Boosting Education in an Unpredictable Century

Keyword: 
Education
Topic: 
Education - Health

This article was previously published in the Ideas Matters Blog, on May 17, 2017.

At college graduations this summer, commencement speakers will rally departing classes to pursue their dreams and unique paths through life. That may be inspiring. But getting a job is far harder today than it was when those commencement speakers went to college a few decades ago. More people have acquired higher education, competition is stiffer, and requirements for even entry levels jobs are more daunting than ever. Graduates who haven’t honed their skills and sharpened their minds from an early age may find themselves not only unable to forge their own destinies. They may find themselves without a job at all.

This is a key challenge for developed and developing countries, and it is a driving force behind our upcoming 2017 flagship publication entitled Learning Better: Public Policy for Skills Development(you can register to receive book updates and a PDF copy when it is released).

Our study addresses several key issues. What can governments in Latin America and the Caribbean do to help their citizens develop the skills needed in an ever more competitive world? What policies can they adopt to grow those skills from early childhood through adulthood? And how well are governments doing with those missions to date?

As our researchers were putting their final touches on the book, we asked subscribers to our IDB blogs five questions related to skills development, ranging from what government policies they thought worked best to the skills most demanded by employers.

We also asked them about the quality of education their children were receiving.

Many respondents seemed to think the education systems in their countries were letting them down. Schools were not preparing their children for the labor market of the 21st century, and their failures were having an impact from the onset of the educational process when learning was most crucial. Moreover, this was happening at a stage where IDB research shows coverage to be nearly universal, with sharp increases in spending over recent years. “Many children finish primary school without knowing how to even read or write,” lamented one respondent from Mexico.

Many teachers, as revealed in a recent blog, spend far too much time on classroom management and too little on instruction. Or they teach incorrect information and fail to correct students when they make mistakes. Results from the most recent international exam for 15 year olds, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), reflect real failures. The average of 10 nations from the region, lags by 2.5 years of schooling that of the OECD.

“The education in our schools and universities is not preparing youth (for the labor market), nor preparing them to be active citizens in our society,” said Fernando de Nielander Ribeiro from Brazil.

Some of the blame lies in teaching that is rote, relying on memorization, rather than the development of creative thinking, according to Andrea Ixquiac Velásquez of Costa Rica. Like many other people who responded to our query, she also faulted a failure of the education system to develop socio-emotional skills, those key attributes, including empathy and the ability to work in a team, that are key to both a well-adjusted social life and the demands of the modern economy. “Learning is minimal,” said Edwin Melgar Ortiz from Bolivia. “Teachers are not up to date in either pedagogy or knowledge.”

Our book proposes critical, cost-effective reforms, ranging from improvements in pedagogy to motivational tools for students — that might spark the educational systems in the region out of their current lethargy. Moreover, it explores computer-based learning, including interactive-education, that can potentially “disrupt education” with the dynamism it needs.

In a recent column in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman spoke of a future, almost up on us, where self-driving vehicles, programmed by a smartphone, watch or glasses, put truck and taxi drivers out of work and the bursting power of microprocessors potentially make accountants redundant. It is a world where an oil rig worker or an auto mechanic is not so much a manual laborer, but a computer expert, able to harness modern technology to get their job done.

“The notion that we can go to college for four years and then spend that knowledge for the next 30 is over,” he writes. “If you want to be a lifelong employee anywhere today, you have to be a lifelong learner. And that means: More is now on you. And that means self-motivation to learn and keep learning becomes the most important life skill.”

It is a message well worth keeping in mind for those graduating this summer. It is also critical for governments. Globalization, automation, and a host of other modern forces are irrevocably changing the rules of the game. Reforming education systems and ensuring that future graduates acquire the basics in reading, math and science, develop socio-emotional skills, and learn how to keep learning are not only critical for the success of individuals. They will determine how productive and successful economies can be in a fast-moving century whose advances we can scarcely predict.

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