believe what he really foresaw was a time when, through advances in education, every human being would have the opportunity to fully develop their own unique capacities as an individual, which no AI machine can ever match.
How can teachers, as the spine of every educational process, catch up with the process?
This question touches one of the critical knots of transforming education, but it is not the only one. Teachers are often accused of preventing the evolution of the educational system by resisting change, and there is truth in that accusation, as there is in every generalisation. But there are millions, perhaps tens of millions of teachers around the world who love teaching and are dedicated to their profession. Given an opportunity and a changing environment, a good number will come forward to embrace a new paradigm. But that will depend on achieving a sea change in the values and policies by which educational institutions function and national governments seek to control and direct public policies for their own purposes and according to their own understanding. A first step would come when teaching is recognised as one of the most important professions of all and teachers are compensated far better than they are today, in order to attract the best of society’s talent to one of its most precious cultural endowments.
Conformity and obedience were highly esteemed in earlier periods. In contrast to that, society in the 21st century values individuality more than ever before
Machines may have much larger memories and faster processing speeds, but they will never be able to think with human comprehension, values and sympathy, creatively and intuitively
The shift in the content of education is from abstract concepts and theory to contextual knowledge presented in a real world context so that its relevance and significance is self-evident