Is this what we want for our children? Part 3 What I would wish for instead

In the first two posts of this trilogy I described the daily life of many school children today, and described the issue I have with occupying our children 100% of the time, providing them with constant structure and input. Not that I cannot imagine how it came about: in the days of the British Empire where the British ruling class was busy elsewhere (conquering the world); to make sure their offspring was safe and sound, they send them off to boarding school in England. Keeping children safe and sound was also the reason boarding schools instituted classes and games on Saturdays - what better way to keep their charges out of mischief? Times have changed though and I believe it is time to ask the question, is the way we are currently educating out children still the best possible way? Both in terms of structure, and in terms of content.

I am sure many of you know the wonderful video where Sir Ken Robinson shares his view on the education system, why it is as it is, and why it is no longer suitable for today’s context. The video makes very clear that we need to understand things in the context, which also means that we need to revisit what we put in place periodically to ensure it is still fit for purpose, ie whether it is addressing the needs and requirements of a particular context, at a particular point in time. By the way, this advice is relevant to ANY aspect of life and work ….

Before moving on to what education of and for the 21st century should deliver, quickly two more aspects of the current education that concern me that as I believe they are the underlying causes of much of the challenges we are facing today.

The first is that the current system is that our obsession with measuring and ranking has led to a culture where all that matters is getting as many pupils with as high grades as possible through the system. This is reflected in exams consisting of multiple choice questions - easy to grade and rank - yet which brings with it an overemphasis on memorising (rather than understanding) in order to pass exams. I still remember sitting my GMAT which is largely multiple choice, thinking in the ‘reasoning’ section, well, this option if and when…, that option if and when… I felt given half the opportunity I could have argued most responses! But I am straying of course… In current times where the answers to any of these questions and facts can be googled within seconds, does it really matter? Particularly as I will have forgotten most of in in a matter of weeks anyway?

What we need in todays fast moving and complex world is the ability to transfer things from one context into another. To be able to do that we need a deeper level of understanding.

The second is that the current education system instills from very early on an ‘exclusiveness mindset’, meaning that the belief that everything is black or white, right or wrong, is deeply embedded in mindset and thinking. The aforementioned multiple-choice questions are the epitome of that. Not only that, there is the, often implicit, suggestion that there is one right answer, and one right answer only. Those who propose an alternative are often laughed at and considered somewhat silly.

You may ask why I am so concerned with the black and white mentality. I would like to link this kind of mindset to the resistance innovation and change often face. First of all, if we search for the 'one right answer' we will be nervous to experiment, and we will be nervous to commit. We don’t want to fail, to embarrass ourselves, to get it ‘wrong’.

Second, if indeed we believe that there is indeed one right way regardless of time and context, and if then someone suggests a change, does not mean that I must have been wrong all along? How many of us become defensive when someone suggests to change how we do things, or even just asks us to explain why we do the things the way we do… I was quite delighted to see that in his recent posting on Insead’s Manfred Kets de Vries [] argues for executives to learn to think in ‘shades of grey’ rather than black ad white. Indeed.

But enough complaining about what is, what are the qualities I propose for an education that is worthy of the possibilities and opportunities of the 21st century? As well as being necessary for addressing the numerous and unprecedented challenges we are facing? What is it that will help future generations to survive in the fast changing and complex context, and also help them make it a better place?

After thinking long and hard how best to capture the essence it is perhaps not surprising it is more about a mindset than it is about a skill set, it is about how we are rather than what we do; I believe that we need to find a way to educate (and bring up) our children in a way that gives them resilience and humility. Let me explain a little more why I believe these to be so important.


In this context resilience for me is about inner strength, about an awareness and understanding that enables us to depend less on the voice, recognition and acceptance of others. In our comfort and self belief we are less reliant on external forces and feedback. Why do I consider this to be of importance? This thoughts was triggered when recently reading an article in the magazine of the RSA of which I am a Fellow. In one of their articles research was being cited that had found that: ”… when people find that other people disagree with them, they tend to think of themselves as less likeable and competent that they did before!” I found that rather worrying, particularly in the awareness that much innovation arises from a disagreement with the status quo (and hence with those who are aiming to preserve it). I immediately though, if we are to address the challenges we face we need to be able to be comfortable to disagree, we need to be comfortable with conflicting perspectives and different viewpoints! We need to be comfortable and secure enough in ourselves to keep asking ‘why’ questions and propose crazy ideas. We need to embrace and accept disagreement - not to agree to disagree but to use the differences to explore different perspectives and viewpoints, and with that open doors to new possibilities and solutions that have not been thought of before. It is not for nothing that InnoCentive noticed over the years that solutions particularly to tricky or ‘’ problems do hardly ever come from within the knowledge community where the challenges originates; more often than not they come from entirely unrelated fields.

Here a few other words that I associate with resilience: openness, adaptiveness, flexibility. Resilience is not about not being affected by change; resilience is about the ability to bounce back. Unless there has been a change, an impact, something that has affected the status quo there would be no need to bounce back! Therefore it seems clear to me that in times of change, which is what we experience and which is not likely to go away, resilience is essential.

Thinking about the ‘bouncing back’ bit though, if we are experiencing change, then it does not seem possible to bounce back to where we were before, perhaps we should start thinking about resilience as the ability to bounce forward! In times of change we need to be open, flexible and adaptive, and have the courage and confidence to bounce forward into the changed status quo. In the face of adversity and change resilient people do not resign, the re-design!

Of course there is always the danger of things being changed for the sake of it, just because we can - and that is why the second key ingredient for educating for the future is so important: humility.


Looking at the mindset and progress of humanity to date, there is one thing we can NOT say about us humans as a whole (at least no in the western world…): that we are humble. Considering ourselves to be the pinnacle of creation, we like to believe we are in control and know what’s best, for everyone and everything. (Should you ask me, the following has a lot to answer for: “And God gave them his blessing and said to them, Be fertile and have increase, and make the earth full and be masters of it; be rulers over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing moving on the earth.” Genesis 1:28. Lots of room for interpreting that in a superior and destructive, rather than caring and responsible way!)

Being humble is to acknowledge that we are but part of a whole, part of an interwoven system where all aspects depend on the respect, appreciation and nurturing of each other for the system to retain the precarious balance that has developed over thousands of years. Humility is about respecting what someone else has put in place. Humility is about looking for what we can contribute to improve a situation rather than ask what is in it for us. To instil an awareness of the interdependency which quantum physics helps us to understand, to understand how and why we, as individuals, need to accept responsibility for our actions and their impact on the wider system are challenges of education in the 21st century.

Here a few other words that I associate with humility: awareness, respect, and compassion. Humility is about awareness about why things are as they are, it is about respecting those who have put them in place, and be compassionate when they show resistance and fears in the face of change.

Some interesting initiatives that seek to create new paths:

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