Are we being stupid? – Part 3: Ideas on how to be less stupid.

In the previous parts of this blog I have talked about two things: firstly, about how most advanced economies are heavily dependent on innovation for sustained growth and, secondly, I’ve presented some macroeconomic figures and anecdotal evidence regarding the importance of innovation in Europe. In case I was not explicit enough throughout this series: I don’t believe Europe is doing enough to be and become the dynamic and innovative economic zone we could be. What do I think needs to change?

I think public and private expenditure on R&D and higher education is important, but I also believe that how much good it does depends a lot on what we use this money for and that some of our problems are structural: There are two points I want to stress in particular:

  1. Reforming our educational system

I believe that we need new concepts for education. Our education system plays a fundamental role in shaping the citizens that determine the (political) future of our nations and in forming the work force that ensures that our economies and societies remain dynamic and innovative and create the employment needed. However, this is the 21st century and yet, we are relying on a schooling system that largely stems from the industrialization era! We want people to generate innovation, to think out of the box and to tackle economic and social issues? We want them to learn, because they want to and not because we are legally forcing them to sit in school until they turn 15? Well, then maybe it is time we adapt the way we teach and also what we teach in our schools to modern life, families and children! (sounds radical rather than pragmatic, but sometimes incremental is just not enough)

To give you just one example of the change I think we need: in an age where information on virtually anything is a click away and knowledge has become something available to everyone, maybe we should focus more on teaching our children skills rather than facts: IT skills, public speaking skills, research skills… We also should start to incorporate what we have learned about suitable learning environments and strategies from decades of educational and child development research to actually attempt to put the fun back into learning! Call me idealistic, but I believe that kids are fundamentally curious and that we should foster this curiosity and not kill it. This is a blog, I have to be brief, but for some entertaining and thought-provoking details on the issue, you could watch either of these two videos: TED Talk by Sugata Mitra or RSA Animate Video on a Talk by Ken Robinson.

What about higher education? Right now, in many countries we have some kind of dual system, which provides people with a choice between two tracks: vocational education or training (VET) or a track oriented towards academia. There are large differences across countries of what these tracks exactly look like, but there is some consensus that Austria, for instance, is a fantastic model when it comes to VET (EESC ReportOECD Report). In fact, it is mostly the Northern European and German-speaking countries (plus the Netherlands) who are praised for their VET schemes. So that is great, right?

Well, for these countries it is, because it has been argued that VET is a great way to reduce the skill mismatch and keep unemployment (particularly youth unemployment) in check (see for instance this guardian article) There is for instance some indication that countries with a lack of skilled labour (particularly in technical areas) have started to attract young people from countries with high youth unemployment (Example), but ideally we would clearly want to see VET all over Europe. In addition, just because we are better than the average, that doesn’t mean there is no room for improvement!

Let’s take Austria as an example: I’ve always had the feeling that there is an eternal struggle between the Fhs and the Universities and over the years it seems like we have tried to make them more similar: We criticize the FH graduates for being specialized morons, but envy them for their almost guaranteed jobs. We criticize the universities for teaching people stuff that doesn’t get them jobs in the economy and for not being able to fund themselves the same way Fhs do. There have been considerable discussions about harmonizing the kind of title and degree you get, about making unis more like Fhs or Fhs more like unis while in fact, what we should do, in my opinion, is to support, extend and promote each branch independently exactly for what it is!

This ties into the second argument I want to make: increasing the links between educational facilities, governments and businesses and the magic of cooperation and clusters. I was hoping to put everything into one blog, but this is long enough, so there will be a part IV. Until then I’d love to hear your thoughts on education for innovation. 

2 thoughts on “Are we being stupid? – Part 3: Ideas on how to be less stupid.

  1. In my opinion, the basic problem with the Austrian education system (and other government-run education systems) is that there is too little diversity, too little choice, too little competition. Schools have no real autonomy in what they teach, how they teach it, whom they hire, or which students to admit. New ideas and innovations come about when people from different personal backgrounds with different perspectives come together in an open discussion. I would like to see all kinds of schools with lots of different pedagogical approaches competing in a free market place. I think you can’t have a truly innovative society if everyone has been taught the same stuff in the same way by teachers who are heavily protected from competition. I think the most widely discussed ideas for eduction reform (‘Gesamtschule’ and Zentralmatura) are completely misguided. They are headed in the opposite direction of where I want to go: even more centralization, even less choice, even less competition.

    • Of course, I forgot to mention that the most outrageous lack of choice exists for parents who are forced to send their kids to the Regelschule in their school district. This is both highly inefficient and deeply unjust, because rich parents can either relocate to better school districts (which is a major reason why Austrian cities are so segregated into ‘Nobelviertel’ and ‘Ausländerviertel’) or send their kids to expensive private schools.

      Here endeth the rant.

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