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Good Education Is Hard to Find—and Five Other Myths

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This post is by Denise Wydra, COO of Cognii, Inc.

Our public conversations about education are mired in the past. I'm not talking about the 19th century--I'm talking about the 5th century B.C.E.

Ancient Athens is perhaps an arbitrary starting point, but it fostered an early incarnation of the Western educational system, complete with professional teachers, formal schools, and familiar disciplines. A full education was reserved for free males, the obvious reason being that they were the only ones whose voices mattered. But don't overlook the other assumptions: in this world, education was a limited resource (only so many tutors to go around) and a costly investment (every hour reading was an hour not working). And only some people could--or should--benefit from it.

Or consider 14th century Europe, when the term "lecture" was coined. Medieval universities were centralized not because teachers were in short supply, but because information was. A hand-copied book could take years to make, and a university was built around its library of these prized resources. The "authorities" that attracted students were not the faculty but rather the authors of those books. The person giving the lecture (a word derived from the Latin for "reading") stood in the front of the room and read aloud, while students took notes. A pretty ingenious workaround, enabling multiple people to use the same book at the same time.

For centuries, education has been viewed as scarce, costly, and thus reserved for the privileged, those with the right and the need to take advantage of it.

We're still haunted by this mindset. Of course, we view access to basic education as a fundamental human right. But underneath, we instinctually treat it as a limited resource, an expensive elixir to be doled out carefully, and only to the worthy. You can see this ghostly perspective in the hurdles (e.g. testing) that supposedly separate the strong from the weak, so only the best students get the best education. It also frames our shrill arguments about what to spend this precious resource on, liberal arts vs. vocational training, humanities vs. STEM.

But education is no longer a scarce elixir. It's becoming as accessible as water--and just as necessary for our health. Technology contributes to this accessibility in three ways.

First, information is more available. A medieval scholar would faint at the thought of all the educational content on the Web. On YouTube alone, you can learn about everything from boiling an egg to building a space station.

Second, instruction is less expensive. The obvious examples are free or inexpensive online courses, apps, and degree programs. But more importantly, technology is enhancing the productivity of expert teachers, enabling best practices such as personalized learning and one-to-one tutoring that have always been too labor-intensive to be sustainable.

Third, learning is more efficient. New insights from cognitive and learning science, coupled with the tremendous power of educational software, can help every learner succeed. They can also eliminate tremendous waste from the system--all those hours prodding students to pay attention and stay on task, when the task was the wrong one all along.

Admittedly, there are many places in the world where the educational system has far to go. But these are good reasons to think that every dollar and every hour we spend on education will soon be much more beneficial. Considering the whole, and looking toward the future, there's no reason to think of education as scarce.

Our scarcity blinders have us focused on the wrong thing. Squabbling about humanities vs. STEM is like fighting over the apples that have fallen to the ground, without finding a way to harvest those still in the tree. We need to address bigger questions, such as, how can we cultivate an educational ecosystem that lifts us all up and sustains us over the course of our lives?

Because we're going to need it. Rich, varied, and effective life-long education for every person isn't a "nice to have" for the privileged; it will soon be a "must have" for all.

To identify just one reason: the anxiety-provoking advances in technology. Technology has been displacing skilled laborers since the Industrial Revolution, but the pace is increasing, and the "threat" is reaching into areas that have previously been immune. You and I and everyone we know will need to learn new information, skills, and perspectives on an ongoing basis just to keep up, and the things we will need to learn in 10 years probably haven't been invented yet. How can we organize ourselves around making life-long learning a simple, reliable practice for everyone?

First, we need to shift our mindsets and rethink our assumptions. Here are five I'd call into question.

1. Education is a time-consuming, dedicated, but finite stage of life.  We equate education with "going to school," a full-time project that last until early adulthood, when one "commences" real life. This is already a misconception, as an increasing majority of students combine college with jobs and/or family care. It also overlooks corporate training, self-motivated skills training, adult education--the raw materials of a lifelong learning ecosystem. We should think of education as we do exercise, something we (ideally) engage in throughout our lives.

2. Education is a competitive advantage.  Those who believe the chief benefit of a better educated populace is to give our nation an edge are missing the point. Education is not a zero sum game. In fact, it has a network effect: as more people are better educated, we all become wealthier and more productive. From another perspective, a lack of education condemns people to privation and frustration, even desperation. That does no one any good.

3. Education is a sorting hat.  Those who "do well"--who perform on tests at or above age-normed standards--are destined for one sort of future (Ravenclaw), whereas those who do not are channeled into a different track (Hufflepuff). There's no accommodation for variations in learning pace, developmental stage, or test-taking ability. What would happen if we assumed that with the right education, anyone could learn anything?

4. Education is a gatekeeper. "Academic rigor" often means weeding out people deemed unfit for advanced studies (and superior educational resources). It can become an endurance test, to find those who are truly committed to the goal. But who is served by this? Undoubtedly, we are losing many good scientists, scholars, and entrepreneurs because they failed to meet an arbitrary standard.

5. Education is a guild.  Guilds ensure that only those who have paid dues (a.k.a., earned a diploma) can perform certain work. If the work is highly paid, an expensive diploma is worth it. But when the system is disrupted by the commodification of tasks that can be automated or outsourced, the coherence and value of the degree is called into question. Law schools are currently dealing with this disruption. The broader question is, where else are we using education as a stick to beat off competition, not a resource for living a better life?

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