In this new series of interviews, we ask some of education’s big thinkers to share their vision of the future. As we acquaint ourselves with a brave new world where COVID is a manageable threat rather than an ever-present danger, one thing seems sure: education will continue to evolve on a trajectory that has witnessed both furious pace increases and unforeseen direction changes over the past year. Where to next? What of exams? Home learning? How to help those left behind after a year of online (or no) school? Is our system fit for purpose? We hand over the ‘education minister for a day’ mantle to our interviewees and ask what they would do now.
What’s next for education?
For decades, recruiters in big firms have taken a university degree as a signal for a graduate’s ability to master a subject, write well, and fit into a work environment. But is this the true value of higher education? Bryan Kaplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University, claims that up to 80 per cent of the value of higher education is now in the signalling, rather than the learning.
And even the strength of that signal is fading, as half a million new UK graduates emerge each year, typically brandishing a 2:1 degree in one of a handful of subjects.
So, which degree should a school-leaver pick to ensure a top job? As automation can do more and more, we are moving into what some have called a “post-professional society”. This is just one example of how the modern labour market is creating new demands of the higher education sector.
As employers look past brand names and test what applicants can actually do, students are going to want to know that universities can teach them something that’s genuinely valuable in the world of work. In which case, universities need to double down on understanding how people learn, by reviewing their teaching methodologies considering new developments in cognitive science.
We believe that it is time to add something new: an interdisciplinary degree that teaches students the knowledge and skills they need to tackle complex problems. And so, we are creating a new university, the London Interdisciplinary School (LIS) to do just this.
LIS’ belief is that we need to move beyond “jobs” and think instead about challenges – the complex problems that we face as a society; ecological destruction, social inequality, global pandemics, and the effects of modern technology are just a few of these.
Employers are putting these issues at the heart of their business purpose, as pressure builds from their own shareholders and boards – as well as their staff and consumers, especially Gen Z.
These problems tend to be “wicked”, meaning interconnected and shifting, with no single answer. So we need a new kind of degree to match.
Today’s graduates need to be able to grapple with data, machines, and cutting-edge technology, but also understand the human condition. In other words, what makes us love or fear, collaborate or fight.
Take climate change. Adopting a holistic approach when assessing this global challenge requires data specialists who can spot patterns and model ahead, psychologists who can unpick human behaviours that drive consumption, scientists who can continue to advance understanding and knowledge, anthropologists who can understand the anthropogenic influences driving climate change, and artists who have the power to educate, stimulate, and inspire change.
If those people understand more than one discipline – and the synergies between them – the chances of success are increased.
Instead of forcing students into academic silos, an interdisciplinary approach will help knowledge integration across different areas. If a traditional degree offers a student a hammer to which all problems are a nail, an interdisciplinary degree puts the problem first and allows the student to find the most appropriate tool from a range of academic disciplines.
The power of collective intelligence is the key to unlocking interdisciplinarity. The sharing of mental models from across boundaries of expertise can create new and relevant modes of understanding and experiencing the world. Interdisciplinarians can achieve more together than siloed, disconnected minds on their own.
We truly believe that a modern interdisciplinary education is what’s needed to tackle the world’s most pressing problems. And just as these real-world problems don’t ‘fit’ into disciplinary boxes, why should a degree?
About the author: Ed co-founded School 21, an innovative 4 – 18 school in Stratford, East London, designed for children from all starting points and backgrounds (achieved Outstanding Ofsted in 2014). Ed has advised leaders at Cambridge University and the London School of Economics, along with some of the UK’s most exciting schools that are exploring new ways of teaching students. He has also worked with organisations that specialise in working directly with disadvantaged students such as ARK Schools and Teach First. Ed holds a BEng in Mechanical Engineering from Imperial College London and a degree in Business from the London School of Economics. Prior to founding School 21, Ed worked at McKinsey & Co and ran a theatre production company.