Education and Skills

Our education system is losing relevance. Here's how to unleash its potential

A school classroom in Trondheim in the 1920s

Our education system was founded to supply workers with a relatively fixed set of skills and knowledge

Karthik Krishnan
Venture Chair, Redesign Health
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Education, Gender and Work

  • Our current education system is built on the Industrial Revolution model and focuses on IQ, in particular memorization and standardization;
  • We must update education with job readiness, the ability to compete against smart machines and the creation of long-term economic value in mind;
  • Education access, equity and quality must be improved to solve the global education crisis – 72 million children of primary education age are not in school.

Education today is in crisis. Even before the coronavirus pandemic struck, in many parts of the world, children who should be in school aren’t; for those who are, their schools often lack the resources to provide adequate instruction. At a time when quality education is arguably more vital to one’s life chances than ever before, these children are missing out on the education needed to live fulfilling lives as adults and to participate in and contribute to the world economy.

Historically, education has been the shortest bridge between the haves and the have-nots, bringing progress and prosperity for both individuals and countries, but the current education system is showing its age. Founded at a time when industries needed workers with a relatively fixed set of skills and knowledge, it is losing its relevance in an era of innovation, disruption and constant change, where adaptability and learning agility are most needed.

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Our current education system, built on the Industrial Revolution model, focuses on IQ, in particular memorization and standardization – skills that will be easily and efficiently supplanted by artificial and augmented intelligence (AI), where IQ alone isn’t sufficient. A good blend of IQ (intelligence) + EQ (emotional intelligence) + RQ (resilience) is critical to unleashing a student’s potential.

Evaluating our current education system against three criteria – job readiness, ability to compete against smart machines for jobs and creating long-term economic value – reveals the following:

  • 34% of students believe their schools are not preparing them for success in the job market. We need to fix the bridge from education to employability;
  • 60% of future jobs haven’t been developed yet and 40% of nursery-age children (kindergarteners) in schools today will need to be self-employed to have any form of income (Source: WEF Future of Jobs Report). We need to prepare students for jobs that haven’t been created yet and to become entrepreneurs. What we need to learn, how we learn, and the role of the teacher are all changing.

The $1.5 trillion in student debt in the US is the second highest debt after home mortgages. With tuition fees expected to break $100,000 per year, student debt will be crushing for future generations. Even Barack Obama was reportedly paying off student loans in his 40s. With the average new college graduate making $48,400, many people will be paying off their student loans well into their retirement, hurting their ability to save, buy homes, support their families and contribute to philanthropic efforts.

While we work to transform education, we also need to make it more accessible. According to UNICEF, more than 72 million children of primary education age are not in school, while 750 million adults are illiterate and do not have the ability to improve their and their children’s living conditions. As we take on education transformation, daisy-chaining across three crucial categories (access, equity, quality/impact) is critical for unleashing potential.

Rising education around the world
Rising education around the world

Access means ensuring learners everywhere are not prevented by circumstances from being in school and getting an education. Access to education is low in many developing nations, but inequalities also exist within developed countries that are highly stratified socially, for example, in the UK. How do we make education/learning more accessible? What role can technology play? How can countries, particularly developing ones, hold on to top talent to ensure economic progress?

Equity means ensuring every child has the resources needed to get to school and to thrive, regardless of circumstance. While equality means treating every student the same; equity means making sure every student has the support they need to be successful. The essential drivers are fairness (ensuring that personal and social circumstances do not prevent students from achieving their academic potential); and inclusion (setting a basic minimum standard for all students regardless of background, gender or location). This leads to several questions: how do you raise awareness in communities? What role can technology play in creating personalized and differentiated learning so all students get the kind of instruction they need to succeed?


The definition of quality and success has to move beyond standardized test scores to a more holistic measurement tied to life improvements and societal impact. Quality education would provide learners with capabilities and competencies required to make them economically productive, develop sustainable livelihoods, enhance individual well-being and contribute to community. The impact orientation will help shift our gaze away from behaviour and activities (attending school and checking the box) to value-creation environments (from personalized learning and career counselling to job readiness and becoming responsible global citizens).

It’s in everybody’s best interest to solve the global education crisis:

  • 13 million US students are likely to drop out of school during the next decade costing the country $3 trillion;
  • Compared to high-school dropouts, graduates pay more taxes, draw less from social welfare programmes and are less likely to commit a crime;
  • An 8% improvement in US PISA scores in the next 20 years would boost GDP by about $70 trillion in the next 80 years.

“Investing in education is the most cost-effective way to drive economic development, improve skills and opportunities for young women and men, and unlock progress on all 17 Sustainable Development Goals," says United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.

So let us reset education and learning to meet 21st-century needs, shaping a path from education to employability and economic independence.

Let’s all commit to collectively helping to break a link in the shackles holding education back. Let’s blend the lessons of the past with the technology of the present and future to truly transform education, giving students the ability to think, learn and evolve no matter what the challenges that await them tomorrow and unleash their potential to benefit the world.

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