★ The Agricultural Approach to Education

Most education systems, including the German one, are seriously broken.

We have built our education systems on the model of fast food. […] It's impoverishing our spirits and our energies as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies.

Sir Ken Robinson

Some of you may know that education is a topic that is close to my heart. I'm someone who has benefitted greatly from how our education system is set up. I do, however, agree with Robinson on every account; I have only been lucky to be someone who was cut out for what the education system had in stock for me.

Education systems like the German one were created during the industrialization. In these times, they changed from being for scholars to being for the public, with more people getting a degree than ever before. It transformed schools and universities into being places that provided a certain standard of education. This standard steadily supplied the industry and the administration with a capable and skilled workforce.

The values this system focused on have changed as well. With more and more people gaining access to education, specialization had to occur. In the 1950s it was enough to have a degree in anything, and you had a good job. Now you have to have the “right” degree, with the right specialization, and also experience in that field, to have a good chance for a finding work.

At the same time, the even older spirit of scholarly education lives forth—in Germany, high schools (of the highest tier, but that's another story) teach you how to succeed at university. When you are there, professors teach you so that you become a good professor—even though so very few choose that road.

These two forces spawn environments based on conformity and narrow excellence, and they don’t prepare us for what is ahead. The next Black Swan might be just around the corner.

A Black Swan—a term recently revived by Nassim Nicholas Taleb—is an event that is

  • unforeseen,
  • unforeseeable,
  • highly improbable, and
  • has a big impact on our lives.

In a nutshell, everything that has led to human life and most of what influences our lives unprecedentedly.

The truth is this: We don't know what will come. Given the pace of technological advances, political and geo-strategic fluctuations and climate change, we have no idea what the future holds, and what skills we will need to live a good life. Maybe even to survive.

Unfortunately for ourselves, we don’t see it like that. With stubborn myopia we don’t realize that our way of life started only 10,000 years ago, and is bound to change with overpopulation, a decline of natural resources and issues of climate change. We enclose ourselves in little bubbles of scientific prognoses or plain old inertia ("the fat on our soul"). We indulge in linear thinking until are convinced again that the future is somewhat under control. It ain't so!

We don't know what will come, and the only way to stand up to this overwhelmingly scary future is to hedge our bets. "Human communities depend upon a diversity of talent, not a singular conception of ability" says Robinson (emphasis mine). In order to regain that diversity of talent for a difficult 21st century, and so that people can live better, happier lives, we have to revolutionize education.

I argue that we have to start by freeing education from heavy regulation, and start trying different approaches to educating people. We have to permit schools to teach how they want, and mostly what they want. And then allow parents to choose their schools freely; something that is not fully so in Germany at this time.

A free market education system is a red flag for many in Germany. They fear a large divide of quality like in the U.S. In my opinion, the problem with a free market educational system is not that students learn differently, or even that they learn different things—required knowledge and skills vary greatly among professions and academic programs.

I think the issue is that no-one knows what to expect from a school if there are fewer regulatory barriers in place, and here is what I propose:

  • We need to free educational institutions from regulatory boundaries regarding curricula while at the same time
  • devise a catalogue of education that includes everything that education ministers deem necessary as skill set or knowledge – it could even be a description of the status quo, if that makes it easier.

This allows schools and universities to state their degree of compliance with these standards, and to explain in detail why they choose a different route with some of these elements. Parents and students can then decide where they want to go based on their values, skills, dreams.

With these measures, we can move on to a different system, one that enables every child to find their own talents in a supportive environment:

We have to move to a model that is based more on on the principles of agriculture. We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process, it's an organic process. And you cannot predict the outcome of human development; all you can do is, like a farmer, create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish.

Sir Ken Robinson