Schools Must Change – here’s why

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When reading through articles that examine human technologies, innovation and the future, it’s always interesting how few attempt to seriously tackle education and learning. One can often find references, for example ‘Education/teaching needs to change’ etc., but despite its importance almost all articles we read are about technology and jobs, technology and society, technology and what it means to be human. There’s not a lot out there about learning when viewed through the lens of exponential technology, disruptive innovation, societal transformation and The Big Picture. 

We’re missing how learning should, could and might change.

Most articles we do find tend towards a short-term, technical focus: changes in resources and teaching practices, assessment, resourcing, curriculum and training. The more adventurous might look at restructuring the school day, learning spaces, grade levels and administration. Perhaps this is a reflection of the mindset of those within the system, or of how constraints, real or perceived, prevent systemic change. But I don’t think that these discussions, while important, address the fundamental shift in learning that is needed to meet the challenges of transformed society and work. So what is needed?

This article from CNBC shares that the future of learning will be about skills, not degrees, and the shift has already started. Google has stopped asking for applicants’ GPAs when they hire new people, and freelancers value skills-based training to the education they received while getting their degrees. Degrees usually mean debt – a lifetime of debt for some, and to what purpose?

Those in the modern workforce, especially freelancers, are waking to the fact that learning is a lifelong process, and hence are constantly investing in upskilling themselves. This is likely to continue – one estimate from the WEF (see below) states that up to 65% of students starting school today will have a job that doesn’t yet exist. 70% of Upwork’s fastest growing skills are new to the index, and will continue to change ever more quickly.

What’s the problem with teaching what we’ve learnt in the past? According to the World Economic Forum, the way we teach children pretty much has not changed in generations, even with the advent of technology. One excerpt sums it up nicely:

“Problem-solving, creative thinking, digital skills and collaboration are in greater need every year yet are not taught in our schools. Even when schools teach digital skills, they focus on how to use technology – how to create a document or a presentation – rather than how to create technology.”

This is a big problem. I think teachers can have a tendency to pat ourselves on the back for using technology, thinking that we’re moving ahead, when in fact nothing at all is changing – I often refer to the computer coding curriculum as an example of this. The WEF argues that the future lies in teaching Computer Science, and by this we are not simply talking about coding. Computer Science is “… computational thinking, interface design, data analysis, machine learning, cybersecurity, networking and robotics. Learning computer science encourages creativity, problem-solving, ethics and collaboration – skills which aren’t just important for technical careers in the developed world, but valuable for every career in all economies.”

Presently, the education profession is running short of teachers who champion and model good, knowledgeable practice in the use of educational technology – many teachers are anxious and ineffective users of it. If the WEF is right, a shortage of teachers who can effectively support computer science learning, let alone tech. integration, is looming and training them to the necessary levels of competence and professionalism will be an interesting challenge to solve.

Accenture, the global management consulting and professional services firm that has come up with some suggestions for accelerating the coming skills shortage in an age of intelligent technologies. It’s a lengthy read but one worth absorbing, as this training provider is at the forefront of helping businesses train their workers, and it’s grounded within in-house and global research. Basically, the premise is that as technology evolves, new work will emerge, but the skills required to fulfil that work will lag, and therefore learning needs to be redefined and accelerated. One quote:

“We should be talking more about learning than about education. Education is about processes and top down transmission of knowledge. Learning is a much wider concept. A lot of learning goes on in non-educational contexts, and today we have a very large and increasing number of learning opportunities.”

The article avoids simple solutions such as ‘train more engineers’, arguing that work will be augmented by machines and work reconfigured – a more complex process than simple training of a greater number of people with specific skills. For example, as the population ages we need more nurses, but technology may be able to drastically reduce administrative tasks, and training can therefore focus on patient care and interpersonal skills – the nature of the training and profession will also change.

There is a lot of rich data here, and I advise anyone with an interest in adult training to read it. Very briefly, the report’s recommendations are solving the crisis in three steps:

1. Speed up the process of experiential learning, or learning by doing. Technology such as AR and VR will be powerful tools, as can more traditional approaches such as apprenticeships.

2. Shift the focus from institutional needs to individual needs. Personalise learning, and recognise how roles are changing – for example research scientists are no longer confined to labs but now spend more time interacting and sharing their research. Designers and artists are starting to engage with and analyse data and information. Recognise what skills and competencies people need to fulfil their roles effectively and support and support that growth.

3. Make learning available to all, especially vulnerable workers. High quality education and learning must be available to all, and those who are most at-risk not only in work but in life need an extra helping hand. Who pays? Governments and companies can incentivise workers to further their learning in specific areas, and workers can also have some ‘skin in the game’ by investing in themselves, but not to the point where they are burdened by impossible debt.

Again, in my opinion an excellent read, and one worth paying attention to. 

Improved teacher effectiveness has been a focus for many education systems globally, with enhanced teacher training, standards based assessments linked to teacher performance, and programmes to have high-performing graduates teaching in low-performing schools. In the United States the Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching Initiative was designed and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to dramatically improve student outcomes through greatly improved access to effective teaching. Teaching effectiveness (TE) was assessed, feedback given, improvements made and best practices shared and refined. The 575 million dollar result?

‘With minor exceptions, by 2014–2015, student achievement, access to effective teaching, and dropout rates were not dramatically better than they were for similar sites that did not participate in the Intensive Partnerships Initiative.’


‘A near-exclusive focus on Teaching Effectiveness might be insufficient to dramatically improve student outcomes. Many other factors might need to be addressed, ranging from early childhood ….’

Ouch. These findings appear to align with The Coleman Report (1966) and more recent research from Deary (2007), which highlighted that school and teacher variables together account for less than 10% of variance in a student’s achievement at school. In New Zealand, socio-economic factors have been identified as having a far greater influence on post-secondary achievement than any other by a considerable margin.

There is no doubt that good teachers matter, but the focus on teacher effectiveness and standards exclusively will be insufficient to transform how students learn, and how we develop human potential so that people can thrive in an uncertain future. A holistic, systems-based approach is necessary.

The research conducted and insights gained during the writing of this article have inspired the Indigo Schools Framework, the details of which can found in the Primer on our Resources Page. Send us an email at or complete the form below if you’d like to learn more about how the Indigo Schools Framework can be successfully applied within your school. Also be sure to follow us on Facebook and Linkedin for our latest updates.

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