Is education an important tool for economic progress?
Education in every sense is at the heart of economic development. No country can achieve sustainable economic development without substantial investment in its human capital. Unfortunately, many economies in Africa are yet to unlock the full potential of their education systems. Education is still highly underrated by individuals, governments and influencers of the economy.
One of the career choices that I made while I was much younger, was that I would never become a teacher! I still do not remember if this choice was the result of a misplaced childhood rebellious streak, I could have been determined not to follow in my mother’s footsteps (she is a teacher); or it was the result of a misplaced yet prevalent perception that a teaching career was reserved for the under-performing students (you only enrolled to do a degree in education if your grades were not so good) or if the choice was the result of all these factors.
Unfortunately, my views on a career in education were and are still not the exception but the norm. A few weeks ago, I was discussing with some of the Lapid Leaders the areas that they were passionate about and I was disheartened to meet a student who is very passionate about education but was held back by the guardians from pursuing a teaching career for the same reasons that I kept away from the field. She is being nudged to pursue a career in more lucrative spaces! How do we hold such perceptions over the one sector that makes or breaks an economy?
Years later, thankfully and by God’s Grace alone, I am a teacher, I love it and cannot dream of doing anything else. As I have transitioned into the Education space, I have had to invest a lot of time and resources in understanding the sector. I am intrigued by the processes behind curriculum development, I love learning the processes that make education not just a tool for information but transformation, I am fascinated by the education systems that different countries have adopted and the learning has been immense.
Finland Case Study
One of the education systems that intrigues every educator is that of Finland. Over the last 20 years, reforms in the education system in Finland have resulted in them outperforming most countries in the PISA tests. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a worldwide study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in member and non-member nations of 15-year-old school pupils’ scholastic performance on mathematics, science, and reading.
Many studies have been conducted to identify what distinguishes Finland’s education system to other systems. On top of the list of the finding of these research is that the teaching career is one of the most popular professions in Finland, in contrast to most other countries. The best and brightest of the nation will be found fighting to be educators, the results then speak for themselves. This is in contrast to nations like ours where education is looked down on by many.
The second distinguishing factor in Finland’s education system (and many other developed nations), is that they have a very fluid education system that easily adopts to the needs of the nation, and the prevailing environment. Even if an economy chooses not to make teaching a lucrative career, the one thing that a progressive economy cannot do, is work with an education system that does not prepare its students for the future. This is where our 32 year-old 8-4-4 system has come to symbolise much of what’s wrong with education in Kenya today. Ofcourse the system has been tweaked over time, but the structural and delivery framework has largely remained the same, and hence preparing students for the world of 32 years ago.
A Changing World
A few weeks ago, as we celebrated Labor Day, I noticed that there was a sense of indifference over the holiday. Labour Day has its origins in the labour union movement, specifically the eight-hour day movement, which advocated eight hours for work, eight hours for recreation, and eight hours for rest. The holiday came about at the height of the Industrial Revolution when workers were at the center of America’s economy. As I read about this day, I realized that the fading interest in the day was because times have changed. The world has transitioned from the Industrialisation Age, when workers were the most important thing in most if not all economies, to a Knowledge Age. I am convinced that years from now, this auspicious holiday will be replaced by Knowledge / Innovation Day.
Knowledge Age citizens need to be adaptable, creative and innovative, and to be able to understand things at a ‘systems’ or big picture’ level. Most importantly, they need to be to think and learn for themselves, they need to be highly adaptable. This was recently validated by Mr Dennis Gitonga, the Innovations Director of MasterCard Financial Inclusion Labs, who led Lapid Leaders through a fantastic conversation on the place of Innovation in Modern Society. He went to great lengths to explain how most of the knowledge that the university students were attaining today, was likely to be redundant in the next 5 years. It therefore was not going to be their university studies that would distinguish them, but attributes like curiosity and lifelong learning.
This conversation brings me back to where this blog began. Is our education system preparing us for the past or for the future? Has Africa has positioned itself to thrive in the Knowledge Age or are we still stuck in the Industrialisation Age? As we release our youth to the marketplace, are we equipping them to be workers or innovators? Will we, yet again play catch up, years from now. In the United States, for example, they have recently launched the Computer Science for All Initiative to give all students across the country the chance to learn Computer Science in school.
The role of education today is to develop critical skills for improved conditions for innovations in the economy. The education system must be capable of delivering students that are able to be innovative at the workplace. At the heart of the Lapid Leaders Experience, is inculcating these 21st century skills. One of the ways we deliver these skills is through the Entrepreneurship Labs (classes). Studies have shown that there are conceptual links between innovation-specific skills and entrepreneurship skills and that entrepreneurship is a critical vehicle for the introduction of innovation.
With the fastest growing population on earth, Africa has more human capital potential than anywhere else on earth. Increasingly well-educated, many more African youth have access to higher education. But what does this mean for economic development? In the end, we can only reproduce what we are, which is why the question of how important education is (not on paper but in reality) must be at the fore of all conversations on economic progress!