Degrees don’t matter anymore, skills do

If I were to make a nomination for the most destructive belief in our culture, it would be the belief that some people are born smart and others are born dumb. This belief is not only badly off target as a shorthand description of reality, it is the source of many social pathologies and lost opportunities. For example:

People misunderstand the past and imagine a dystopian future, not realizing that each generation is smarter than the last.

Too much of our educational system, both at the K-12 level and in higher education, is built around the idea that some students are smart and others are dumb. One shining exception are the “Knowledge is Power Program” or KIPP schools. In my blog post “Magic Ingredient 1: More K-12 School” I gave this simple description of the main strategy behind KIPP schools, which do a brilliant job, even for kids from very poor backgrounds:

  1. They motivate students by convincing them they can succeed and have a better life through working hard in school.
  2. They keep order, so the students are not distracted from learning.
  3. They have the students study hard for many long hours, with a long school day, a long school week (some school on Saturdays), and a long school year (school during the summer).

A famous experiment by Harvard psychology professor Robert Rosenthal back in 1964 told teachers that certain students, chosen at random, were about to have a growth spurt—in their IQ. These kids did wind up having their IQ grow faster than the other kids. If we had an educational system that expected all kids to succeed, and gave them the kind of extra encouragement that those teachers unconsciously gave the kids they expected to do well, then kids in general would learn more.

Kids whose teachers had low expectations can expect more typecasting in college. Too many majors fall into one of two categories: (a) majors in which there is no easy way to tell whether a student has mastered any skills that will help get a job or make life richer, or (b) majors designed to weed out all the slow learners and only try to teach the students who catch on quickly. Behind the practice of weeding out slow learners is the misconception that a slow learner is a bad learner, when in fact a slow learner who puts in the time necessary to learn often ends up with a deeper understanding than the fast learner.

The good news is that a total transformation of education is coming, whether the educational establishment likes it or not. I draw my account of this transformation of education from two prophetic books by Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen and his co-authors:

  • Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns by Clay Christensen, Curtis Johnson and Michael Horn
  • The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out by Clay Christensen and Henry J. Eyring.

The road ahead is clear: the potential in each student can be unlocked by combining the power of computers, software, and the internet with the human touch of a teacher-as-coach to motivate that student to work hard at learning. Technology brings several elements to the equation:

But since motivation—the desire to learn—is so important, a human teacher to act as coach is also crucial. In particular, without a coach, the flexibility for students to learn at their own pace can be a two-edged sword, because it makes it easy to procrastinate.

In the end, none of this will be hard. The technology and content for that technology are already good and rapidly improving. And although it is a bit much to expect someone to be both a great and inspirational coach and to be at the cutting edge of an academic field, the number of great athletic coaches and trainers at all levels indicates that, on its own, being an inspirational coach is not that rare. Being an inspirational coach in an academic setting is not quite the same thing, but I am willing to bet that it, too, is blessedly common. By having the cutting-edge knowledge from the best scientists and savants in the world built into software and delivered in online lectures, all a community college has to do to deliver a world-class education is to hire teachers who know how to motivate students.

Similarly, at the K-12 level, it is easier to find teachers who will be inspirational if those teachers can connect each student with expertly designed software customized for each student’s learning style. And teachers will be able to encourage each student to dig deeper into some particular interest that student has—well beyond the teacher’s own knowledge. Yet the teachers themselves will end up knowing a lot—much more than they learned in college themselves, simply from working alongside the students.

But what about all the forces arrayed against educational reform? Though they have won over and over in the past, those reactionary forces will be overwhelmed by these new possibilities. They will be like the corporate information technology department trying to stop workers from downloading unapproved, but inexpensive software on their own to get the job done.

The day is not far off (some would argue it is already here), when any parent who has the inclination to be a learning coach can team up with inexpensive online tools to give his or her child an education that is 20% better (say as measured by standardized test scores achieved) than what that child would get in the regular schools. It is hard to start a new charter school, and harder still to change a whole school district. But when an individual family can opt out, it is no longer David vs. Goliath in a duel to the death, but David leaving Goliath behind in the dust in a foot race. In the end, I think organized institutions can do a better job at teaching than parents on their own—but only if those institutions do things right. The ability of individual families to opt out will force most schools to get with the program, or lose a large share of their students.

None of this will happen instantly. In K-12, some states already have a strong tradition of educational reform, and will jump-start these changes. In other states, the forces arrayed against reform will be able to hold back progress for quite some time, by fighting tooth and nail against it. Rich, educated parents may help their kids tap into the new educational possibilities more quickly than poor parents who aren’t as attuned to education. But when performance gaps open wide enough, education in the laggard states will come around, by popular demand. And the scandal of ever more substandard education for the poor will encourage efforts by concerned citizens toward solutions empowered by the new learning technologies.

In higher education, students voting with their feet will make schools at the bottom of the heap change or die. Many of the most prestigious colleges and universities will resist change much longer, but some will embrace the flipped classroom model of doing everything online that can effectively be done online, and doing in the classroom only those things for which face-to-face interaction is crucial. But some of the prestigious colleges and universities will embrace the new methods, and will move ahead in the rankings as a result. The rest will ultimately follow.

There is one other force that will propel the transformation of education: a shift from credentials to certification. In most of the current system, the emphasis is diplomas and degrees—credentials saying a student has been sitting in class so many hours, while paying enough attention and cramming enough not to do too much worse than the other students on the exams. More and more, employers are going to want to see some proof that a potential employee has actually gained particular skills. So certificates that can credibly attest to someone’s ability to write computer code, write a decent essay, use a spreadsheet, or give a persuasive speech are going to be worth more and more. And any training program that takes the need to maintain its own credibility seriously can help students gain those skills and certify them for employers in a way that bypasses the existing educational establishment. Just witness the current popularity of “coding bootcamps.” That model can work for many other skills as well. For many students, that kind of certification of specific skills is a very attractive alternative to a two-year degree.

When this transformation of education is complete, K-12 education will cost about the same as it does now, but will be two or three times as effective. College education will not only be much more effective than it is now, it will also be much cheaper. There will still be a few expensive elite colleges and universities; these schools are not just providing an education, they are selling social status, and the opportunity to rub shoulders with celebrity professors. But less elite colleges and universities will find it hard to compete with the cheaper alternative of community college professor as coach for computerized learning. So the problem of college costs will be a thing of the past for anyone focused on learning, as opposed to social status. (Of course, if lower college costs are one side of the coin, lower college revenue is the other side. College professors as a whole are likely to have a lower position in the income distribution in the future than in the recent past, with premium salaries limited to a shrinking group of well-paid academic stars.)

Florida State University Psychology Professor K. Anders Ericsson studies expert performance, whether in sports, art, or academic pursuits. His research shows that ordinary people with extraordinary motivation can achieve remarkable performance through a pattern of arduous work and study called deliberate practice. By bringing computers and computer networks in to help with the other aspects of teaching, our society will be able to afford to focus on instilling in students that kind of extraordinary motivation. When that happens, the world will never be the same again.

Follow Miles on Twitter at @mileskimball. His blog is supplysideliberal.com. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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