Jobs and the Future of Work

9 ways to make education fit for the 21st century

Children, going to the first grade, gather in a classroom after an event marking the start of another school year in Minsk, Belarus, August 31, 2015.

Image: REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

Paul Kruchoski
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Future of Work

By 2040, many of the children born this year will be joining the workforce. The world they find will be very different from ours today. How we work and live will be shaped by artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, synthetic biology and many other emerging technologies.

Education is key if we are to prepare students for the world of work, but are our education systems ready?

In this time of fast-paced digital change, also known as the fourth industrial revolution, we need innovative places of learning that can provide the next generation with the skills of the future.

This chart shows which countries are performing the best when it comes to pairing education with jobs in real life.

Here at the World Economic Forum, the Global Agenda Council on Education has spent two years exploring how to build more innovative education systems. This has generated nine simple, effective principles for education leaders to use to spur positive change. While each education system is unique, the challenges they face are not, and these approaches can be applied flexibly in many different contexts.

Play 1: Provide a compelling vision of the future

Leaders need to provide an alternate vision of the future and stimulate demand for a better education system. Consider the UK government’s 2003 vision for London’s schools, which sought to change a chronically underperforming system to one which would “match any system in the world”. That vision substantially improved the school system, especially for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, while challenging the preconception that change was impossible.

Play 2: Set ambitious goals that force innovation

Setting ambitious goals – particularly nearly impossible ones – forces the entire system to innovate in order to move towards them. Ambitious goals should be paired with enough flexibility to create room for new innovation. Just look at Chile: by focusing on a small number of priorities and making substantial investments, the country has improved learning quality, including boosting student reading assessments by more than 20 points between 2000 and 2009.

Play 3: Create choice and competition

Offering choices and creating competition can pressure schools to perform better, offering alternatives to what exists now. Choice can be created at many levels: students and parents can choose schools, or educators can have greater choice in where to work. In 1991 Colombia established a school voucher programme, which has helped to drive up graduation rates among the more than 125,000 students served.

Play 4: Pick many winners

Supporting multiple ideas or approaches at once spurs all providers to continue to improve and compete, whether you are testing new technology tools or new school models. Systems that reward a single “winner” discourage further improvement and learning. The US Department of Education’s Race to the Top, which offered $4 billion to states that commit to reforming their education systems, is just one example.

Play 5: Benchmark and track progress

Education systems need data on school performance. This allows everyone to see and follow progress. It can also be used by leaders to identify problems, as shown by the Link School Performance Review in Uganda. The programme allows schools and districts to measure their performance against national standards and performance indicators. Teams then work with schools to develop improvement plans to address identified areas of need.

Play 6: Evaluate and share the performance of new innovations

Innovations need to actually work, and we need to know how well they work. New York City tested a new short-cycle evaluation programme for education technology through its iZone Gap App Challenge. All new innovations are measured against efficacy standards within a three-month window – allowing schools to rapidly test and evaluate the effectiveness of new approaches. This is a model of how education systems can test performance and evaluate the impact of new innovations.

Play 7: Pair greater accountability with autonomy

Innovators need freedom to experiment while remaining accountable for their results. Granting autonomy to schools can remove barriers to innovation and allow school leaders to explore new approaches. In 2009, the OECD found a correlation between increased school-level autonomy and the performance of the entire school system. It also found that, in systems with existing accountability measures, schools with greater autonomy over resource allocation performed better than those with less autonomy.

Play 8: Invest in and empower agents of change

Agents of change need support to develop and refine their work. System leaders need to provide leadership development, coaching and mentorship, and other support systems that enable innovators to succeed. Since 2007, New Leaders for New Schools has trained more than 70 school principals in Greater New Orleans. More than 60% of their schools have outperformed the district. After two years, 100% are on track to closing the achievement gaps in the next five years.

Play 9: Reward successes and productive failure

Public recognition makes it easier for innovators to take risks, even when they don’t work out. They also help highlight work that others can emulate, as shown by both the Varkey Foundation’s Global Teacher Prize and the WISE Prize for Education.

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Related topics:
Jobs and the Future of WorkEducation and Skills
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