Future shock: Teaching yourself to learn

by Marilyn Achiron 
Editor, Education and Skills Directorate

The book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal wrote of reading Tyler Cowen’s 2013 book, Average is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation, “with a deepening sense of dread”. 
The Economist understatedly called the book “bracing”. What does Cowen, a professor at George Mason University and daily blogger on marginalrevolution.com, say that provokes such fear and trembling in readers?  Essentially this: if you’re not among the 10-15% of the population that has learned how to master and complement computers, you’ll be doomed to earn low wages in dead-end jobs. We spoke with Cowen when he was in Paris recently to participate in the OECD Forum. His comments are drawn from both our interview and his presentation at the Forum.
“There are two things people need to learn how to do to be employable at a decent wage: first, learn some skills which complement the computer rather than compete against it. Some of these are technical skills, but a lot of them will be soft skills, like marketing, persuasion and management that computers won’t be able to do any time soon. 
But the second skill, and this is a tough one, is to be very good at teaching yourself new things. Right now, our schools are not so good at teaching this skill. The changes we’ve seen so far are just the beginning; 20-30 years from now, we’ll all be doing different things. So people who are very good at teaching themselves, regardless of what their formal background is, will be the big winners. People who do start-ups already face this. They’ve learned some things in school, but most of what they do they’ve had to learn along the way; and that, I think, is the future of education. I’m not convinced that our schools will or can keep pace with that; people will do it on their own. 
There has arisen a kind of parallel network – a lot of it is on the Internet, a lot of it is free – where people teach themselves things, often very effectively. But there is a kind of elitist bias: people who are good at using this content are people who are already self-motivated. 
The better technology gets, the more human imperfections matter. Think about medicine: the better pharmaceuticals get, the more it matters which people neglect to actually take them in the right doses. Education is entering the same kind of world. There’s so much out there, on the Internet and elsewhere. It’s great; but that means that human imperfections, like just not giving a damn, will matter more and more.
What concrete changes would I make in schools? The idea that you need to take a whole class to learn some topic is absurd. Whatever you’ve learned is probably going to be obsolete. A class is to spur your interest, to expose you to a new role model, a new professor, to a new set of students. We should have way more classes which are way shorter. It should be much more about learning, more about variety, give up the myth that you’re teaching people how to master some topic; you’re not! You want to inspire them; it’s much more about persuasion, soft skills. 
Liberal arts education and the humanities will remain important. They’re still underrated. People get their own liberal arts education on the Internet; it may be weird, low-status stuff that a lot of us have never heard of, like computer games, or celebrities or sports analytics. But they are learning statistics through sports, learning the humanities through computer games, learning about tragedy through TV shows, and they are retaining and absorbing this to a phenomenal extent. We are, in some ways, the ones who are behind. Formal education needs to wake up, internalise the lessons we all implement in our daily lives. The Internet is one of the biggest breakthroughs in education ever; it’s here. We should realise that, more and more, learning will not go on in standard classrooms. We live in a great and exciting time when it comes to education; now we have to make all those pieces work and fit together. To do that, we have to give up a lot of our loyalty to the older model.

Education occurs in many forms; it’s not the same as schooling. We always need to keep that in mind.
Through the new Education 2030 project and the OECD Innovative Schools network, the OECD will be examining the cognitive, social and emotional skills students need to participate and succeed in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and digitised world. In addition, Skills for Social Progress: The Power of Social and Emotional Skills presents a synthesis of the OECD’s analytical work on the role of socio-emotional skills; and look out for Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection, which reports on the use – or lack thereof – of computers in education (to be published in September), and Trends Shaping Education, which will be published in January 2016.


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