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Our Education System is Failing to Prepare Children for the 21st Century. Here's Why.

Updated: Jan 8, 2019

What outcomes should we seek from our education system, if we are to successfully prepare the next generation of young minds for a highly globalized and uncertain 21st Century? Graduating school with top grades? Having a good foundation in maths, science and English? Being able to get a job after graduating? Developing a range of dynamic skills?

Exam Results and League Tables

Well, I would argue that success for children in education comes in a wide variety of forms, and whether today's students leave school with top grades is not always a reliable indication of the excellence of a national education system. Likewise, top exam results don't necessarily demonstrate that tomorrow's youth are gaining the knowledge, skills and values they need to thrive in the 21st Century.

In the past two decades or so, education in many countries, especially English-speaking ones such as the UK and US, have turned more and more towards competitive league tables and high-stakes testing as evidence of the success or failure of our schools, and children themselves.

But is this right? Do good grades guarantee a child will grow into a happy, resilient and successful adult? Does getting poor grades in school mean the future is hopeless and that a child will never amount to much?

Of course not. Think about the list of people who left school with few qualifications and achieved the highest accolades in the business world, for instance. Business people like Sir Richard Branson and Steve Jobs are just two examples of people who shone after leaving the classroom with poor grades.

So perhaps then we need a better working definition of the word 'success' before we can apply this to the context of education. Does a high-powered career ultimately make a person successful? Does raising a healthy, happy family mean success? What about becoming rich and famous?

Well, in my opinion none of these things in and of themselves demonstrate success – each one is an extrinsic measure, while in reality, success is intrinsic and personal to each individual.

Dream Big and Persevere

What about listening to your heart, following your passions and living life on your own terms? Does that make a person successful? Well, I feel we might be getting closer, but it’s still not a useful working definition. Perhaps though the famous quote below by Israelmore Ayivor hits the mark by emphasizing the inescapable ingredients of success – passion and perseverance in every endeavor.

“Successful people are defined as ordinary people who never gave up on their dreams and passion is the secret of that persistence!” ― Israelmore Ayivor, Dream Big!

For good or for worse, when most people think about success, the first thing that usually comes to mind is money. Culturally we’re bombarded everyday with social cues that being glamorous, famous, wealthy and powerful are assured indicators of success. The insinuation being these are the things we must seek, if we are to find happiness and fulfillment.

But glance the pages of any celebrity magazine and you’ll soon read scandal after scandal of celebrity drug addiction, alcohol abuse and divorces, and that’s just scanning the headlines! So this would seem to suggest money, power and celebrity status aren’t always the best indicators of success or happiness. So what about my definition below?

“A successful person is someone who shapes their own destiny, who dreams big, who follows their passions and who perseveres no matter how hard things get. It is something both personal and transitory - what is success for one person is different to another.” ― Alex Moxon

Redefining Success in Education: Four Essentials

I'm not afraid to admit, my definition of success took quite some time to come up with. As I thought about it and wrote down the characteristics of people I consider to be successful in my life, I gradually managed to whittle it down to just two concise sentences. So if we accept this as our broad working definition of the word 'success' for the moment, how could this relate to the educational outcomes we seek in preparing children for the challenges of the 21st Century?

Well that suddenly becomes quite easy. I believe education that's fit for the big unknowns of the 21st Century, can be broken down into four main outcomes as follows:

1. Get to Know Yourself

Firstly, to shape your own destiny in life, you must first know yourself well – your passions, your dreams, your strengths and your weaknesses. Without this understanding, you can’t begin on any path to success. This requires developing a love of learning and developing a growth mindset through education – the idea of becoming a lifelong learner.

2. Become Equipped for Life's Ups and Downs

Secondly, successful 21st Century education must develop resilient, adaptable individuals equipped to cope with life’s ups and downs. Crucially, this includes developing a healthy acceptance of failure as an essential prerequisite to success and achievement.

3. Develop Well-formed Values and Beliefs

Thirdly, quality education for 21st Century children must promote the development of well-formed values and beliefs, which become anchors for the rest of a young person’s life. This must include becoming informed of global sustainability issues and developing a healthy moral compass - the idea of becoming a well-informed global citizen.

4. Learn to Define Success in Your Own Terms

Finally, good education must embrace the underlying premise that achievement and success come in many shapes and sizes, and that this can only be defined on a personal basis. We must avoid hammering square pegs into round holes – in the end, just because a youngster shows promise in science or engineering, doesn’t mean that someone else who's talented in art or dance is going to be any less successful.

That's because succeeding in any field requires the commitment to shape your own destiny, dream big, follow your passions and persevere no matter what. That's what really makes a person successful, so let's get out there and go do it!

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