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The Case for Building 21st Century Skills Outside the Schoolhouse

I'm in Jerusalem at a meeting hosted by the OECD and the Israeli Ministry of Education. The topic is innovation, entrepreneurship, technology and education. Attendees include ministers of education, technologists and a few ringers like me. The Chatham House Rule applies, so I can tell you about what was said, but not who said it. My next few blogs will be based on some themes from this meeting.

The core construct for the meeting is pretty simple. Since the PISA survey was first administered in 2000, the scores of the countries in the survey have been pretty stable, but the inflation-corrected cost per student from the top performers has been steadily increasing. Another way of putting it is that, try as they might, the top performers reach a performance plateau and then can't get beyond it.

In economics, there is the concept of the 'production function.' A production function is simply a particular way of combining inputs to get a particular outcome, say, for example, a particular way of making a car from all the materials that go into a car. You do this and then this and then this and then you get a car.  It is well known that there is a limit to what any particular production function can accomplish. One can eke out small improvements in a production function until one gets to the point that there are no more improvements to be had.  When you get to that point, if you want a car that performs much better, you need a whole new production function. The premise of this meeting is that education needs a whole new production function, a whole new way of combining the ingredients of an education to produce much better outcomes for no more than it now costs.

That is where technology, entrepreneurship and innovation come in. New technology might lead to important efficiencies. Entrepreneurship might contribute new energy. Innovation might provide new ideas. These are not synonyms for each other. One can innovate in the way one organizes without any change in technology. One can put a new company together and make a bundle without any innovation. Government can introduce new technology without involving any entrepreneurs. This makes for an interesting meeting.

But what are the ingredients of an education? What is an education? 

Years ago, after the scores came out from the Third International Mathematics and Science Survey (TIMSS), the world discovered that a handful of Asian countries dominated the lists.  When we went to see how they had done it, the people we talked with were unimpressed with their own success. They wanted to know how the West had managed to produce so many people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates who were able to invent not just new, very successful companies but whole new industries, one after another.

They would have done well to look at Israel for the answer. The story is beautifully told in Start-Up Nation, a book whose author was at our meeting. It turns out that there are more start-ups at any given time in this tiny country than in all of Europe. Small Israeli companies are actually providing the key software ingredients for major global U.S. technology firms. Israel is a veritable beehive of highly productive entrepreneurial, high-technology activity, as if the Silicon Valley were its own country, but made up entirely of small companies, without the behemoths: agile, adaptable, always ready for the next challenge.

Here is the startling thing. Israel's public schools are nothing to write home about. They score well down on the PISA league tables. So what does that mean? Are we fooling ourselves?  Is formal schooling only weakly related to success in the modern economy?

Ask the Israelis to account for their economic success and they are ready to tell you. After the second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jews dispersed across the known world, the leaders of the Jewish people decided that they would teach all Jewish children to read, to wipe out illiteracy, so everyone would have access to the Torah. In the Jewish religion, there are no authorities, passing down the Truth and enforcing it in blood, if necessary. The Torah is subject to debate. Each student reads a passage in the Torah, analyzes it and debates its meaning with his partner, each pointing out the errors of the other, and both, in the process, seeing new meanings and sharpening their reasoning powers. That is the essence of Jewish education. Endless reading.  Endless debate. Analysis and argument. Argument and analysis. And the endless search for truth in which everyone is expected to participate.

But there is more than that. The core institutions are the Yeshiva (Hebrew Torah study school), the youth movement and the army. I've just described the essence of the Yeshiva. The youth movement is grounded in the idea of service, of young people engaging very early in activities that matter to the survival, growth and development of their society and their country. Children are given real tasks to do at an early age, tasks that matter, and all the responsibility that goes with them. They learn to shoulder that responsibility, to set a goal and work tirelessly with others to achieve it. They learn how to learn whatever they need to learn to get it done.  And they gain the pride that comes with having made a real contribution—something that really matters—to the community when the job is well done.

The Israelis have a famously civilian army.  Army service is compulsory for most young people.  Officers are called by their first names. The spirit of argument, reasoning and debate is alive and well in the army.  Ordinary soldiers ask not only "how" but also "why" and they expect an answer. But when the debate is over, the hill is taken, the tanks destroyed, the land defended. The spirit of the youth movement pervades the army. No task is seen as impossible, the question is how best to get it done. No effort is to be spared once the commitment is made. Leadership is earned, not a function of status in the society.  Team work is everything.  If one route is closed one is expected to find another. Debate and action, action and debate. Authority does not win. The best ideas win. The best argument wins.

It is hardly surprising that an army like this forges this spirit. Because these are civilian soldiers, they are in uniform one day and in a business suit the next. And then back in their uniform. The friendships they make in the army are for life. And the army friendships spread out into great interlocking networks of business connections. What ends up mattering most are not the formal hierarchies but the horizontal informal networks, constantly morphing, a social pattern brilliantly suited to a world in which companies form and die ever more rapidly with changes in demand and technologies. But the can-do spirit does not change. The democracy of ideas does not change. Bureaucracy is kept to a minimum. Fluidity and adaptability is the order of the day.

Israeli youth often take a year to travel before they settle down. This is another important piece of the puzzle. There is nothing like travelling the world on a shoestring to develop the sinews of independence, resilience, courage and creativity. And, no small thing, a gathering global network of friends upon whom one can call when it comes time to build your company or make a sale can come in handy when it comes to time put a business together.

What I have just described, taken as a whole, is what may be the world's best system for developing in a whole population of young people the very qualities that populate most people's lists of 21st century skills. 

So I come back to my question. Does this mean that public government schools are actually largely irrelevant, that the qualities that make Israel a world leader in technological innovation can be developed on a national scale without paying much attention to what goes on in the schools? I don't think so. Israel is a land of relatively recent immigrants, mostly from countries with high-performing education systems. Jewish immigrants were typically among the top performers in the schools of the countries from which they came.  The leaders of Israeli firms and government leaders come disproportionately from such families. But Israel cannot feed off of its pool of highly educated immigrants forever. The proportion of less-well-educated Israelis is growing faster than the population of people from highly educated families. And automation will reduce the supply of jobs requiring less education.  As these forces converge, the performance of Israel's public schools will matter more and more. There is no free lunch. 

The question was asked at our meeting: "What if we give priority not to the core curriculum in the schools but to the 'soft skills'?" The questioner was referring to the power of the model I have just described. The Israelis shot back: We need both!  But here is what you might think about. I think the story I have just told makes it crystal clear that that the so-called 21st century skills cannot be fully developed in the hot-house environment of the school. They need a much larger stage. And they need the involvement of the whole society, not just school teachers. This is, I think, a very important lesson for governments all over the world.

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