old photo of students in a classroom

Education: Our Challenge Today

“Our K–12 system largely still adheres to the century-old, industrial-age factory model of education. A century ago, maybe it made sense to adopt seat-time requirements for graduation and pay teachers based on their educational credentials and seniority. Educators were right to fear the large class sizes that prevailed in many schools. But the factory model of education is the wrong model for the 21st century.”

Arnie Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, 2009–2015

Mass public education developed in the West in the middle of the 19th century as a response to the workforce needs of the industrial revolution. New urban societies formed as millions of people moved from rural communities to work in factories, mills, shipyards, mines and railroads. Some countries, like Britain and France, as the education scientist Sugata Mitra points out, not only needed clerical and administrative staff for new domestic institutions, but diplomats and civil servants with clerical skills to create and maintain their enormous colonial bureaucracies overseas. “The Victorians created a computer of people,” he says, “a bureaucratic machine and schools to prepare people to run that machine. This is still happening.”

19th century classroom

A typical classroom in 19th Century America.

For numerous people since that time, mass public education provided a foundation upon which they were able to create a life for themselves and their families, and become actively engaged citizens. Today, in the developed world, we take for granted that children start school around the age of five and go through about twelve years of compulsory schooling.

20th century classroom

A typical classroom in 21st Century America.

Education’s primary goal is to prepare students for success in adult life. However, while our mid-21st century world has seen changes that no one would have envisaged even twenty years ago, the classroom and curriculum that evolved with mass education has not adapted. Methodologies that worked when routine jobs were in high demand still dominate. As Sir Ken Robinson, author and international advisor on education in the arts, says: “If you design a system to do something specific, don’t be surprised if it does it. If you run an education system based on standardization and conformity that suppresses individuality, imagination, and creativity, don’t be surprised if that’s what it does.”

assembly line workers dressed in pink in an enormous building

Assembly line workers in an Apple factory in China 2014.

While mathematics, science and languages are still very important foundation skills, educators need to understand, says Andreas Schleicher of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), “the kind of things which are easy to teach and easy to test are also the kind of things that are easy to digitize, automate and outsource.”

As a consequence, the steepest decline in the workplace reflects the decline in demand for these routine cognitive skills, while the demand for non-repetitive analytical skills and non-routine interactive skills such as coding and problem-solving has risen exponentially.

Rather than teaching, testing, and retesting mathematical routines that often seem to have no practical application, teachers need to present problems that will enable students to learn to use these foundational skills, think mathematically and apply this knowledge—something the OECD calls “numeracy.”

In an editorial, “The Wrong Way to Teach Math,” political scientist and statistician Andrew Hacker indicates that the US has a long way to go. While most Americans have taken high school math including geometry and algebra, one national survey showed that 82 percent of adults were unable to work out the cost of a carpet when told its dimensions and square-yard price. He cites a recent OECD numeracy test of adults in 24 countries in which the U.S. ended up 22nd, behind Estonia and Cyprus!

Schleicher emphasizes that “The world economy no longer pays you for what you know, but for what you can do with what you know. … this challenges not only the content of what we teach, but the ways in which we teach.”

The world our children need to be ready for is rapidly and constantly changing. The way we educate our children must change so that they are prepared for it. While most teachers teach subjects in specific units, most needed now are people in the workforce able to think creatively and critically across disciplinary boundaries. While classrooms continue to be held in a similar way, with only rare opportunities for students’ collaborative work, the world needs people who can problem-solve, and work well in collaboration with others. Today students need to understand subjects at a sufficiently deep level in order to be able to work with them: to know the fundamentals of mathematics, chemistry, biology, history, etc. And educators need to make use of the latest neurological research and its implications so that they are able to ‘educe’ (related to the Greek notion of educere)—to draw out, or develop the potential of the individuals in their care.

We all learn best from people we like or admire and from people who believe in us. The most successful teachers show their students that they matter. Teachers who have high expectation of their students’ abilities, build relationships with them, and are there to provide personal feedback and guidance will have the most success. Children need to be valued individually and as a group and they need a safe space in which they can think for themselves and learn how to learn, without fear of asking questions or making mistakes.

Education at a Glance seminar

Watch: Education at a Glance: 2017 OECD Indicators Webinar

Andreas Schleicher, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development

Education at a Glance is the authoritative source for information on the state of education around the world: output of educational institutions; impact of learning; financial and human resources invested; access, participation and progression; and the learning environment and organisation of schools.

Global Perspectives on Education

Watch: Global Perspectives on Education

Learning Partnership conference interview with Andreas Schleicher, OECD

Exploring global challenges and innovations in education and moving students to work.

Featured Books

One World Schoolhouse

Education Reimagined

Salman Kahn

There may be a young girl in an African village with the potential to find a cancer cure. A fisherman’s son in New Guinea might have incredible insight into the health of the oceans. By combining the enlightened use of technology with the best teaching practices, we can foster students who are capable of self-directed learning, deep understanding of fundamentals, and creative approaches to real-world problems.

Improbable Scholars

The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools

David L. Kirp

How do we determine if our schools are preparing students for a meaningful future in our society and improve the schools that are not living up to those standards? Explores the current crisis in American education and four districts that have made positive changes.


Early Education
Adolescence: Second Growth Spurt
Education in the Developing World
Education for the Future

Further Reading

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