How Would Today’s Smartest Teens Overhaul Education? We Asked Them

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What happens when you gather 14 of the world’s brightest teenagers at Singularity University and ask them to design the future of education? During last summer’s Exponential Youth Camp  (XYC) pilot here at SU, we found out. Here are the teens' six tips for entrepreneurs and educators building future of education.

1. Make it about ME

The first thing that became very clear during our conversation was that our group of “Generation Me” millennials expect their learning to be highly personalized. It should be “my choice” to pursue “my interests” at “my pace,” they argued. Although this may at first sound childish, these demands are far from selfish. Why? Because personalization is necessary to compete in today’s intricately specialized world.

The “factory model” system used in many schools was first introduced in America in 1852. At that time, most people encountered 50 books in a lifetime. With limited access to information, it made sense that a narrow set of generalized skills could sufficiently educate a population.

Even by 1910, less than 30% of Americans pursued advanced professional degrees; the remaining 70% worked as laborers. The degree of specialization that was once considered a privilege has become essential to succeed in the modern economy.

Personalized learning enables members of the “Me” generation to prioritize interests and explore identities that lead to those eventual career specializations.

2. Let’s DO things

As Peter Diamandis likes to remind us, “a Masai warrior on a cellphone in the middle of Kenya has better mobile communications than President Reagan did 25 years ago.” Memorization matters, but it’s far less important when 73% of American teens have access to smartphones.

With 4.7 billion pages of information available on the web, the biggest challenge to students today is in developing the skills to navigate, assess and synthesize information.

Many great teachers use methods like project-based learning (PBL) to help students build 21st century skills like creative problem solving and team collaboration. As defined by the Buck Institute of Education, “Project-based learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge.”

The idea isn’t new, but it’s gaining popularity.

Nonetheless, our XYC teens told us they are looking for more than hands-on practice in the classroom; they want opportunities to work on projects in the real world as well. For them, contributing to the local community sparked engagement and motivation in a way that classroom work couldn’t match.

Furthermore, the teens told us that most tests “just don’t make sense.”

They were aware that testing fails to cater to different learning styles, and they’ll likely forget what they’re memorizing. According to The Council of Great City Schools, “The average student in America’s big-city public schools will take roughly 112 mandatory standardized tests between pre-kindergarten and high school graduation.”

The council further concluded that many of these tests are filled with redundancies. Across the board, our teens wanted opportunities to demonstrate knowledge through real-world application, not scantrons.

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3. Don’t ditch me in an online course

We expected excitement when we asked the group about online learning. Instead we heard this: “online Learning is NOT the answer.” The teens told us online courses are “great for educated specialists” but don’t cater to beginners. They cited a lack of time to complete online coursework and internet connectivity issues faced by many schools as additional issues.

Mostly, the teens didn’t like the idea of “going it alone.” The problem wasn’t that online learning content was bad, the students simply desired guidance in navigating the material. Which brings us to Tip #4...

4. Be my coach

Students still want great teachers.

The role of the educator, however, is shifting from an individual who delivers facts to that of a guide who can help learners navigate a vast maze of information. Our teens wanted to interact with adults who are relatable, knowledgeable and inspiring. Their favorite teachers were those who asked questions, not those who gave answers.

5. Teach me relevant skills

The teens told us they value traditional subject matter, but opportunities to build more practical skills were lacking. Interest in learning more about money management and soft skill development — like teamwork, problem solving and conflict resolution — was mentioned multiple times.

6. Foster a growth mindset

Finally, we landed on our biggest question: What is the purpose of all this learning, anyway? Their answer: education should “make people confident in their ability to learn anything.”

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls this a “growth mindset.” In her words, this is “the idea that we can grow our brain's capacity to learn and to solve problems.” A student with a growth mindset understands her intelligence is only partially determined by genetics—there are always actions she can take to build new proficiencies that contribute to a rich intellectual life.

In a world of exponential change, standing still is not an option. People once held one job per lifetime, but today many researchers expect millennials to hold as many as twenty jobs throughout a single career. We must all be prepared to constantly learn new skills and ideas.

Building the confidence to do so is the number one goal in the future of education.

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Image credit: Kate Rutter, intelleto.com/Shutterstock 

Libby Falck

Libby Falck is an entrepreneur, designer and media artist working to educate a generation of changemakers. She is the creator of The Resilience Challenge, a co-founder of IDEAco, and the writer and lead creator of the k-12 design thinking curriculum theCity X Project. She is also a co-founder of the SF-based community houses The Lair and the Snuggery, a graduate of the Singularity University Graduate Studies Program and 4.0 Schools Launch Accelerator. Libby is passionate about the power of media and games to enable individuals to engage with complex systems. Her mission is to design tools that transform issues into actions, empowering anyone to contribute and implement solutions toward building a world that works.

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