The future of education - Approaches to solving the problems in education
Edip Yavuz, Senior Analyst Digitization & Global Program Manager „Kidovation“ at Accenture
Germany's future is educated in analog schools
Digitization in Germany has been sluggish for years, and the biggest losers in this development are those least able to help it: schoolchildren. The pandemic has shown how unprepared schools are for a digital era. Education is still stuck in the analog age. I recently became aware of the problem in a very absurd way: In early December, I helped organize a programming workshop for an elementary school in Hamburg. The school has a tablet for each child, but appropriate software is not installed. The children have no email addresses, not even a team channel. So we can’t distribute digital documents in advance, but have to bring them printed out.
The problems quickly become even more mundane: We use a website in the workshop where the kids can play programming games. But how do we send the students the link? No kidding: at the end we had to write the link on the blackboard.
„We can’t get the funding approved for software. The application process is a horror.“ What a teacher described to me that morning is also confirmed by the social discourse on. Many talk shows deal with this topic, which is boiling up again due to the continued poor organization of teaching in what is now the fifth covid wave: „In a rocked-out system, it is incredibly difficult to develop concepts, to retrieve funds,“ said Prof. Dr. Aladin El-Mafaalani recently on Markus Lanz (1). The sociologist heads the Chair of Education in the Migration Society at the University of Osnabrück and is not alone in this thesis; the official figures on digitization confirm his view.
The money is there, but the schools can't get it
As part of the „Digital Pact,“ the German government approved funding of 5 billion euros for digital education in March 2019. By July last year (more than 2 years later), just 852 million euros had been spent, although funding has now grown to 6.5 billion euros. (2) Despite Corona and even though the money is there, despite demand for digital education through the pandemic never being higher.
852 million euros in funds spent sounds a lot at first. The fallacy with this sum is that most of the funds were used for loan equipment for students and teachers, and this pot has already been fully exhausted (2). Schools have hardly invested – hardly been able to invest – in IT systems and administrators, software, digital learning opportunities and other critical follow-up costs. What remains: Schools now have great new devices, but so far can’t do much except surf with them. The solution is clear: Less bureaucracy. It must be easier for the schools to obtain the funds, and they need support in implementing them. The know-how for this is lacking among both teachers and politicians. Committees staffed with experts in digitization, modernization projects at schools via consulting firms, or in-house chief digital officers could help light the way on how to make the system more digital.
Unfortunately, however, the problem is not so easily solved. The sluggish pace of digitization in education is just a symptom of a much larger problem. Politicians simply don’t know how to shape education anymore. What should education be able to do? What should our children learn? Money is being released, but no one knows where to put it. As El-Mafaalani says, the „rocked-out system“ (1) has to go, has to be replaced, but by what?
How lack of education attacks our innovation
Some may now argue that the issue of (digital) education is artificially inflated. Education works quite well without IPads, our system constantly generates good workers for our market, even if we have a shortage of skilled workers. We need foreign experts because of the age pyramid only, since the economy is doing well and companies want to invest and grow much more than we can supply young talent.
If you look at the numbers, it really looks that way. According to the Federation of German Industries (BDI), Germany is in fourth place on the 2020 Innovation Indicator, but it hasn’t made it any higher since 2010. This is also known as „sideways movement. In other words, we are treading water compared to our competitors,“ said the former president of the BDI. (3)
Too little is being done in research and development in particular. Germany is only in 7th place worldwide in research and development tasks, measured as a percentage of GDP. With a financing share of 3.2 percent, the German government is significantly less involved than its European neighbors (5.2 percent), ranking 13th worldwide. (4)
In addition to poor rankings in research, innovation fails above all in education. The OECD country comparison also confirms this sober assessment: Germany ranks 18th of the 32 OECD countries in terms of digital education. (5)
That is worse than mediocre; in school grades, one would probably say: an even “D”.
Poor education as the reason for falling from the throne
We are treading water. Germany is still resting on its high lead. Without question, the automotive industry is only doing well today because it had an enormous head start. For years, core topics such as electromobility were missed, almost suppressed by its strong lobby. It is only thanks to well-filled corporate coffers and a technological lead that we have managed to catch up with the mobility of the future. This had nothing to do with early, innovative thinking and action.
But that will be our undoing. What will happen when our lead in technology is overtaken and the research budgets of German companies are empty? When today’s elementary school students encounter a world that demands strong IT skills, critical and innovative thinking, and the courage to take initiative.
And this is precisely where our weakness lies: Our education system is built on uniformity, discipline, diligence and even more diligence. After graduating from high school, we are drilled further, learning, accumulating knowledge, writing exams. Life is firmly planned out until our mid-20s, school, studies, career entry, and any innovation in the minds of our youth is nipped in the bud.
Instead, our schools have become training centers for the working world, where we sort out early on who gets to do which work later. Before the age of 10, children are judged as to whether they will do research to find a cure for cancer or whether they will be trained to become car mechanics. This classification is not only unfair and disadvantageous, especially to children from low-income families; it is based on a world in which „work“ was the same for several generations, in which children had to learn from adults and then copy them.
For children to be especially good at learning and then imitating, they had to be able to do two things in particular: Have discipline and be hardworking. But we live in an enormously fast-paced world; work has changed a lot in the last two decades alone because of the Internet, and will change much faster. Don’t misunderstand: We still need knowledge, discipline and diligence. Especially in fields such as medicine and law, where the preparation of doctors and lawyers largely consists of „catching up“ with the knowledge of the previous generation.
In contrast, in today’s innovations and disruptive technologies such as cloud, digital worlds around metaverse and cryptocurrencies, in marketing, FinTech and other startup paradises, we are left behind primarily because we lack the innovative power, the courage for disruptive solutions and the creativity.
In addition, this dichotomy of education now largely feeds the academic path. Germany has been experiencing a shortage of skilled workers for years, and the training sector is weakening (6), not least because of poorer salaries. This would not be a problem if we took in enough new skilled workers from abroad, because I doubt that many Germans will want to pursue these professions in the future.
However, the way things are going at the moment, we are creating more and more academics, but they do not fulfill the basic skills of an academic. They are hardworking, but will not be competitive in the modern world because they cannot come up with innovative solutions.
So we continue to wait for an American to develop a new technology that will shed a new light on today’s problems. We prefer to concentrate on our discipline, perfecting the innovations of others, instead of trying out creative ideas ourselves. This works well until an even better innovation comes around the corner, which we then have to chase again. This doesn’t work anymore, we don’t have to think existing thoughts further; fossil fuels don’t have to be transported faster, they have to be replaced. Our highways don’t need to get wider, our airplanes don’t need to get faster; more sustainable, holistic alternatives need to be found.
How education must look like
In 2022, it can no longer be the case that the only value that generations of students take away from their school careers is diligence and discipline. Education must be able to do more.
Education must finally offer an answer to its core question again: What should the adults of tomorrow be able to do?
Hardly anyone would answer that the future Germans should continue to be known for discipline and diligence. We want to be innovative, we want to have a say and develop new technologies, and this requires courage, creativity and innovative thinking. We don’t want „old“, we want „new“. We don’t want higher gas prices for our cars, we want affordable electric driving alternatives. We don’t want bureaucracy and waiting in the citizen’s office to change our residence adress, we want a digital state.
Adults get that, but how do we teach that to students?
As I was writing this post, an acquaintance told me about an interesting phenomenon that their „discoverers“ Tom Meyvis and Heeyoung Yoon call „additive“ thinking. Given subjects a situation in which a figure is standing under a roof that is supported on only one side by a wall, most subjects add another wall to „save“ the structure, and the figure. Instead, the one existing wall could be taken away. The roof is large enough for the subject to fit under and could stand alone. (7)
How education should not look like
So one tends to always see what is missing. This is problematic in that you can always learn more, but students don’t have infinite capacity. They complain year after year about enormous pressure to learn, and rightly so. So before we start imposing even more on them, we need to think about how to relieve them. I think it’s very appropriate to think of „subtracting“ first.
The basic idea I’m pursuing here: breadth rather than depth. A basic education for all students in the basic subjects that doesn’t go into detail. Which offers more overview and allows targeted opportunities to deepen knowledge according to their own motivation. A basic understanding of literature is much more important than analyzing individual books completely. Fundamentals in math and connection to logic are much more important than memorizing binomial rules.
Most students don’t need great text analysis skills, nor knowledge of linear algebra or Hooke’s Law. Do you remember the law? For most, it will never matter in life. It’s an incredible waste of resources, of instructional time, and ultimately of teachers‘ and students‘ lives.
Why are we torturing the 2040 Nobel Prize winner in physics to paint an abstract self-portrait in 8th grade, probably with the result that he will mock art for the rest of his life. Instead, we need a system that teaches needed fundamentals across all subjects, and then recognizes early on where an individual’s strengths lie and nurtures them. For example, the Nobel Prize winner in physics can be taught the color wheel, since this is also important in physics, but he does not need to understand the difference between different brushes.
Another example: physical education should be reduced back to what it is: a welcome exercise activity in the afternoon. Shorter sports activities every day, instead of two hours of soccer on Tuesday and Thursday will do much more justice. And get a lot more kids excited about sports, even those who don’t like soccer.
What education can do instead
At the same time, sports is one of those subjects that offers more opportunities than is done today. Instead of endlessly explaining the rules of basketball and the height of the net in volleyball, kids should be taught the basics of healthy eating and the connection between mind and physical activity.
There are other core skills for adult life not taught today: How do I write an email? How do I draw up a contract? What is a tax return? What forms of business organization are there, and which is better for what?
These topics are interesting to everyone, but should be taught especially to those who realize early on that they want to start up a company. Someone who has an interest in art and design should be able to foster this in school. Not only art, but also subjects like animation film, photo editing, architecture and game design should be offered so that students can individually use their skills.
What is also missing in schools are critical thinking processes and creativity. For this, above all, the basis of grading must be changed, from right and wrong, white and black, to more individual. This is not to say: now everyone is right.
Everyone who has ever received a bad grade in Philosophy or German because their opinion was wrong knows what is meant by this.
This thinking is exactly the problem: by teaching our children that there is a single truth, we rob them of their ability to think critically, to question the status quo and to find new solutions. Grading should not be determined by teacher-assessed schemes, but by each individual’s true contribution to the discussion, whether it is a critical inquiry into Kant’s „Critique of Pure Reason,“ or the solution to a physics equation. But by no means should we continue to reward only that someone has read Kant and repeated his points.
Students need to be involved
Why is this so important? Because we want to promote new solutions and innovative technologies. Schools and education need a direct line to the latest technologies and the state of the art. We need to teach students today what we are currently researching and involve them in the processes of helping to solve current issues.
Not only so that they have these skills when they grow up, but also so that they can get involved today, because today’s students increasingly want to do so.
On a political level, today’s young people are calling for co-determination and are showing impressively that they can already help shape things, so let’s give them the chance. To do this, schools should be more involved in business and politics. We need more workshops at schools where companies and students learn from each other, more competitions like the research clusters organized by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, where school groups could pitch innovative ideas and get funding. Political committees that also take input from students and are even staffed by them.
A fundamentally new error culture
And that brings me to my final point: above all, we must allow students to try out. Year after year, hundreds of thousands of high school graduates are faced with the question: what do I actually want to do? Paradoxically, it is precisely this highest form of education in Germany that leads to the fewest experiences for students, because they follow a strict plan. By contrast, most “Realschule” and “Hauptschule” students are already in training at that age, trying things out.
We must also encourage this in high school graduates: they must be able to do internships early on, enjoy impressions of the world and companies, participate, and above all: have the chance to try something completely different after one year, to drop French after two unsuccessful years and rather choose biology, to replace the programming course with computer animation, because this is more in line with their own interests. A fundamentally new culture of mistakes supports courage, experimentation and finding out what you like. This point is very difficult to implement because it calls for a reform of the school system. But we need nothing less than that. Because that’s the answer to the question: what should students learn? For complex problems, climate change, social inequality, it is no longer enough to show discipline and diligence; we need creative minds that tackle problems because they believe in themselves, know what they want, have made mistakes and therefore know that there is always another way, as long as you look for it.
1, Markus Lanz. „Markus Lanz, February 10, 2022.“ ZDF, February 10, 2022,
Accessed February 27, 2022.
2, Claudia Krapp. „Digitalpakt Funds Still Slow to Arrive at Schools.“ Research & Teaching,
schulen-an-3978/. Accessed February 27, 2022.
3, Federation of German Industries. „Innovation Indicator 2020.“ Innovation Indicator 2020,
February 17, 2020, https://bdi.eu/publikation/news/innovationsindikator-2020/. Accessed
February 27, 2022.
4, German Chemical Industry Association. „Research and Development Chemistry.“
Chemical Industry Association, 2021,
Accessed February 27, 2022.
5, Regina Hartleb. „Only 18th out of 32: Left behind in digital education.“ Aachener Zeitung,
November 10, 2021,
g_aid-63970733#successLogout. Accessed February 27, 2022.
6, Leon Hauber. „Skills shortage: what are the causes and solutions?“ Recruitee, May 12,
2021, https://recruitee.com/de-artikel/fachkraeftemangel-ursachen-loesungen. Accessed
March 2, 2022.
7, Tom Meyvis and Heeyoung Yoon. „Opinion | Tom Meyvis | Adding is Favored over
Subtracting in Problem Solving.“ NYU Stern, April 7, 2021,
g-problem-solving. Accessed February 27, 2022.
About the author
Edip Yavuz is a senior analyst for digitalization at management consultancy Accenture. In this role, he introduces new processes and tools for clients who want to build a more modern future.
Along the way, he got hooked on the topic of education because, in his opinion, it forms the basis of our society, and it’s not doing it well at the moment.
After his first volunteer job application trainings and programming workshops at schools, he has been co-commissioned with the global management of the „Kidovation“ project since December 2021.
The no-profit project from England is part of Accenture and brings various workshops on topics such as design thinking, innovation, programming, marketing to schools and other school and/or nonprofit communities.