Future of Education: Part I

The Reinvention of Lifelong Learning

Photo by Fabio Ballasina on Unsplash

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn — Alvin Toffler

For a school founded in post independence India, the message is very futuristic. The most important consideration in building the global educational institutions of the future is inclusion. No one should be left behind. Today, more than ever, there is a need to connect hearts globally and work holistically to solve challenges bigger than one country alone can handle.

The most important trait in educators of tomorrow should be character: putting humanity above all else. This article looks at the challenges and solutions to designing the education of the future including EdTech.

What is Education

As per the Oxford English Dictionary education is ‘The process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university’.

For some, that education is obtained on the streets and is solely about staying alive one day at a time. An education consists of fighting society’s long standing stigma against educating the girl child, not getting married at a tender age, being able to earn enough to feed hungry mouths and possibly learning humanity by being a criminal.

Therefore, education has to be looked at more holistically by enlarging the radius to include the slums, shanties and the streets into the debate along with the advent of technological disruption.

The Education Curve

Inclusive and universal education is a single goal. However, it is not made up of homogeneous needs. If we decide to prioritize the segments in urgent need of a new form of education, turns out everybody has an equal need for different solutions. To my mind, the curve resembles the below:

The Education Curve by Abhishek Kothari

On the extreme left, I incorporate the needs of places in sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia where social stigma and lack of basic necessities are bigger issues blocking access to education as opposed to the people on the extreme right of the curve where robotics and Artificial Intelligence are leading to waves of unemployment. In the middle, the population is at risk of unemployment mostly through automation and needs to re skill. Lifelong learning needs structure. In the absence of formal requirements, we all have a tendency to treat change as those new year resolutions that might be broken soon. I am a prime example of that waywardness.

For the developed world, there is no option but to improve productivity by pushing the technology frontier. Whereas, the developing world can adopt the technology provided the basic infrastructure is in place. In other words, EdTech has originated in the developed world but will be diffused in the developing world provided pockets of the developing world have electricity to power life in villages.

There is a huge debate on whether the existing system of education is outdated in that it does not offer skills needed for meaningful employment. There are many surveys to support this claim. Assuming there is a need to overhaul content and delivery of education, do we take a big bang approach or do we iterate (experiential learning, self learning using digital tools, adaptive learning etc.) and see if different options work? Of course, the change has to keep pace with the advent of automation. Also, it should be in line with the needs of the labor market of the future which many can only conjecture about. Talk of ultimate uncertainty amplified by doomsday predictions.

The Beginning Of Everything

Pardon my French but in the year 1854, Seba Smith, in Portraitures of Yankee Life, said “..there are more ways than one to skin a cat..”. Many would say these words apply to the redesign of education too. There could be many ways to solve the problem of illiteracy and joblessness. To be perfectly honest, I think otherwise. In my opinion, the key to changing anything begins with mindset.

How do you educate someone who doesn’t acknowledge illiteracy as a problem?”

“How do you urge somebody to work who does not want to?”

“How do you explain the brightness of light to people habituated to living in absolute darkness?”

Barring absolute destitution, denial and lethargy are bigger diseases than poverty itself. Like many, I have wrestled with the problem of changing mindsets so that people learn not by compulsion but because they are passionate about learning and curious in general.

In some of the most desolate areas of the world, there is a need to create a bridge to the heart of the community. With the support of the local community, the first hurdle of the right mindset will have been crossed.

Focusing On The Present With An Eye To The Future

Let’s imagine a hypothetical village that needs basic infrastructure setup. This infrastructure would involve electrification, 24/7 water supply and conditions conducive to setting up of small and medium enterprises through entrepreneurship. Unfortunately, breadwinners come in all age groups.

Unless basic needs of food, clothing and shelter are met, the frame of mind needed to study will be absent. Therefore, private partnership through young entrepreneurs is a critical component. Experiential learning on the job by learning to operate computers on the job would be key to a hands on education.

Nobody doubts that infrastructure building requires public initiatives beginning with the weakest villages. Prioritizing efforts and planning roll-out of basic infrastructure is only the beginning.

Many children don’t have safe roads leading to schools. Even if there are good roads, the schools are too far away. In some cases such as the Amazonas in Brazil, the cities are actually in the middle of dense rainforests. Making sure the workforce will be ready to catch up with the rest of the developed world is the other parallel problem to solve.

In the developed world, there many examples of great education systems. However, some of them are afflicted with bias and outdated curricula while many result in high stress levels in children. Economics is a question of choosing between scarce resources but that scarcity creates a very high level of anxiety especially when it comes to countries growing faster than the rest of the world. Overall, the world also needs roughly 69 million more teachers to achieve universal education.

A typical workforce development loop is illustrated below.


Setting up examples to change mindset is a good way to begin reform. Unless people see progress, it’s difficult to change their mindset. Even then, the mind has to be open to the possibility that not all would want to be educated.

Irene Yuan Sun, author of ‘The Next Factory of The World” describes the journey of Chinese Entrepreneurs as they industrialize Africa. She observes that many entrepreneurs in China went to work at a very early age and learnt business by doing rather than by gaining a formal education. These entrepreneurs are not the most polished people with great etiquette but they are creating real jobs in Africa.

Many employ women in sewing and textile industries creating leaders along the way.

A similar industrialization is needed in Southeast Asia. With one addition — an education that also prepares the labor force to evolve into managers and tech savvy individuals. Many say that some Asian economies may not industrialize but will leapfrog to developing a strong service sector that benefits from the technologies emerging from the Western world. However, premature deindustrialization may leave many people without jobs.

For vast swathes of industries importing Artificial Intelligence, companies must invest in setting up a re-skilling program that will culminate in an internal internship consisting of on the job application of the new skills. For employees who undergo the transformation successfully, the outcome would be a new role with new possibilities. Granted, it is easier typed than done. But then again, who said change is easy?

The Current Benchmarks

The OECD (Organization For Economic Cooperation and Development) administer the PISA test which is one of the most widely recognized benchmarks of global, standardized education or the state of the art in education. As per the OECD:

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a triennial international survey which aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students. In 2015 over half a million students, representing 28 million 15-year-olds in 72 countries and economies, took the internationally agreed two-hour test. Students were assessed in science, mathematics, reading, collaborative problem solving and financial literacy.


Singapore ranks topmost in the PISA rankings whereas the Finnish, Japanese and South Korean education systems are also ranked as the top among the OECD member countries.


Renny Harlin says “In Finland, getting a university degree is the first thing you expect your kids to do”.

Finland has a unique education system where children are not graded until their senior year. The top professionals are allowed a subsidized masters in education which churns out great teachers. Finns refrain from standardized testing even though they ace the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).Teachers teach only four hours in a day and are allowed two weeks professional development every year. Children spend more time outside and learn when they are ready.

However, the most important take away from the Finnish education system is what Pasi Sahlberg, a former math and physics teacher who is now in Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture says in the Smithsonian magazine:

“We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test,”

South Korea

South Korea takes a different approach. It creates an environment that forces students to study. It is a shame if a student drops out of school. Parents are determined to coach their children to complete their education.

This approach is not starkly different from India and China where the breakneck growth in these economies creates a “survival of the fittest” mindset in people. Parents force children to focus on technical fields of education such as science, technology, engineering, medicine and mathematics. There are potential side effects of a society too focused on creating success in one direction. Burn out and stress are common in students. However, if a student completes the rite of passage, he/she is truly able to weather any storm.


Singapore has a structured education system that is based on rote learnings and is now opening up to diverse means of learning.

Ministry of Education, Government of Singapore

Many countries in South East Asia and Asia emphasize rote learning. In countries with a blistering pace of growth and a large young middle class population, education is often the only way to a stable life. It is no surprise that parents in Singapore and other Asian countries foster a sense of competitiveness in a fiercely competitive labor market. However, the flip side of competitiveness is stress and a lot of stress among children in Asia stems from parental and peer pressure.

A Momentary Pause

Whereas PISA is good measure of academic performance, many critics question whether the top countries in the PISA rankings also have happy or relatively less stressed students. The academic rigor needed to ace standardized tests can take quite a toll on students. However, in the absence of alternate and globally accepted education standards, the PISA is a good proxy for academic excellence. The next article will explore the other half of the world which is not as advanced as the OECD member countries. It will also take a look at the essential ingredients of a futuristic education system where lifelong learning is the norm and not the positive exception.

Writer @ The Intersection of Finance, Tech & Humanity. Stories of a Global Language: “Money”. Contributor @ Startup Grind, HackerNoon, HBR. Twitter@akothari_mba

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