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Does Today’s Education Prepare Students for the Rapidly Changing and Complex World?

We are living in an era of high-stakes testing and global comparisons, which has engendered an urgent need to re-examine the world’s educational systems. The educational foundations that one could once point to with pride are now being brought into question as to whether this is an education worth having. The tectonic shift from didactic to heuristic pedagogy has left most school systems woefully unprepared to scale up for this progressive mindset and universal reality; the departure from predicated skillsets ideal for an industrial construct, and the shift to creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship and non-cognitive skills is proving to be more apt and desirable for 21st Century life opportunities. Today’s youth need to accelerate to keep up with the pace of change and the confluence of mitigating factors that have tilted the trajectory of the future. The influx of new ideas and educational thought, the diversity of our new reality requires resilience and the right tools in order to embrace and thrive in a world that is not static, but exponentially evolving.  As Friedman (2016) states, “Average is officially over. When I graduated from college I got to find a job; my daughters have to invent theirs (p. 204).”

The real challenge for today’s schools is threefold: to prepare students to thrive in a competitive global labor market after completing their education; to achieve community harmony on a global scale; and to promote cultural diversity and the value of universal citizenship in a global community.

Preparing students for a competitive global labor market

Thomas Friedman, in his seminal book The World is Flat, acknowledges that today’s core educational values and dictates are becoming increasingly irrelevant in a rapidly changing and complex world. He sees the following “flatteners” (2005): digital, mobile, personal and virtual, as game changers in terms of opening up networks and ‘windows’ of opportunity that are not only transformative, but disruptive at the same time. This is support by the research of Yuval Noah Harari in his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Harari notes that basic education, as we know it today will not meet the needs of youth who are part of a rapidly changing global landscape. The “basic education” of an industrial age is not the same as a basic education in 2020, 2030 or beyond.  The paradigm has shifted; new skills are needed for a new era (Harari, 2018).

These global platforms allow people all over the world to communicate, collaborate and work together as never seen before. The capacity for processing information has increased to approximately one billion searches; millions of emails sent and received, tweets and other forms of social media in a single day. To sustain momentum and remain competitive, the workforce must become more adaptable to keep up with innovation, therein, youth entering the job market for the first time will be more employable. To not acknowledge these inescapable truths is unthinkable.  

Efforts are being made. In 2019 UNESCO established the Futures of Education initiative to reexamine education as part of their 2030 agenda. This initiative will explore how by reimagining education the workforce of the future can be reshaped in both the short-term and long-term (UNESCO, 2019). Initiatives like this are critical, but dialogue on a macro level must be translated to the classroom experience.

Community Harmony on a global scale

The radical changes in understanding how the brain functions and the nature of learning requires that schools not only reform current practice, but rather reinvent themselves. Instead of focusing on discrete tasks, schools need to emphasize the mastery of processes and the ability to know what to do when you don’t know what to do. In other words, today and tomorrow’s students need to function very nimbly in different contexts, such as mathematics and literacy, not just master specific knowledge in each domain. They also need to learn how to get along with people who are different from them. By educating students to be global citizens rather than citizens of a local geographic community, state or particular nation, perhaps the world would become more tolerant of differences and people could work together on more pressing global problems, such as sustaining our planet for future generations (Zhao, 2015).

Globalization centers world problems such as climate change and bio diverse loss (the web of life), in individual communities. Coping with these potentially life-altering events requires collective cooperation and the ability to assimilate different and sometimes conflicting points of view from diverse cultures outside the borders of the neighborhood or community at large. Friedman (2016) calls this creating a “topsoil of trust” where such communities, as they embrace their increasingly diverse and digital population, anchor their common values, and thus seek solutions to problems that will ultimately reach the far corners of the earth.

Cultural diversity and the value of universal citizenship

Teaching students what success looks like up front is very powerful. Success could be defined as the ability to subsume sufficient surface knowledge (skills and discrete facts) and through recursive practice; this knowledge acculturates and transfers to new learning contexts. Success in this context requires critical thinking and analysis, which contributes to one’s ability to thrive in career and life.  Our responsibility in schools is to teach students how to value the practice effect. Gladwell (2008) supports this construct with his observations of social phenomena. To be the best hockey player, or most successful technology entrepreneur; to achieve world-class expertise in any skill, requires 10,000 hours of practice. To transfer knowledge, one must practice and rehearse skills regularly for deep understandings to endure. Hattie (2016) asserts that schools need to be made inviting places to be, not the place where redundancy and irrelevancy prevails. He posits that students become engaged in activities when they are skilled at it. Skill comes with practice. In today’s classrooms, however, 90% of learning is surface learning (Hattie, 2016), which does not prepare youth for the current and future economy.

PISA scores (Program for International Assessment) for example, are negatively correlated with entrepreneurial skills and outcomes (Zhao, 2015). Today’s economy requires collaboration skills, the development of diverse talents, and interactions that transcend borders and cultural divides. Education needs to change and adapt to the dynamics of a changing world. Through universal learning communities and collaborative learning models, teachers can learn to learn and in turn students can learn to learn too. Students who have been given the autonomy to set their own learning goals will no doubt be better equipped to become lifelong learners and be better prepared to reinvent themselves over and over again both in career and life. In other words, students will develop an innate curiosity about the world and its contextual conditions, diverse values and vast cultural resources.

Innovation and Educational Reform

In order to widen the range of excellence in schools as we know them today, the approach to learning has to fundamentally change and will require innovation. Teacher professional knowledge needs to shift from tacit to explicit, where working collectively and building knowledge together becomes the norm not the exception. Hattie (2016), in his meta-analysis of what works in schools, found that teachers working together matters. Learning communities can potentially become a model of learner behavior that will reshape student perceptions of how problems are solved, and how to approach and resolve conflict.

The interventions and strategies that yield the highest effect sizes are those that are underscored by student passion (Hattie, 2016). Self-instruction, self-consequences and organizing and transforming are various meta-cognitive strategies that result in higher effects. These top strategies promote increased motivation and a higher level of engagement with the content (Hattie, 2012).

Powerful and passionate teachers focus on developing ways of thinking that promote problem-solving, provide meaningful feedback, not just praise, where questions are more important than answers, who insist on rigor, adjust the pace of instruction, identify the entry point for each child, and most importantly, view learning through the eyes of a child (Hattie, 2012, p.19). They provide deliberate practice, are relentless in helping students achieve their goals, and share the passion for the work along the way.

The picture is not all bleak, however. Some forward thinking schools have formed an international alliance, the “Global School’s Alliance” to further the cause of changing educational institutions, and to share ideas, best practices, and data on effective teaching and learning. These are schools that are breaking new ground and challenging the status quo with measurable results.

To prepare the future workforce, one that can compete on the world’s stage, the scale of necessary change cannot be underestimated. The quality and kind of school education offered will make all the difference. Progressive learning environments must be led by people who have the right mindset, knowledge and skillset; who are passionate about education reform and innovation and, are willing to learn from a global context. The change needs to start now, lest we deprive an entire generation of children the great opportunities that await them.

Written by Steven Edwards, PhD, Education World Contributing Writer

Steve Edwards, PhD, is President and CEO of  Edwards Educational Services in Alexandria, VA. He has extensive experience nationally and internationally in Educational Leadership and School Improvement reform efforts. He has been recognized by USA Today for his innovative approach to education and has appeared on CNN and radio. He can be reached at 202-359-5124, or [email protected]


Friedman, T. L. (2016). Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Acceleration. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Friedman, T. L. (2005). The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The Story of Success. Little, Brown & Co.

Harari, Y. (2018). 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Penguin Random House.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. New York.

Hattie, J. (2016). An Education Worth Having. The Whole Education 5th Annual Conference Keynote address.

UNESCO, (2019) Futures of Education.

Zhao, Yong. (2015). A World at Risk: An Imperative for a Paradigm Shift to Cultivate 21st Century Learners. Society, 52(2), 129-135.

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