“We have built education systems on the model of fast food. There are two models of quality assurance in catering. One is fast food, where everything is standardized. The other is like Zagat and Michelin restaurants, where everything is not standardized, they’re customized to local circumstances. And we have sold ourselves into a fast-food model of education, and its impoverishing our spirit and our energies as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies.”
~ Sir Ken Robinson
Education in the United States has generally been standardized stemming from the industrial period when trained workers were in high demand. The education system adopted a uniform approach to educating a growing population of students looking to fill open job positions. During the industrial age, this model worked. It provided an opportunity for people to increase their skill base around a specific role while providing a living wage.
Following the industrial age, the United States has shifted over the past several decades into a technological age. Many of the roles and jobs once performed by our neighbors, friends, and family are now performed by machines, often more efficiently and at a lower cost. Now, businesses no longer need individuals who can solely work on an assembly line or packing materials. The job market has shifted to those individuals who can think outside-the-box to those areas that require innovation, creativity, and communication in order to prepare for jobs that do not yet exist. The problem is that the education model was built to address the need during the industrial age and little has changed since then.
Similar to the changes we see in today’s restaurants, as Ken Robinson discusses in his TED Talk, education is facing a time when a revolution is needed. For years, many fast food restaurants were successful in fulfilling a utilitarian need, feeding people. These restaurants catered, and still do, to the busy American lifestyle. Now, with the increased reports on the limited nutritional value of these fast food menu items, consumers’ pursuit of quality over convenience is evident. This is not to say that people are always seeking a four-star dining experience over fast food. On the contrary, there is a market for both. While sales may diminish from time to time, it is important for all restaurants to understand the patrons they serve. Some restaurants that are successful in New York City may be less successful in Paducah, Kentucky. The same is true for higher education.
There is still a need for individuals who seek job-specific training for vocational opportunities that are vital in today’s economy. However, employers are experiencing a shortage of graduates with skills related to broad-based critical thinking, analysis, collaboration, and problem-solving. Over the years and to meet increasing demand, education has succumbed to standardization. Using a one-size model that meets perceived needs for the masses and standardized tests to measure success.
Higher education can learn lessons from the agricultural progression as it shifts from an industrial-age model to adopt a more farm-to-table approach to education. In an agricultural approach, farmers complete surveys to better understand the likely success of crop yield in a desired area. This research helps the farmer understand the environment. During the field crop research, the soil conditions are tested and environmental variables are reviewed. Farmers need to predict production capacity. A part of the research also focuses on those crops that develop best given the local conditions. If the farmer plants corn, but there is a surplus of corn or a lack of marketable need for corn, then he will receive less money for his crop or face a loss. Based on the market need, the farmer is likely to be better served planting another crop like wheat or soy. Farming is an investment in time, energy, and resources. Poor decisions, bad data, and unpredictable weather can alter crop yield and result in loss of money and waste of resources.
Farmers’ approach to agriculture provide similarities that can result in valuable higher education lessons if we choose to analyze the research. The climate is changing. The skills required to be competitive in today’s economic environment are different from those merely twenty or thirty years ago. The students are changing. The generation of students entering higher education bring with them various world views, backgrounds, and dreams that require adapting to their learning styles and meeting them where they are in life. The resources are changing. Education can be more accessible in a variety of different ways thanks to advancements in technology. The challenge is integrating these resources into learning models that best serve students’ needs.
Meeting these challenges requires thoughtful discussion and meaningful action to shift from an industrial mindset to an agricultural one that focuses on truly preparing students for success. Higher education has an opportunity to truly embrace a revolution by focusing on the individual students seeking to follow their passions, to thrive, and to plant the seeds of knowledge for future generations.