3 Changes Needed To Increase Education’s Return On Human Potential


Publication date:

June 22, 2021


We are all born rough diamonds, waiting to be discovered, studied, and cut to reveal the sparkle nature has endowed each and everyone of us with. Just as no two stones are exactly alike, no two individuals are identical. We all hold potential that is unique and that, when recognized, nurtured and developed, reveals enduring qualities for all to appreciate and enjoy.

Perfect diamonds are very rare. Most stones have blemishes but that does not prevent them from dazzling when, with the right cut, they are held to the light. Human beings are the same. None of us are perfect but we all hold something that can be turned into unrivaled brilliance. All we need is to be given a chance to reveal what we are truly made of.

All human beings deserve access to an education that can help them discover their natural sparkle and inspire them to develop it to the fullest. Unfortunately, the current educational model does not deliver on that. To remain credible and relevant, education has to increase its return on human potential. It is neither the current pandemic, nor other fragility events like it that threaten education as we know it; it is the very model education has morphed into. That model results in too many students remaining diamonds in the rough. Let us take Mohit K. Singh’s words to heart: ” Like rough diamonds, people only become precious in the hands of those who know how to take care of them”.

To secure a better return on human potential, three fundamental changes are needed in how we educate future generations. Collectively, these changes will enable students to embrace their potential and inspire them to develop it to the fullest. In the process, they will nurture a mindset that will benefit them on their journey of lifelong learning.

  1. Focus on student learning

We really need to bring the focus back to student learning; ie, making sure that students learn and actually understand what they learn. This requires two shifts in what we do: first, from the current teacher-centric model to a more student-centric model; and, second, from a focus on efficient delivery to one that assures effective learning and is held accountable for it.

Many educational institutions claim that they are student-centric but all you need to do is walk into one of their classrooms and observe who is really the focus of attention. Conceptually, we do not need students to sit around and listen to a teacher; what we need is for teachers (and others) to sit around each student and give him/her the individual attention and support they need and deserve. From how we educate future generations today, this might sound fanciful. It is, however, attainable if one can think beyond the current model. As a starting point, educational institutions should remind themselves that they are there for the students, and not the other way around.

Teachers play an important role in the educational process, but they are just a tool we rely on to convey knowledge to students. In  my book, Rough Diamonds (https://geni.us/RoughDiamonds), I compare our current model of education to a manufacturing process: students sitting on a production line with knowledge being fed to them at a steady pace. The analogy is crude, but it helps me make a few points that we should all reflect on. One of them is that I know of no manufacturing process where the focus is on a tool used in that process and not on what is actually sitting on the production line!

Besides a shift from the teacher-centric model to a more student-centric model, we also need to move away from our current infatuation with efficient delivery in the educational process; our focus should really be on effective learning. Education is not a logistics operation and it should not fall prey to the cost dynamics characterizing its business model. Some might disagree with this characterization, but just look at how educational institutions have responded to the pandemic. In their rush to hold on to the past and move from the classroom to the “glassroom”, students’ learning was unequivocally compromised. To live up to its core responsibility, education has to keep its eyes on the students and their learning, always.

Taking a step back, it seems that we have arrived at a situation where education has essentially outsourced learning to the students; i.e., learning has become the students’ responsibility. In most educational programs, students can (and are allowed to) muddle through without much learning. Even in accreditation evaluations, student learning is rarely if ever assessed; their focus is exclusively on the delivery process and its inputs. In higher education, eg, the assumption is that if you have published faculty who create course syllabi that state clear learning objectives, those will be achieved. No test drive is needed! The result is that we often graduate students who do not really know what they know, and that has consequences well beyond the students.

Note that when I use the term learning, I refer to acquiring a fundamental understanding of what is being taught. Just knowing something and being able to reproduce it when probed with certain key words is not enough. Learning assessment should be more than a Google search! True learning implies having a fundamental understanding that enables creative and intelligent use of the knowledge acquired. Major improvements are needed in how we assess learning. After all, you cannot manage what you cannot measure. Furthermore, as I will discuss below, continuous learning assessment will enable us to make the learning process intelligent.

That is exactly where the biggest return on human potential lies.

With rapid advances in the sciences and persistent innovation resulting in the shelf life of knowledge shrinking rapidly, lifelong learning is very much the path future generations will have to travel. Putting the emphasis in education back on effective student learning would prepare students well for what lay ahead for them on that path.

2. Change the student engagement paradigm

Zeroing in on effective learning, we need to treat every student as a individual with unique potential and unique learning abilities and requirements. Rough diamonds are never cut in an identical way that ignores the potential each stone holds. Before it is touched, each stone is studied to identify which cut would reveal its potential in the most dazzling way. Education should aspire to do the same with human potential.

This requires us to move away from the industrial-factory model we have become so wedded to. That model is inefficient in identifying – and suboptimal in developing – the unique potential in each student. As rough diamonds, we all belong in the upper tail of a distribution, but one that is different for every individual. Ignoring that heterogeneity deprives students from discovering that they actually have something unique and valuable that is worth developing.

Standardized delivery holds no future. We need to embrace delivery that is adapted to the unique profile of each student. That requires recognizing the potential each student has, his/her cognitive learning profile, and the social context in which that potential could be developed. On the latter, we need to move away from vertical teaching and move towards horizontal co-learning. We need to promote collaborative learning engagements where the student is not only the target, but also an integral part of his/her learning process.

Our current model does not lend itself well to scalable adaptation, but intelligent technologies will increasingly enable us to do just that. There is just no reason why all students should learn the same curriculum at the same pace and over the same time period. This is the best sign of a highly inefficient approach. Now that we have the technology to do it effectively, we should implement customized and intelligent student-centric learning processes.

Engagement should also focus more on questions than on answers. In rapidly changing environments where uncertainties make answers elusive, knowing what questions to ask is much more important. In fact, the quality of questions asked based on knowledge acquired reveals a lot about the level of understanding of that knowledge. Given the world future generations will encounter, we’ve really got it backwards.

In sum, we need to move from standardized delivery to adapted delivery, from passive listening to active questioning, and from vertical teaching to horizontal co-learning. We should stop pouring more concrete in a dated mold and replace it with one that will truly benefit future generations.

3. Make the learning process intelligent

Going back to the manufacturing analogy I already alluded to, it is quite revealing that education is about the only manufacturing process that is not intelligent yet. It remains a mechanical and bureaucratic process that marches to its own beat irrespective of who is in it or what is happening around it. Because of this, it is increasingly marching out of step with the reality we ought to prepare our students for. Making the educational process intelligent would avoid this and secure its sustainability.

An intelligent process is data-driven; i.e., it has memory, it learns, and it anticipates what might lay ahead. We need to reengineer students’ learning processes to make them data-driven. This will require continuous, unobtrusive assessment of learning and, hence, a move away from the discrete, disjointed test/exam culture we have today.

In fact, we need to create a digital twin of every student that remembers, learns, and anticipates the learning needs for that student. If, for example, the digital twin learns that a student makes repeatedly the same mistake, that student’s learning journey should loop back and work on preventing that student from making that mistake again. As opposed to externally-imposed learning regimes that might have nothing to do with what a student actually needs, its digital twin would identify exactly what a student needs and when. These digital twins would personalize learning journeys and, as such, secure the efficiency and effectiveness of each student’s learning.

We also need to move away from knowledge bundling and the rigid matching of students to standardized curricula. Knowledge should be bundled around each student’s unique gift and what he/she needs to develop that gift. This requires discovering what that gift is and understanding the full potential it holds. We currently do very little of that. In fact, looking at the ever growing list of learning deficiencies, we spend a lot more time on identifying flaws in our students than on trying to ascertain what each student is exceptionally good at. What would our current system have done to Albert Einstein, a typical case of ADHD?

What we currently do in education is exactly the opposite of what diamond cutters do. Learning deficiencies are real, but we need to get back to where the sparkle is hidden, appreciate its full potential, and focus on developing it in an intelligent way irrespective of any deficiencies that will naturally be there. Just remember that, and Einstein is just one example of many, the sparkle often overcompensates in brilliance for what we in education should not be focusing on.

All students have something truly unique, and we need to help them discover it, nurture it, and develop it to its full potential. The only way to do this efficiently and effectively is to move away from the current industrial-factory model and commit to creating and leveraging intelligent learning systems that are anchored on each student’s specific needs.

Education being a lead sector, we have no time to waste and better get to work.

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