British educationalist Ken Robinson holds the distinction of having the most viewed TED talk ever, and his widely viewed skewering of the modern education system has been further embellished upon in numerous books and presentations. He rails against an education system that was forged in the heat of the industrial revolution to create a workforce fit to perform the one task they would have to perform for the entirety of their working lives.
It’s a system that is increasingly unfit for purpose, not only in terms of meeting the widely reported skills shortages in technical disciplines, but also in skills like collaboration and problem solving that are cited as being vital for the fourth industrial revolution. With technology increasingly capable of performing routine tasks, it is beholden on us to develop those skills that are fundamentally human.
A recent report from the innovation charity Nesta urges us to unleash our imagination and grow beyond being mere cogs in the wheel. They cite programs such as the Compte Personnel de Formation in France, which aims to provide all workers with access to 24 hours of training for every year they’ve been in the labor force.
This desire to reinvent education is at the heart of JPMorgan Chase’s recent announcement that they are investing $350 million across five years to hunt for educational innovations to better prepare people for the future of work.
The five-year initiative is designed as a follow-on from the company’s previous five year project in 2013, and aims to bolster economic mobility and career pathways for parts of the population that are traditionally underserved.
“The new world of work is about skills, not necessarily degrees,” JPMorgan Chase boss Jamie Dimon says. “Unfortunately, too many people are stuck in low-skill jobs that have no future and too many businesses cannot find the skilled workers they need. We must remove the stigma of a community college and career education, look for opportunities to upskill or reskill workers, and give those who have been left behind the chance to compete for well-paying careers today and tomorrow.”
A large chunk of the investment is aimed at finding, developing and piloting innovative new education and training programs that are better aligned to the modern world of work we face today. One such innovative approach is currently being launched in London, where the London Interdisciplinary School (LIS) aims to offer a “degree for polymaths.”
Becoming a serial master
I’ve written a couple of times recently about the importance of having multiple talents. The benefits manifest themselves in a number of ways. For instance, we live a longer life than ever before, and most experts believe we will therefore have multiple careers. Having skills in a number of areas allows us to adapt and pivot into these various careers more easily.
Serial expertise also helps us to innovate more effectively in a world where most patents are “recombinative.” This means that they take innovations from one domain and apply them in a new way. Areas such as open innovation have shown that most problem solvers come from outside the problem domain, and their ability to look at the problem with fresh eyes is a fundamental aspect of their success.
So rather than taking the T-shaped approach that was common in the industrial age, we should be striving to develop more of an M-shaped knowledge graph that gives us this multidisciplinary approach to life. That is precisely what LIS is striving to support.
The university, which is the first to launch in Britain for 40 years, is the brainchild of Ed Fidoe and Christopher Persson. Fidoe has form in this area, after leaving McKinsey to start School 21 in East London, where children are giving a more multi-discplinary education than is common in most schools, which still squeeze an ever narrower range of subjects into children as they age.
The university plans to launch in 2020 with an initial class of 120 students, all of whom will live in the same accommodation in the first year. In addition to receiving tuition across arts and science, technology and humanities, they will receive 10 weeks paid work experience per year at a range of corporate partners, including Innocent Drinks and McKinsey. At the end, they will graduate with a Bachelor of Arts and Sciences degree.
Closing the skills gap
The number of companies backing the venture highlights the desire for employees with a very different skillset to that produced by universities today. It’s an environment that is seeing innovation across the education sector. For instance, Minerva are another startup striving to provide a more generalist education. Students spend their first year picking up four core competencies, including creativity and critical thinking, before then selecting a major in the second year and applying their learning in industry in the third year.
“Sixty-five percent of high school students end up in jobs that haven’t been invented yet. At Minerva, we aim to educate students not for a specific job, but we aim to equip them with the tools and skills they can apply to any job. Most universities still very much rely on content dissemination to teach. At Minerva all our teaching is based on active learning — teaching students how to think, not what to think — and focuses on developing four core competencies — critical thinking, creative thinking, effective communication and effective interaction — which students constantly apply throughout their studies, and will be able to apply to whichever career they choose,” the company told me recently.
Where Minerva stand out is that they provide students with a global experience. I’ve written previously about the value of living outside your homeland, as the very process forces you to reassess all of the values and norms that you typically take for granted. This is why so many entrepreneurs are foreign nationals, as they provide that fresh perspective on common problems.
Minerva students get to live and study in seven cities around the world, each tailored to provide cultural immersion to students alongside their studies and work experience internships. This international element does set them apart from the pack, although it is something that LIS may consider as once they get off the ground.
It should perhaps be said that neither LIS or Minerva are backed by the JPMorgan Chase fund at the moment, but hopefully that kind of financial heft will help to bring fascinating projects like these from the margins into the mainstream, and help to deliver the kind of education system needed in the future of work.