Education should broaden minds. Too often we are doing the opposite.

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Learn how to see. Realise that everything connects to everything else’ – Leonardo da Vinci

‘Why do politicians fail so miserably when it comes to systemic thinking?’,  I was asked by a friend who had just read my comments on the Chancellor’s Growth Plans.

 My first response  was to refer her to my earlier plea for a National Discomfort Policy . I had added the suggestion that we should make anyone seeking elected office as an MP to  spend two years serving others in a front line role in the private or public sector.  

A conversation the next day persuaded me that this wasn’t enough. I had been  invited by the Enlightened Enterprise Academy to relate my thoughts and experiences to the insights to be found in critical systems thinking and the management of complexity. Professor Mike Jackson, a pioneer in this field, soon convinced me that there is a capabilities gap that goes far wider than our political leaders. He pushed me to say what might help to get systems thinking better understood by leaders everywhere.  

Having reflected on his question I now think our failure to think systemically starts with education and the professions and the attitudes that both embody.   

In the UK it is typical for parents with high hopes for their children to do expect that those children will get to university. Once there they will choose a subject to study. At the end of their period of study they will expect to have a degree which equips them for employment as a graduate.

Why do we assume that a university degree is the best path to employment or enlightenment?

One leading educationalist, the founder of a successful Academy who is now involved in higher education told me recently of the reciprocal disappointment that he has witnessed between students and employers. The student comes out with a degree and is then disappointed that the employer gives them so little responsibility. The employer looks at the graduate and is surprised at how little work-readiness accompanies the formal qualification.

According to a CMI study a year ago nearly 80% of employers believe graduates aren’t work-ready on entering the employment market. Students on non-business related courses say university equips them with just two of the 11 key employability skills.

Suppose our graduate now goes on to qualify professionally. Is this training any better at preparing people to look outwards and think systemically?

I talked to a partner at a prestigious Magic Circle law firm. At interview, he often asks applicants why they want to become commercial lawyers. ’Because business interests me and I like the idea of working in a team of lawyers’ is one of the more intelligent answers that he gets. Rarely if ever does he hear an interviewee describing the kind of impacts she or he might achieve in this profession, let alone any wider sense of the system that the legal profession exists to serve.  

I turned to the Law Society’s Royal Charter and its recent statements. The Royal Charter is inward-looking. It only mentions ‘promoting professional improvement’ and ‘facilitating the acquisition of legal knowledge’. In the most recent statement of vision and purpose, the Society does make a brief reference to ‘safeguarding the rule of law’ and envisages ‘a valued profession delivering the highest quality legal services in the public interest and advancing the rule of law.’ With this small exception a body which has been granted all the privileges of a Royal Charter – says nothing about its obligation to serve society. The Law Society says nothing about encouraging the profession to learn more about the changing the needs of the society it should be serving.  

So here is my hypothesis. If I’m right it suggests we need a radically different view of the future of education.

If you want to encourage selfishness in your society,  treat higher education as the preferred pathway to employment, and elevate professional specialisation as the best rewarded route. Societies – like ours – which do this are implicitly teaching  young people to be more narrow-minded and discouraging them from thinking systemically.

If you want to breed innovators, leaders and decisionmakers who think imaginatively and look outwards, change your priorities.

Perhaps the UK could learn from Switzerland.  Approximately 70 percent of Swiss students chose to do an apprenticeship, and only 25 percent choose a traditional university pathway.

According to a recent study published by the Asia Society the Swiss model engages students at 15 or 16 years of age, prepares them with 21st century skills for high-demand, high-skilled jobs, and allows them to pursue higher education (including university degrees) and training.

Curdin Duschletta, Managing Director, Head of Community Affairs Switzerland, UBS and a former apprentice, says that countries should not look to the Swiss model to lower their youth unemployment rate and get “kids of the streets.” Instead, the model builds up the next generation and creates innovators.

Leonardo da Vinci would be horrified. For all our technological progress, we have  organised ourselves to undervalue the connectedness of everything, We are looking at our problems with one eye closed.   

Mark Goyder is Founder of Tomorrow’s Company and Senior Advisor to the Board Intelligence Think Tank. He is the author, with Ong Boon Hwee, of Entrusted –  Stewardship for Responsible Wealth Creation, published by World Scientific in 2020.

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