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We Need To Educate Kids For The Future, Not The Past. Here’s How:

2017 April 26
by Greg Satell

Our education system was designed for the 20th century. It is mostly focused on teaching kids how to retain information and manipulate numbers. It regularly tests these abilities and, if you do well, you are promised to get into a good college, have a successful career and live a happy, prosperous life.

Unfortunately, those promises have become empty. Today, when we all carry around supercomputers in our pocket, tasks like remembering facts and doing long division have largely been automated. The truth is, there is little that we learned in school that can’t now be handled with a quick Google search and an Excel spreadsheet.

Clearly, we need to rethink education. Our kids will face a much different world than we live in now. In fact, a study at Oxford concluded that nearly half of the jobs that exist today will be automated in the next 20 years. To prepare for the future, we need to replace our regimented education system with one that fosters skills like teamwork, communication and exploration.

Working In A Team

Traditionally, schoolwork has been based on individual accomplishment. You’re supposed to study at home, come in prepared and take your test without help. If you look at your friend’s paper, it’s called cheating and you get in a lot of trouble for it. We’re taught to be accountable for achievements on our own merits.

Yet consider how the nature of work has changed, even in highly technical fields. In 1920, most scientific papers were written by sole authors, but by 1950 that had changed and co-authorship became the norm. Today, the average paper has four times as many authors as it did then and the work being done is far more interdisciplinary and done at greater distances than in the past.

Make no mistake. The high value work today is being done in teams and that will only increase as more jobs become automated. The jobs of the future will not depend on specific expertise or crunching numbers, but will involve humans collaborating with other humans to design work for machines.

Clearly, value has shifted from cognitive skills to social skills, which is one reason why educators see increasing value in recess. Unfortunately, very few schools have adapted. Many are so unaware of the value of social interaction and play that they still take recess away as a punishment for bad behavior. We desperately need to shift the focus of our schools to collaboration, play and interpersonal skills.

Communicating Effectively

In recent years a lot of emphasis has been put on the need for stronger STEM education to compete in an ever more technological world. However, there is increasing evidence that the STEM shortage is a myth and, as  Fareed Zakaria points out in his book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, what we most need to improve is communication skills.

To understand why, think about an advanced technology like IBM’s Watson, which is being applied to fields as diverse as medicine, finance and even music. That takes more than just technical skill, but requires computer scientists to work effectively with experts in a wide variety of fields.

In fact, Taso Du Val, CEO of Toptal, an outsourcing firm that focuses on the world’s most elite technology talent told me that when his company evaluates programmers, they not only look at technical skills, but put just as much emphasis on communication skills, initiative and teamwork. You simply can’t write great code for a problem you don’t fully understand.

Clear and cogent writing, critical thinking and learning how to learn — to take in disparate facts, put them in context and express them clearly — these are all skills that will be even more crucial for professionals in the future than they are today.

Learning Patterns Rather Than Numbers

Of the “three R’s” that we learned in school, arithmetic was generally the most dreaded. Multiplication tables, long division and deceptively constructed word problems have been the bane of every young student’s existence. In my day, at least, the utility was clear, but now children can rightly ask “why can’t I use the calculator on my phone?

Clearly, in our increasingly data driven age, mathematical skills are more important than ever. Yet they are not the same ones we learned in school. It’s not so important to be able to count and multiply  things — those tasks are largely automated today — but it’s imperative to be able to ascribe meaning from data.

Valdis Krebs of Orgnet explains that “Schools are still stuck on teaching 20th century math for building things rather than 21st century math for understanding things” and suggests that curriculums focus less on the mathematics of engineering (e.g. algebra and calculus) and more on the mathematics of patterns (e.g. set theory, graph theory, etc.).

This may seem like a newfangled idea, but in actuality it is a shift to higher level math.  As the great mathematician G.H. Hardy put it, “A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas.”

Focus On Exploring Things Rather Than Knowing Things

Take a look at any basic curriculum and there are lists of things that kids are supposed to know by the end of the course. Dates of historical events, mathematical formulas, the name of specific biological structures or whatever. Yet today, knowledge is a moving target. Much of the information in textbooks today will be obsolete by the time our kids start their careers.

Clearly, the notion that education will give you knowledge that will prepare you for an entire career is vastly outdated. Today we need to prepare our kids for a world that we don’t really understand yet. How can we possibly make good judgments about what information they need to know?

So instead of cramming their heads full of disparate facts, we need to give them the ability to explore things for themselves, take in new information, make sense of it and communicate what they’ve learned to others. In a world where technology is steadily taking over tasks that were once thought of distinctly human, those are the skills that will be most crucial.

In an age of disruption, the most crucial ability is to adapt. That is what we need to prepare our kids to do.

– Greg


An earlier version of this article first appeared in

11 Responses leave one →
  1. April 26, 2017

    You hit a lot of points here and again perhaps the most important is the last line – we need to prepare our students to adapt on their own. I often wonder how difficult it would be to be a 5th grade teacher. The basics of the earlier grades (reading, writing, and basic math) will pretty clearly be needed in the future, even if one has Google and a calculator. However, beyond that it is not clear at all what skills will be needed for future success. Even computer programming may become in far less demand once AI systems are able to automate that process.
    I agree with you on the two skills that will be needed regardless of technological change – teamwork and communication. I would also add that self-discipline or the ability to set a goal and sacrifice towards it is likely the single most important skill that drives success. If students have social skills and self-discipline they will have most of the skills they need to adapt to the ever changing world around them. We are in dire need of innovative educators that can create an environment like this.

  2. Bill VE permalink
    April 26, 2017

    As one of those people trying to hire good employees with the skills needed for tomorrow, I must differ with much of your opinion. It sounds all well and good to say that Google, Excel and a calculator can do much of what we learned in school, but that is neither true, nor the point of doing it.

    Consider your comments about math. How do you think that you get to a place where you can understand higher-level math? You must first learn the basics, including simple arithmetic, algebra, geometry and calculus. As with all things in science, higher math builds on what comes before, and if you don’t understand the basics, you will be hard-pressed to truly understand the higher math that you try to learn.

    It’s also very important to have a sense of what the right answer should be. Otherwise, you fail to notice when the computer is wrong. Humans must always work to keep the computers from running amok, courtesy of bad data, errors in programming, malevolent actors and a host of random errors that can be introduced by everything from electrical glitches to failing parts. I do this for a living, so I know all about the many errors that computers make — I make a living fixing those problems.

    I agree that effective communication is extremely important, and I want technologists who are well-rounded enough to be able to communicate. However, that does not mean that they don’t need to have a rigorous grounding in STEM. You need the technical skills and the communication skills. If either are lacking, your effectiveness on the job will be limited. However, if you have the technical skills, I can at least make use of you for something. If all you can do is communicate, then you become an extra hand-off with no value-add, i.e., a prime candidate to have your position eliminated.

    You say that “there is increasing evidence that the STEM shortage is a myth.” My direct experience in hiring technical people is that you’re wrong. There is a huge shortage. What’s worse, the problem is not being solved by the educational system. The people I hire simply don’t have the knowledge I need them to have — even just the STEM knowledge for which they have a degree.

    The problem with the educational system is that we are teaching for the test, and not for lifetime learning. People need to actually internalize a great deal of facts in order to have the general background of knowledge necessary to learn what needs to be learned about the latest technology or new idea. You mentioned the value of learning patterns. I agree with that. However, pattern recognition occurs on the foundation of a whole host of facts from your education, prior experience and general knowledge seemingly unrelated to the current field of inquiry.

    The skill I need in my hires is the ability to learn. BUT, they must have already internalized a great number of facts relevant to various technical fields in order to be prepared to learn what I need them to learn. Knowing things is actually more critical than ever, but well-meaning educators are deciding that we can just “google it.” This is creating ever more ignorant workers, ill-suited to the many good-paying jobs available in this age and the future.

  3. April 26, 2017

    Good point Casey. The earlier grades are different than the later grades. However, one of the things that’s emerging from research is how important recess is to establish social skills and problem solving through play. Unfortunately, a great number of schools are cutting down on recess to devote more time to standardized tests and, in many cases, take recess away as a punishment.

    Obviously, this reflects a poor understanding of the skills our kids need to learn.

    – Greg

  4. April 26, 2017

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Bill.

    – Greg

  5. Marc permalink
    April 28, 2017

    Bill. I agree. Knowledge is the only soil from which ideas can sprout. No knowledge, no ideas. At least none of much value.

  6. April 28, 2017

    Great article Greg! Got to your website via your article on blockbuster v. Netflix that you wrote for Forbes. That was an excellent read, and one of the better breakdowns of what took place!

    You’ve got some good points here, was thinking more along the lines that our education system is at least 5-10 years (being modest) behind technological advances in most fields being studied in high school and colleges.

    Technological advances and ways of working together in the workforce, such as agile marketing, take some time to get added to curriculums, as well as hiring a professor who can successfully teach these new courses.

    So while it’s a great idea to say teach for the future, not the past, the education system in this country is a cumbersome one, but yet tuition cost are strangely on the rise.

  7. April 30, 2017

    That’s a very good point. Most probably, the Baumol effect has something to do with it (A factory worker today is exponentially more productive than 20 years ago, but a teacher still serves roughly the same amount of kids). In higher education, the way it is funded seems to play a role (government subsidies tend to pay for a lot of buildings, rec centers and admin costs).

    I don’t know of a really good solution to either problem.

    – Greg

  8. April 30, 2017

    What will it take to get school’s out of the 20th century state of mind? In most sectors we see a significant driving force that influences the shift. Basic examples for instance…

    blackberry to iPhone we had the multitouch screen that pulled users away from blackberry (one of the many reasons)

    Helmet advancements in the NFL occured due to concussions and injury’s

    cable television to Netflix was the cost and good content.

    Is it possible to predict when this change will occur in education and what will the driving force be?

  9. May 1, 2017

    It’s a valid question, although I do think education is improving, it certainly isn’t going as fast as we would like it too. One impediment is certainly the increased emphasis on standardized tests.

    – Greg

  10. May 11, 2017

    Very valid points, but, to be honest, these are the things our 8 year old learns at her ’20th century’ Montessori school. To prepare for the future, we sometimes have to look to the ‘past’.

  11. May 11, 2017

    Point taken. Well argued:-)

    – Greg

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