For the digital economy, traditional education needs an update

Bernard Chan
Blockchain tech will disrupt education in more ways than we expect

Learners should see the meaning behind the knowledge and skills that they learn — and use it to solve a real problem

I remember when I moved from Hong Kong to Canada in the 1990s, school got easier for me. I was getting 100s in some of the math and sciences classes — something unimaginable before. Asian countries are known for tougher but “better” school systems. In a global education survey, Singapore even topped the ranking for proficiency across all the key fields of reading, science, and maths.

However, in my capacity as the founder of a technology school in Asia, I have concerns that education systems across the region are resting on their laurels when it comes to preparing students for the new economy. In fact, I would argue the current pedagogy and is incentivising the students to become exactly the opposite of what “talents of the future” need to be.

Talents of the future

To understand my points, allow me to first established what “future talents” need to be. Technology is rapidly changing business activities and consumer behaviours. The proliferation of mobile devices and the rise of artificial intelligence have changed the skills that individuals will need to succeed in tomorrow’s workplace. Here are some example of the paradigm shift that is happening:

There is no single right answer in business. Business problems nowadays are much more complex and dynamic. New companies, empowered by technology and innovations, are changing business rules and breaking down barriers. Look at Airbnb and Uber. There is no one right answer to a given problem.

Questions are more important than answers. With Google at everyone’s fingertips, knowledge is becoming less important. The trick now is in searching with the right set of keywords (or asking the right questions).

Building winning products require cross-disciplinary effort. Building a software product involves teams that have expertise in user research, software development, and design. And without effective marketing, even a great product wouldn’t go very far.

Hard skills are becoming vulnerable. Technology and artificial intelligence now allow many of the more process-based jobs to be partly or fully automated, including in highly professional industries (e.g. accounting, finance, law). Hard skills are becoming less relevant; instead, success will go to those who can effectively break down a problem into parts and find the right people/tools for each

If we can agree on these key trends, then let me share my observations in running my school in the past three years.

What I observed

In my work with the school I founded, we have trained over 2,000 individuals across Asia. I’ve personally witnessed how the current approach to education has shaped the way our students here process problems:

Fixated on finding a single correct answer: Because of the heavy focus on rote learning, students expect a single correct answer to every problem. They don’t see value in the process of exploring ideas and have difficulty in dealing problems which have multiple solutions. “So which is the right answer?” many would ask.

Lack the patience to figure things out: The belief in the idea of a single correct answer leads students to believe that there will always be a shortcut to get to that point. The culture of attending tutoring and test-prep schools also encourages such lack of patience. “Just tell me what will be on the exam, and I will memorise it.”  The process of solving a problem is often not appreciated.

Expect “one way” learning: Students are used to attending a class or lecture, taking down the information and committing it to memory. They expect “face time” from instructors; the equate the amount of learning to the number of hours the instructor has been talking.

Excessive focus on “hard skills”: Many students want to learn and apply set formulas and rules, while more ambiguous tasks prove to be a stumbling block. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in our school’s web development course. Students are eager to learn “coding” first – the programming language and syntax, and not realising the importance of practising basic problem skills. Our approach triggers a kind of anxiety in students whose expectation of “learning” simply means storing information in their heads.

So what’s the solution?

There is no easy solution, and every student would face different challenges. There are, however, low hanging fruits we could tackle first. A fast way to get to a place where students are learning mental flexibility is through project-based learning. Of course, projects have always been a part of the schooling system, but they are often on the side, designed around the curriculum and content. If we make solving a real problem the central part of the learning experience, we can start to move away from purely retaining knowledge, and focus more on processes.

By working on major projects, students would be forced to practice solving problems, to use the many tools and knowledge available on the internet, and to draw on the domain expertise of their peers across disciplines. It would be entirely possible to have a single set of success metrics, but all students could take different paths and solve their problems in different ways.

Most importantly, students could see the meaning behind the knowledge and skills that they learn — and use it to solve a real problem.

As technology encroaches more and more on the realm of human skills, it will be increasingly important to have people who emerge from the education system with the ability to work successfully with technology and other people, instead of spending their schooling lives attempting to become walking libraries and test machines. Our test scores in global surveys may suffer, but it’s more important to have an education system that fundamentally encourages lateral thinking and gives students space to fail.

At the risk of adopting a cliché, it’s time for us to learn smarter, rather than learning harder.


Bernard is the Founder of ALPHA Camp, a tech school with campuses in Singapore and Taipei that helps prepare students for success in the digital economy. Bernard is from Hong Kong and graduated from MIT and University of Waterloo (Canada).

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