The Remedial Education Trap

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Publication date:

August 31, 2021

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Remedial education will always be necessary. When it becomes the modus operandi of an educational institution, however, it can quickly perpetuate itself and trap mindsets that should know better. Some of that is already happening. With work-based education increasingly meeting a reality that it is not aligned with, remedial education might become even more pervasive. This would pull education further away from what it was meant to do.

Educational institutions cannot let themselves fall prey to perpetual cycles of remedial education. Such education almost always points to deficiencies in what was done in the past, and we should address those deficiencies before they start defining what we do. Education is meant to be forward-looking, not backwards-correcting. We need to take a step back, reflect on what is unfolding around us, and mitigate the need for remedial education by putting the horses back in front of the cart (and keeping them there).

What are the deficiencies in our educational model that create a need for remedial efforts?

There are two and both should get our immediate attention. First, education is beginning to fall back on being a lead sector. Second, the emphasis on work-based education is increasingly at odds with a reality where most – if not all – jobs are becoming susceptible to obsolescence or radical restructuring.

In my bestselling book, “Rough Diamonds. Rethinking How We Educate Future Generations” (https://geni.us/RoughDiamonds), I point out that most – if not all – executive education in business schools has become remedial; i.e., it teaches executives things they urgently need but were not exposed to in the past. The result is an educational agenda that gets trapped in the challenges of the present. The situation might get worse because there are dynamics at play that, if not addressed, will necessitate a further need for remedial education.

With rapid advances and the permanent disruption we see in many industries, more and more jobs are becoming obsolete or are being restructured fundamentally. The reality is that most of us do jobs that smart algorithms – at least in part – will be able to do better, faster, and with no human drama. The consequence is that jobs are becoming more fragile as they no longer provide the security they once did. When we meet a dead end, we can reskill or upskill to switch to a new job, but sooner or later that job may meet a dead end as well. As a result, we could easily find ourselves in remedial cycles of reskilling and upskilling.

What is evident is that the remedial education we already see – and might see more of – is the result of deficiencies in our educational model. Unless we modify our approach, we will find ourselves in perpetual cycles of such education. This is not what education was meant to be or should aim for. It should also not be construed as lifelong learning; such learning should replace what we currently do and not be a result of it (for more on this topic, see my recent blog http://wilfriedvanhonacker.com/rethinking-work-based-education).

Education is supposed to be a lead sector; i.e., equipping students with skills and competencies that they will need in the reality they will encounter. When education no longer lives up to that forward-looking imperative, it becomes backwards-correcting and shadows of the past begin to define the educational agenda. This is precisely what we see in executive education in business schools today. Better late than never, but at some point we need to address the causes, abandon the old model, and adopt a new one that is better aligned with reality and serves our students better.

The necessity to search for a new educational paradigm also comes from the need to rethink work-based education. Such education molds students to fit into specific job templates. As many of these templates no longer provide the security they once did, students will have to become much more professionally agile and adept to lifelong learning. Educational institutions that believe that remedial cycles of reskilling and upskilling constitue lifelong learning fail to address the future needs of their students.

What is the trap?

The danger in remedial education is that we ignore the future, get absorbed into the challenges of the present, and let those challenges define our educational outlook and agenda. When that happens, the lead nature of education is lost and we move away from our core responsibility of preparing our students for their future.

The danger of this occurring is magnified by the fact that the easy and predictable revenue streams of these remedial cycles grease our business models. Hence, we run the risk of becoming driven by those models. This is precisely what business schools teach executives not to let happen in their own companies.

The danger is further magnified by the fact that remedial education is so much easier to do. It is much more difficult to look into the future and chart a credible path through the minefield of uncertainties that that future implies. The responsibility of any educational institution is to look into the future, understand what it will require from their students, and prepare them for that future as best as they can. As perfect foresight is unattainable, some remedial efforts will always be necessary but those efforts should be tangential and not become the modus operandi of any educational institution.

Putting the horses back in front of the cart

What should educational institutions do to live up to the role they accepted to play in the future lives of their students? First, they need to be much more forward-looking so that their students can hit the road when the future arrives. What does it say about them and what they do if their students have to come back at that time to be operational in that future? Educational institutions need to step up to the plate and show some decisive leadership in tackling their students’ future, no matter how difficult that might be.

Second, we need to move away from work-based education. We need to replace it with a lifelong learning paradigm that focuses on developing strength and agility in our students and not on how to fit them into job-specific molds that commit them to ever narrowing career paths. In the future, it is our students who will have to persist and thrive when those molds are being discarded and/or replaced with new ones.

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