Much of our public discussion about talent lately seems devoted to the issue of temporary foreign workers rather than the much more foundational question of whether we are adequately educating Canadians for the jobs of tomorrow in a technology-fuelled and hyper-competitive global economy. A new technological revolution, driven by big data, huge computing power, smart analytics and inferential machine learning, will be disruptive in restructuring not just how we work but whether the work is done by humans or machines.
When discussing the challenges facing the education system in Canada, we often seem to accept the false premise that the only problem is funding. And yet, in a profoundly changing world, it seems rather obvious that the status quo cannot be a viable long-term strategy for any sector in the Canadian economy, and that includes education.
So what does this all mean for the education system? Simply put: change. Canada will need graduates who are literate, numerate and articulate – but these are now the “table stakes” skills. Successful graduates will also need to be creative and critical thinkers, able to collaborate in diverse teams and to leverage the new technologies. They will need to be open to failure as an essential part of their own growth, resilient and self-aware. Most importantly, in a world where change will be the only constant, they need to be endlessly adaptable and strongly entrepreneurial. Unfortunately, too seldom are these the characteristics of today’s educational curriculum.
We have a reasonably good public education system in Canada, and are rightfully proud of what has been achieved over many decades. But the question we now have to ask ourselves is whether “good is good enough” for tomorrow’s hyper-competitive knowledge economy. If the objective is to win the race between technology and education, and to close the gap between people without jobs and jobs without people, then we must raise our game.
What Canada needs is an education system that is excellence-based, differentiated and inclusive. We cannot economically afford today’s high-school drop out rates of almost 8 per cent; we cannot socially afford or condone the low educational attainment outcomes among Aboriginal youth; we cannot expect good educational choices by students unless we provide earlier and better information about them; and we cannot sustain a one-size-fits-all education approach in a complex modern economy.
Consider two opportunities for change:
Excellence: As much as we quibble about how they are designed, ratings and more importantly benchmarks, matter. We have to improve our standings in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results, where, especially in math, the benchmark is now Asia; we have to expand STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education in high school, where optionality may be the wrong benchmark; we have to increase second language skills, where the global economy is now the relevant benchmark; we need to be early adopters of digital learning in K-12, within the university and college walls and online; and, we have to aim for the podium in the international rankings not the middle of the pack. To achieve excellence, we must transparently benchmark to it in all parts of the public education system.
Differentiation: How are we to achieve excellence and to satisfy the complex educational needs of a profoundly changing economy and society if Canadian postsecondary institutions are similar not differentiated? Certainly, universities should offer strong, broadly-based foundations, but when it comes to research intensity, should there not be more specialization among Canadian universities if we want to aspire to global excellence. With clear and escalating demands for skilled trades in the energy sector and advanced manufacturing to name only two, why are we not experimenting with dual vocational training models in our colleges and in partnership with the business community across the country? Experiential learning appears to be strongly valued by employers and students alike, and yet we have only limited examples of experiential learning fully integrated into the Canadian university or college experience. Simply put, this is a plea for differentiation and diversity, not a prescription for homogeneity.
The educational challenge facing Canada is not unique to us, but how we respond will uniquely shape the employment prospects of the next generation and their standards of living. This challenge is much more than an incremental program here or some fine-tuning there; it involves a culture change in how we all take more accountability for educational outcomes. Our biggest risk may be in not taking one, being complacent when a sense of urgency is called for.
Dr. Kevin G. Lynch is vice-chairman of the BMO Financial Group.