Education needs to ADAPT: The five challenges it is facing

I have really enjoyed the most recent presentations I have given using our ADAPT framework. I think one reason is that each one has ended up being about education. My 33 years in academia left me persuaded that the education system is one of the most critical factors influencing the success — by all measures, including non-fiscal ones — of individuals, communities and nations. However, most current education systems around the world are woefully underpreparing people for the lives they will need to lead, and none of the solutions being proffered are tackling the problem in a sufficiently systemic manner.

As I have talked to people around the world, I took the ADAPT framework and identified key implications under each element:

The essence of ADAPT is that the five factors it describes form a system. Problems are getting bigger, more complex and coming faster and if you focus on one factor to the exclusion of the others your solutions will not only be incomplete, they are likely to fail, or at least cause unintended consequences. So, while there are legitimate and complex implications of each element of ADAPT, unless all five are considered together and the intersections and interdependencies uncovered, we risk making the problem worse.

When taking each element of ADAPT in turn, it also quickly becomes clear that the implications are so big they change not just how we should approach teaching and learning, but also the shape, management and outcomes of the educational institution itself, as well as raising expectations for the society of which it is a part. You have to look at the whole system, not just one level of analysis or one part of the framework.

Over the next few blog posts, I will walk through the five elements of ADAPT individually and describe what I think the implications are at each level of the education system. While I am using the lens of education to describe this approach, you can apply the same logic to any industry.

It sounds complicated (and I admit it’s not a simple problem), and I don’t mean to suggest that anything less than a complete overhaul of any given system will not have impact. But I do believe you need to understand the whole system and be cognizant of the other elements influencing it to ensure you are choosing the best levers to drive the optimal outcomes. I will suggest a few ideas about how to begin to do this at the end of this blog post.

We often hear in response to the rapid changes in the nature of work over the next decades that we need to focus on learning new skills, which most often sends us to review what we teach. A quick scan of the table above will show some of the challenges with this simple approach. To illustrate let’s take a quick walk through all five elements.

Asymmetry

A key problem with today’s world is that people with access to capital and talent win disproportionately to the rest of the population. Without addressing disparities between the wealthy’s ability to give their children significant opportunities (e.g. sending them to private schools) changing what is taught will not be enough. Those with an existing advantage will simply do better. Especially worrisome is some recent evidence that the universities which have the best track record in placing students after graduation admit a disproportionate number of wealthy applicants.

Disruption

If anything is certain in the future, it is that the pace of change in required skills will increase, and that our traditional methods for shaping curricula will not be able to respond in a timely manner. With this in mind it is essential to connect schools more directly to the broader ecosystems in which they are embedded, in order to allow for a more dynamic model for adaptation and to make them a part of the job creation process itself.

Age

Some countries have a mean age in the fifties and others in the teens, which means what students learn needs to vary dramatically between countries and across regions within a country. The needs of fifty-year-olds are quite distinct from those just entering the workforce, and, given the dramatic differences in life circumstances, the structure of schools and approach to learning also need to vary with the age of the student we are addressing. Thus, the challenge is of method and school design as much as content.

Populism

As we become less certain about the future and more concerned about risks in our world, one consequence is that we withdraw into the familiar. This results in fracturing within our cities, our countries and between nations. Such splintering creates a clear challenge for any efforts to adapt our curricula. Most importantly, the resulting polarization makes it particularly challenging to agree on subject matter in the first instance because people come from such different starting points.

Trust

Trust presents at least two challenges to adapting what is taught: first the change process will be difficult given lack of trust in many of the actors necessary to get adaptation to occur and, second, how to build a curriculum at all when people disagree on basic truths and thus threaten any claim to objectivity.

Of course there are more issues for skills development arising from the interconnection of the elements of ADAPT, but I suspect you get the idea.

Also essential in thinking about managing the response to these challenges in our education systems is the need for parallel responses at the level of teaching/learning, the school itself and the relation of the school to the community of which it is a part. Let’s look at the pending rapid loss of work or transition in work as an example. As the nature of work evolves to entail more robotics and artificial intelligence, it is essential for us to incorporate those elements into how we teach and learn. While I love the blackboard, it is not the best medium to prepare people for the future. But changing our curricula and methods is not enough. It is also essential to change how the education institution itself operates, not only because things can be done much more efficiently, but also because the nature of support for the learning environment and things such as capital expenditures need to reflect the necessary changes. And, finally, to remain relevant and help create the work that students will assume after graduation, there needs to be a greater connection between the institution and the community of which it is a part (more on this point later).

The fact that solutions are interdependent and need to be adopted across multiple domains can seem daunting; it seems I am suggesting that you need to address the entire system if you want to make change successful. Fortunately, that’s not the case, and I can offer some advice on how to proceed without being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the issues:

  1. Pick one or two things you think really matter; that have leverage (after you have looked at the whole picture). Decide how you want to proceed and then test the ideas by looking across the elements of the table included in this blog post to see how they might be affected. Then, adapt your solution to maximize the likelihood of success.
  2. Start early in childhood, as differences get exacerbated over time.
  3. Utilize problem-based learning grounded in the issues that exist in the community. This has the benefit of being naturally adaptive as the problems evolve with changing circumstances and gets learners to see the interconnections between things and engage with the really difficult translational issues as part of their learning process.
  4. Involve business and individuals in the solutions. Said differently, business and wealthy individuals need to more actively participate in the solution, both because they are acutely aware of the needs, but also because they have capital and disruptive insight. This engagement will allow natural adaptation, establish resources not easily created through the school itself and build support for necessary change.
  5. Actively shift resource to places with the greatest need. Given the dramatic differences in resources around the world, in our countries and within local communities — and given the increasing disparities likely to arise from access to technology and information — it is essential for those with wealth to provide resources to those without them. This has always been true, but the likelihood of accelerated differences make the need even greater today. However, this needs to be done with humility; solutions that work in one part of the world often do not translate well to another.
  6. The answer lies in the problem. Take India: the massive scale challenge it presents suggests the possibility for completely different solutions incorporating scale as part of them; the dynamism of the village should be part of the solution to the resource constraints at a village level; focusing on humanizing technology is part of the answer to increasing the number of women who graduate from computer science. To name but a few examples.

Whatever the answers, in light of problems getting bigger, more complex and coming faster, the system won’t be able to evolve quickly enough unless we also rethink education regulation and accreditation and other systemic matters which go to the heart of ensuring the innovations that need to happen do.

Whilst this blog post covers the critical interdependencies of ADAPT, each consequence of ADAPT described above entails a deeper set of implications and solutions to explore. These will be addressed in my subsequent blog posts exploring the urgent need for education to ADAPT.


Education needs to ADAPT blog series:
Introduction
Asymmetry: education will cause disparities to grow
Disruption: education must keep up
Age: rebalancing educational wealth
Populism: [coming soon]
Trust: [coming soon]