Disrupting education to become relevant

BELIEVING that higher education is broken and not delivering on its promises and objectives, Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, took matters into his own hands.

In order to lure highly talented young people away from pursuing their undergraduate degrees at top universities, in 2010 he announced the Thiel Fellowship. Every year since then, the Thiel Foundation offers around 20 grants of US$100, 000 (RM418, 000) each to young people to leave the best universities and use the money to work on entrepreneurial ideas rather than pursue a degree.

The Fellowship is competitive with thousands of applicants every year. Many of the Thiel Fellows give up places at universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University and end up being founders of companies and creators of jobs for those who completed their degrees from those very same universities.

Thiel has shown the world one way, at least, to disrupt higher education and challenge the assumption that smart young people should always pursue a degree. The question is, does education, and higher education in particular, deserve to be disrupted?

Education is one of the most important activities that contributes towards societal and economic growth and development. Traditionally, education focused on the acquisition of knowledge (Knowing) and the development of skills (Doing) while aspiring towards the inculcation of desirable attitudes and behaviours (Being), alas with varying degrees of success for a third of those.

In the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, two increasing trends are shedding doubt on the value of conventional education. These are:

1. Access to information and knowledge is instantaneous and widely available; and

2. The connection between human skills and employability is being challenged, with machines being able to perform many of the human tasks, from balancing the books to diagnosing diseases, better than human professionals.

For education to remain relevant, it needs to disrupt itself and assert its position within society. One way to achieve this, in my opinion, is to evolve from “Education” to “Positive Education.” Besides knowledge and skills, Positive Education affirms its role in the development of emotional well-being and positive behaviours and attitudes among learners. It goes beyond teaching to preparing individuals to have influence and positive impact on the world. So, while conventional education is about Knowing, Doing and, somehow, Being, Positive Education is about Knowing, Doing, Being…and also Inspiring others and having a positive Impact.

Positive Education is a simple idea. However, we should not confuse simple with easy. To build an education system that declares the creation of impactful graduates as its objective is very challenging. This will entail the formation of a whole community that is committed to supporting students to flourish, and providing them with personalised growth experiences, focusing on building emotionally intelligent, resilient and happy graduates.

At Heriot-Watt University Malaysia, we do this through two main initiatives, the HappierU initiative and the EmPOWER Programme.

HappierU (the U here is both of You and University) is a university-wide initiative to align the community to the 10 Keys for happier living identified by psychologist Vanessa King. These keys are: Giving, Relating, Exercising, Awareness, Trying-out, Direction, Resilience, Emotions, Acceptance, Meaning. HappierU is intended at building a flourishing community of students and staff where everyone is supported by, and being supportive of, others so that we can all achieve our full potential. Positive Education is not the sole provenance of academics; HappierU is led by students and staff from both in and out of the classroom – all play a key role in delivering our goals which we measure with a Happiness Index.

EmPOWER is a structured programme that is aimed at positively transforming the mindsets of students, developing intentional and purposeful learners who are aware of their own strengths, emotions, and opportunities for growth.

A key element of the first level is the development of an “Impact Statement.” This is a concise statement describing how the students use their unique capabilities and the knowledge and skills they acquire in their respective course of study to make the world a better place, while achieving their professional goals.

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