September 20, 2016
Guest post Gera Venture Capital
Questionings about the capacity of the current educational model to prepare young people for the modern world are becoming increasingly common. Despite criticisms to the prevailing system, it is uncommon to see reflections on the reason why it works this way. Understanding the origin of the status quo should be the first step to change it.
Developed for an Industrial Age, the current model maintains characteristics from that period. The calendar is based on the agricultural model, with free summers, perfect for a time when most students had to work during harvest. The industrial routine is simulated, with short times set apart by sound signals, essential at a time when students had to be accustomed to respecting factories’ sirens. We maintained classroom structures in non- customizable, standardized lots for the absorption of content. In a period when more than 60% of the workforce of the industrialized economies was involved in manufacturing1, production required a large number of professionals prepared to execute repetitive tasks. The best example of the manufacturer sought by the industry is Charlie Chaplin’s famous character in "Modern Times". These individuals come from a model focused on content memorization driven to respect the instructions of their superiors.
However, in a fast-pacing world focused on transmitting and interpreting large volumes of data, we depend on individuals who are can select, synthesize, and analyze this information to draw useful conclusions, i.e., learn constantly. With the adoption of computers in different industries, machines take over routine tasks and the functions that require adaptability are carried out by humans. Between 1959 and 1999, the number of routine occupations that require cognitive ability (such as bank back office) fell by almost 40%. In contrast, cognitive occupations that require analytical skills and adapting to non-routine contexts increased by more than 30%2. The latest studies by the International Labour Organization show that this trend is bound to continue. Besides our need to adapt on an individual basis, the famous quote "no man is an island” 3 is becoming increasingly true. A more interconnected world with growing complex problems requires collaborative solutions.
Even the occupations traditionally not associated with highly qualified employees demand the development of skills that are not a priority to the current teaching model. The growth of the service industry illustrates this demand, requiring flexible and supportive professionals to deal with people. The current to Charlie Chaplin is the call center attendant. In a profession that demands constant human interaction, the low average qualification of attendants creates the need for rigid scripts that hinder the effective solution of customers’ problems. The situation remains as tragicomic as in Modern Times, with the difference that now the relationship is between humans rather than a human being and a machine.
In this scenario, large corporations, from intrinsically innovative companies, such as Apple and Google, to the most traditional ones, such as Ford, are changing their hiring practices and supporting groups that seek to change the existing educational system. They are aware of the mismatch between what educational institutions offer and what the current reality demands.
Ford’s example is emblematic. A symbol of the Industrial age, the company recognized the need for more qualified employees to face the challenges of this century and partnered with institutions such as Apple, Pearson, Disney, UNICEF, and government agencies to support the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21), a group that advocates that skills such as critical thinking, communication, and cooperation, as well as those related to "technological literacy", should be developed in schools. In addition to P21, there are other examples of similar initiatives with slightly different focuses. Professor Fernando Reimers is the Director of Global Education Innovation Initiative at Harvard, a research center allied to global partners to study ways to structurally develop skills essential to our reality in areas such as entrepreneurial skills, financial literacy, and leadership. UNESCO seeks to stimulate similar competences, but emphasizes those linked to citizenship and social relations. The entity understands that the world’s social problems are increasingly complex, arising from different cultural, economic, and environmental roots. How can we solve an extremely interdisciplinary problem with so many variables such as global warming without individuals who are able to cooperate and be sympathetic to the hardships of others? Alternatively, educational networks such as KIPP are developing their own skill frameworks such as resilience, passion, self-control, and curiosity, among others4.
All these initiatives have the same starting point: our concern with the probability of not preparing young people as we should. Google, a company which is an icon of the current economic era, conducted a comprehensive study to address its internal problems resulting from the inadequate training of its employees. A comprehensive database on the performance of its employees led to a transformative conclusion: academic performance does not anticipate future accomplishments of its professionals. It then ceased to take into account the educational background of its candidates and listed its hiring priorities: the ability to learn while working, the capacity to lead, humbleness to acknowledge errors and learn from them, ownership (highly related to pro-activity and decision-making), and lastly, expertise.
These organizations show that we must evolve from the model focused only on the transmission of content to one that prioritizes concepts which we call Life Skills at “Gera” and "Elva". They include both cognitive skills (related to conscious intellectual efforts, such as problem solving or critical planning or thinking) and non-cognitive skills, which are less directly and consciously related to the intellect (although often related), such as pro- activity, self-control, resilience, ability to cooperate, empathy, and curiosity, among others examples.
Although having been recently raised and discussed at educational debates, these capabilities are not new. The story of the founder of Honda Motors, Soichiro Honda, illustrates the transforming power of these skills when applied at their maximum potential in the midst of the Industrial Age.
Soichiro Honda was born in 1906 and went through different phases of industrial cycles by conforming to a changing reality in a way that few have succeeded. The son of a blacksmith, Honda started repairing bicycles at his father’s repair shop since his childhood. With a passion for mechanics, he began working at repair shops in Tokyo, where he started building his first race cars. After identifying a common failure in pistons of the vehicles produced at that time, he acted proactively and, on his own account, invested time and (little) money to improve the existing technology. By recognizing his lack of technical capacity, his curiosity led him to enroll in a university. While testing one of his new inventions at a race, he was involved in an accident and was hospitalized for three months. During this period, he was expelled from University for failing to complete his tests and found out that almost none of the pistons he had produced in recent years had been approved at Toyota’s quality testing.
Even faced with all these problems, he created his own company, Tokai Seiki, to improve his pistons. Although he had seen World War II increase demand for auto parts and boost his businesses, the end of the conflict would result in tragedies also for the entrepreneur as his factories were completely devastated.
Despite all these challenges, he was resolute and founded Honda Motors in 1946; inceptively, a small-scale manufacturer of scooters. Nothing would stop Honda from turning that small factory into the huge corporation we know today. The best description of the perseverance that guided each of his steps comes from Honda himself: "I believe that success can only be achieved from repeated failures and self-analysis. Success is only 1% of your work, the rest is obstinately breaking barriers".
Honda is an exception, an individual who developed his skills nearly naturally. Our society has advanced tremendously due to individuals in line with the current educational system and men ahead of his time like Soichiro. However, to face the new challenges of the contemporary world, people like Honda can no longer be an exception. We need an educational system that increasingly provides individuals with the essential skills for a new Era.
While these Life Skills are undoubtedly relevant to the new context, studies show that they reinforce the learning derived from the traditional school curriculum. The Ayrton Senna Institute, along with Daniel Santos, an economist at the University of São Paulo (SP) and the psychologist Ricardo Primi, developed one of the most extensive studies on the subject in the world9. After devising an instrument to measure social and emotional attributes based on the Big Five Personality Traits10, they piloted it with 25,000 Rio de Janeiro state school students and concluded that there is a strong correlation between the performance in mathematics and characteristics such as being effortful, organized, and responsible. In addition, students open to new experiences or with the clear understanding that their actions deeply impact their future develop more expeditiously in learning Portuguese.
Given that having these skills is desirable even for those who believe that the focus should only be learning Portuguese and mathematics, it is necessary to know whether the same development can be facilitated through external interventions, by means of school programs. The research of the Brazilian Economist Flavio Cunha, in partnership with the Economics Nobel Prize winners James Heckman and Susanne Schennach, shows that non-cognitive skills can actually be developed.
His research statistically shows that these skills can be taught successfully even in the late stages of the development of young people11. From the interventions focused on the enhancement of non-cognitive skills, it is possible to aspire to the recovery of part of the potential of individuals who received less than due attention in the early stages of their development.
There is no consensus on the best way to work Life Skills at school. However, there are inspiring examples of successful practices. One of them is the Portuguese “Escola da Ponte” of the educator José Pacheco, who has long been concerned about the subject. Since 1976, the school has focused on the autonomy of the students, who, in turn, gather in groups of six according to their affinities and interests and choose a teacher to guide them. They then develop projects that will serve as the basis to learn not only content, but also autonomy, leadership, cooperation, and pro-activity. Older students are encouraged to assist younger ones in their studies by creating Learning Networks. In addition, all of them attend Annual Meetings where they can express themselves in equal terms with their teachers and principals to define their Rights and Obligations. The school has graduated students with academic results higher than those of traditional institutions with the same type of public. However, this model is hardly replicable. Currently, José Pacheco helps develop Projeto Âncora (Anchor Project), in the city of Cotia, state of São Paulo, under a similar methodology. Conversely, as a result of the small number of students from Escola da Ponte and Projeto Âncora - between 200 and 300 in each of the initiatives - we realize that they do not seem to be projects created to gain scale, something which was also confirmed by José Pacheco in many of his lectures".
In British Columbia, scalability has been present in the DNA of the transformation of its educational system since its early stages. Although external evaluations indicated that local education was successful, the leaders of the Canadian province were not pleased with the classes taught to its 580,000 young people. Therefore, these leaders asked the citizens and educators what could be improved and understood the desire to prepare students differently, to solve problems, think critically, and behave perseverantly. They contacted educators of the network itself to redesign the curriculum, making it more flexible and capable of teaching such skills. In spite of the reduction in the amount of content taught, there was a greater in-depth study of the subjects, which allowed teachers to develop students’ critical sense.
Educators have gained autonomy, but there is a clear guideline to complement the development of life skills. The Government suggests that the methodology used is project-based education13, which allows these skills to be worked across the content. The local Ministry of Education also encourages a closer interaction with the community, valuing knowledge and skills acquired outside
the school context. It will take us a long time to replicate an experience like this in Brazil, but this example shows that it is possible to change the reality of an entire educational system from a structured innovation plan like this, began in Canada in 2011.
There are still good examples of American charter schools networks that seek to make these experiments replicable. For those who read our letter on blended learning15, the Summit Public Schools are no longer a novelty as the development of non-cognitive skills is one of the pillars of their curriculum. The use of technologies to transmit a large portion of the content allows teachers to focus on aspects which are not normally attributable to them. Thus, students are taught not only content, but also how to browse the multitude
of information around them and act diligently when facing difficulties solving problems. The projects are structured to arouse the curiosity of students so that they can focus on what they regard as relevant to themselves. To play this new role, teachers are trained intensely and assigned tasks out of the traditional scope. Once a week, they meet with students to whom they are assigned so that, through a special attention, they can assist their development and observe whether students are reaching their learning goals.
KIPP network conceived a strategy to develop and provide their students with skills that allow them not only to go to universities, but also to continue and conclude their studies, regardless of their social or economic background. With this in mind, all the schools work on a culture of high expectations according to which students develop the characteristics outlined as priorities: resilience, optimism, self-control, gratitude, social intelligence, curiosity, and enthusiasm. Network professionals know that they are expected to be examples and models of these characteristics for the students. Besides the fact that these skills are part of the culture of the school, the network is currently offering specific lessons through which they better explain their importance and how to develop them.
These experiences offer important lessons to be used in preparing a scale program: a structured plan to review curricula, assessments, and training sessions for teachers and staff is necessary to change the culture of our schools. This culture of concern, with the development of students beyond traditional models, will generate a replicable model.
At Gera and Eleva, we are taking the first steps towards the redesign of our educational model. As with British Columbia, we are still dissatisfied with the education we offer. We want to prepare our students for the challenges they will face, regardless of their social and economic background. Considering a network that currently has 25,000 students, we will only succeed in this task using a structured approach.
This is the reason why we included the development of six skills across the teaching of content in our educational system. The three Personal Skills: Pro-activity, Critical Thinking, and Perseverance, and the three Collective Skills: Curiosity, Cooperation, and Communication. They will be clearly communicated and disseminated among teachers and employees and developed from semiannual projects carried out by our students and teachers. We also plan to create a scale to assess the progress of students in these concepts as they are the key to change the culture as well as the educational framework in our schools.
By treating our students as individuals able to develop skills that will make them capable of learning how to learn rather than just grasp knowledge, we can also expect sounder academic results which will motivate us to increasingly enhance this methodology.
Undoubtedly, we will be faced with a number of challenges. Not only the curriculum will be modified, but also our teachers will need to study to apply these skills to our students. We also need to be ready to help them in this transition as we will probably face criticisms from people who do not understand the relationship between this new model and the students’ success. And the most interesting results are attained in the long term, when our students have left their schools and start living independently.
As we believe in influence through examples, we will act proactively in seeking changes, acting inquisitively in exploring innovations, and critically in relation to the teaching model currently applied. We will use the appropriate communication so that everyone will face the same challenges together and we will have the cooperation and determination of thousands of educators from our network to make our students individuals capable of contributing to the evolution of our society.