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Where does our future lie—in degrees or in skills?

(Khaleej Times dated 15 May, 2023)

I come from a culture and country, India, where academic qualifications define a person and his social standing. An individual’s worth is often distilled into a few certificates that are believed to either propel or retard their careers. It is so in many other parts of the world too.

Years of rigorous cramming and enormous expenses culminate in academic outcomes that range between the stellar and the mediocre, and yet, when graduates walk out of their alma maters, they don’t feel all set to launch into their dream futures. There is a yawning gap between the knowledge they have accumulated and the demands of the workplace; between the students’ bona fide aspirations and the endgame; between what they want to learn and what they are taught.

This disparity in ‘what is’ and ‘what needs to be’ in our educational system and our notions surrounding it is made apparent to me by a frequent pronouncement my students make in my writing classes. ‘We hate school. They don’t teach us what we want to learn. We go there only for our friends.’

It is difficult to dispute them, for I have been watching over the years how students are getting less and less equipped to fulfil the real-world needs and have been force-fitted into straightjackets that constrain knowledge and education. The stress on gaining academic excellence in subjects that will have no future use has deprived them of opportunities to build skill sets that are becoming indispensable to carving fulfilling careers.

The fact that most students trudge through their school and college years to notch up numbers and credentials that only partially fulfil job requirements begs the questionis it time for us to ditch academic degrees in favour of informal education that will give rise to a generation of unique innovators? Will the emergence of technology and therefore access to specific knowledge bases outside of premium institutions make us more willing to accept core skills as a prerequisite than degrees?

Let us accept it without pretentionsour schools and colleges don’t have a foolproof setting that provide our children with an environment that sync with their individual capabilities and learning tendencies. Neither does our formal educational system provide them with challenges at a very individual level, where they can assess their capabilities and evolve into what they truly want to become.

They are stuffed with information that are often redundant to their future needs for creativity, collaboration and critical thinking. In the many years that I have been a children’s mentor in the informal sector, I have seen an acute shortage of originality in students. Their curiosity is stifled by an overload of pedagogics and the opportunity for experimentation is almost down to zilch.

We are at the cusp of huge paradigm shifts in the kind of intellectual resources that the world needs to keep mankind evolving positively. This transition to a new set-up cannot be successfully accomplished by saddling our children with irrelevant knowledge that precludes essential skills from its itinerary.

It may be argued that in a job market that still values degrees and pins them as prerequisites, it is impossible for us to jettison degrees from our resumes. This, however, may not be as true as it used to be a few years ago. Companies are now willing to discard their old screening methods and take a relook at candidatures based on hands-on job requirements. There is increasing awareness of how the bespoke skills that candidates bring to their workstations will improve the company’s bottom lines than their degrees (that may not have made them job ready). The inflated degree syndrome of the past is slowly fading out.

There is an abundance of talent floating outside our universities that if harnessed can be utilized purposefully for our collective growth. The potential is such that we are currently witnessing the emergence of a parallel educational universe that nurtures skills, and prepares a new, efficient employable generation. Online courses, digitized learning, and private internships are paving the way for a new climate of skill gathering based on individual interests and passions. New turfs are being built to cater expertise to a fast-paced and tech-driven world. But are we ready yet to embrace these new ways to competence and career building?

Researchers, governments, and policy makers will have to revise curriculums to suit our emerging needs. Companies will have to drop their fixation with degrees and endorse ingenuity as qualification. And we, as consumers of knowledge, must shed our resistance to informal methods of learning and accept them as equally efficacious as traditional education. Only then will schools stop being boring and irrelevant to kids, and universities cease to churn out degree-holders with little practical skills.

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I think it’ll be nice to have a “no curriculum“ structure in the early years of learning. Rather than channelling a child‘s thought process, it’s important to notice their ingenuity at a young age and understand each child’s way of learning. From a consumer‘s perspective it’s important to not only shed resistance to informal methods of learning, but to also shed resistance to learning things that are normally not part of a structured curriculum or extra curricular activity.

Schools should be a fun learning environment for children rather than being a religiously structured, and strictly timed prison of learning.

Many educational institutions around the world are churning out the most unhappy humans on earth.

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