One pondering over education and skills equipping.
What is the difference between education and training? Why is it that Einstein says that he never let schooling interfere with his education?
One of the greatest lie we tell a child here in Singapore is: “Study hard and you’ll have a bright future.” I hear it everywhere; parents telling their children, older folks telling youths, and even students telling teachers that to explain some of the sheer hours they are putting into studying. This relationship between studying hard and bright future is poorly established. And to put things a little more rigorously, there are too many countervailing factors even if this was true under a set of conditions (which must also require ceteris paribus).
Academic speak aside, there is the element of competition that we must deal with. We have been creating competition where there isn’t a need to. Competition in life is real but instead of teaching our kids how to conform and play the same game, we should be encouraging them to carve a niche for themselves. In forcing everyone into the academic game, focusing resources on these people, we are implicitly coordinating the entire society into just a single pocket of niche which makes us incredibly vulnerable. We often claim that we don’t have land nor any natural resources – our primary resource is our human capital. Yet by forcing our domestic human resources through a narrow funnel we have created increasingly fragile economic growth that critically depends on a constant inflow of foreign labour (to take care of all the other areas of life and economy that we have neglected to cultivate and groom people for).
Next we need to deal with the connection between our ‘training system’ (note: I don’t consider the bulk of our schooling years education – in the same spirit as Einstein), and the kind of talents needed in the world is severely disconnected despite good intentions. There is overemphasis of quantifiable, hard skills and lack of attention paid to other equally important soft skills, as well as character-building (which is really what education is about) that will help to build our next generation up to deal with challenges in life and adversity at work. In other words, training must be better aligned – schools have come up with their own standards and nice-sounding principles without really consulting the other stakeholders. When was the last time schools ask parents and the industry how they can partner these other stakeholders to develop better programmes to build up students?
Lest you think that I am putting too much hope in our schools, we still have to deal with the whole question of ‘education’. All the talk about character-building a decade ago is gone – focus went back to all the quantifiable stuff. The more centralised decision-making becomes, the more demand it puts on quantifiable elements, the more resources allocated to fact-finding, data-gathering and the more buffer we build between layers of hierarchy in reporting – the less contemplation takes place. We discovered long ago that centralised resource allocation is problematic but we also have to contend with the problem that governments who inevitably grow large over time. A mechanism to break it back down is necessary. I think education holds promise for something like that. The more we decentralise activity down to the individual schools, put less roadblocks, make principals and teachers more accountable directly to parents and industry rather than the ministry, we will be able to start growing a new kind of workforce to fill the needs of our economy.
While it might be attractive to think that the ‘government’ could coordinate lots of stuff and make magic happen, the truth is the needs of the people are simply distributed, and relies too much on micro, local knowledge for a centralised bureaucracy to handle. The amount of reporting, verification, and layers to clear before initiatives are implemented squanders a lot more resources than necessary. At the same time, matters are complicated by the need to constantly justify being ‘big’ through securing public support with big goals, big initiatives. Historically, we have made big gains by agglomeration, growing huge and becoming big. But the gains we accrue from such centralisation and consolidation is bound to erode at some point. At the same time, coordination becomes much more difficult and incentives becomes increasingly skewed as those decision-makers are well insulated from the ground and what really happens.