We are no longer living in knowledge societies; we live in leaning societies

Jul 16, 2020 | News

We are no longer living in knowledge societies; we live in leaning societies where knowledge has been commoditized.  It is how knowledge is used and created that will transform economies, not knowledge itself.

Economies that wish to exploit this will need to develop citizens that, through their ability to learn, will be innovative and create new business opportunities.

Learning Societies

The term Knowledge Society was coined incorrectly to reflect the needs of the 21st Century and the need for “21st Century Skills” has been talked about so much over the last 30 years that people have become complacent with the concepts.  The single issue is that with assessment systems-based outcomes led tests they are inappropriate to help learners gain the 21st Century behaviours.  Joseph Stiglitiz argues in his book, ‘Creating a learning society’7 that we need to build societies which value the application of learningHe uses South Korea, a developing country 60 years ago as the example of a whole society, where a focus on learning and collaboration transformed the country’s economy.  In a learning society, knowledge has been commoditized and it is how knowledge is used and created that will transform economies, not knowledge itself.  Economies that wish to exploit this will need to develop citizens that, through their ability to learn and collaborate, will be innovative and create new business opportunities.

In his book the Knowledge Capital of Nations, Hanusheck8 links the volume of knowledge to GDP but Hausman, in his Atlas of economic complexity shows that whilst knowledge is important, unless complex ideas and creativity are embedded in a nations people then countries will not have a workforce that are able to satisfy the needs of high value product production.  Switzerland, he argues, produces about the same number of different products as Egypt, but because all of Switzerland’s products are high value and all of Egypt’s low value, the difference in their wealth is stark.

If we agree with this and see the development of 21st Century / Non-cognitive Skills as core to developing high value people, we need a way to describe, capture and assess the development of these non-cognitive skills; whilst also promoting ownership, and providing a non-fear element to failure.

Summative assessments (in the form of ‘one-off’ tests) are inappropriate as they fail to offer insight into a learner’s ability to apply learning to non-routine problems or their competency in skills such as creativity.  Whilst formative assessment may offer a snapshot on development, it fails to capture the skills we value it in a way that demonstrates quantitative progression.

Smart Nations

As we have said the current systems of education were founded at a time when industry needed workers with a relatively fixed set of skills and knowledge.  This approach started losing its relevance towards end of the 20th century as technology enabled an era of innovation, disruption and constant change.  As early as the 1980’s people started to realise that schools had to respond to the shifts happening in the workplace, but change has been slow  with thought leaders such as Seymour Pappert stating in the 1990s that schools looked exactly the same today as they did 100 years earlier.  Some schools were changing, some adopted the early technologies and were very successful in making the changes needed by, for example brining business and industry into the classroom. But the changes didn’t spread and left most classrooms looking pretty much like they did 100 years earlier.

Business has continued to run ahead of education and employees with skills such as adaptability and learning agility are in even more demand.  With the Covid-19 Pandemic seeing a quantum leap in remote working, self-starting individuals, with all of the abilities discussed are rising to the top in their workplace, whilst others struggle to be effective.
There is a real link to the other plague that threatens our planet here, that is Climate Change. And whilst a pandemic (at the time of writing) has tragically seen over a quarter of a million people die around the world, it has brought a sharp focus to the other benefits of remote working in terms of pollutions and the home-travel-work-travel-home equation.
So, our current education system, built on the Industrial Revolution model, focused on IQ, in particular memorization and standardization is no longer fit for purpose.  And of course, as technology becomes more intelligent, skills that will be easily and efficiently improved will be supplanted by artificial intelligence (AI).  This along with automation puts many jobs at risk9 and unless education helps workers of the future develop the right skills, then they will be unemployable apart from in low wage manual jobs.

In a recent survey10 less than 45% students felt that education prepares them for employment.  Taken together with the fact that the changes in the workplace means that approximately 60% of jobs that graduates will apply for do not currently exist11, where is the incentive for students to invest in their education, only to be educated into unemployment?  With student debt in the US alone sitting at $1.5 trillion today12, something needs to be done to make education the foundation for innovation and the route to employment.

All of the above has been talked about for decades but we still see education systems place greater value on knowledge acquisition through formal teaching of subjects in the curriculum. And whilst talking about the importance of core skills and the behaviours that are needed, they appear to do very little about it.

Imagine Education’s response

Imagine Education has developed thinking that has helped decision makers see the elements that make up their unique set of circumstances.  Just as in 1869, Dmitri Mendeleev, looked at how chemical elements fell into a pattern, it is possible to illustrate the education elements into a similar table.  The clever thing about Mendeleev’s approach was that you could study an element on its own but learn more about it by looking at its surrounding elements. Furthermore, if there are gaps, it helps fill the gaps by looking at the elements surrounding them.  So, the trick is to start and build the elements over time and not try to complete the whole table from the start. This heuristic approach is a crucial strategy in any transformation planning.

The diagram below is a foundational Periodic Table for Educational elements and illustrates the fundamental groups of Need, Skill and Behaviours. These are the weft of the periodic table fabric that consequently hold together the Political, Human and enabling elements.

This inter-relationship of the various elements can create a vision from which the description of a Smart Nation can be drawn. To help reach this point Imagine Education has a tool, Orpheus, which helps a Ministry of Education understand better how its System, Leaders, Teachers and Students are performing at what we call an education maturity level.  From this a periodic table of elements can be constructed and from that a vision can be articulated. Knowing what is important that is, a clear and shared understanding of what is working and not working enables a better plan for change to be constructed by first establishing a strategy for change and then developing an execution plan.

At its heart there are 3 key improvements which are achieved when the Smart Nation approach is use:

  1. Improvements in employment that result from more appropriate skills development
  2. Consistently high-quality service to citizens
  3. A better equipped workforce driving both economic growth and social cohesion

So a Smart Nation is an element itself in the table. It satisfies the needs of the citizens and satisfies the politic need as a result.  Taken at its simplest level, a Smart Nation is the result of adding just two elements together

Through this vision, it is very clear that the development of knowledge capital has to be balanced by the need to grow the Learning society.

Knowledge capital itself needs individual people with the skills that the nation needs, but a Learning Society requires a commitment to invest in the Professional Behaviours and the Communities of Practice that drive the innovation, development, and learning communities across all aspects of the economy and society.