man sitting on chair with book on head in education for innovation

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How to change education for innovation

November 7, 2019


There have never been two contemporary generations with such contrasting lifestyles like the kids of today and their grandparents. Almost everything has changed – from the way we socialize to the way we move to the way we work. Except for one crucial aspect: the way we learn.

Our grandparents sat in a classroom with others their age, listening to an older person deliver information on a given subject. Then they went home, did their homework, memorized a textbook, regurgitated it in a written test, and moved on to the next subject. Half a century later, we are doing exactly the same. Some contents and tools have changed, yes, but the education paradigms remain virtually untouched, from kindergarten all the way up to university.

Innovation is ubiquitous, but education seems to be the one field that remains immune. And, in turn, an outdated learning system hasn’t been serving innovators well, either. Problem solving, critical thinking and creativity are a few of the most valuable skills for an innovator, yet that’s not what we’ve been learning in school.

So, in order to raise the next generation of innovators, here are the 3 major aspects I believe we should abolish from the current education system:


1.      Grades

Let’s take two students in the same class. One gets 40% in a test and the other gets 90%. The next day, both students are sitting in the same class, listening to the same content, given the same homework. The student that “failed” is just supposed to catch up and “do better” next time, being left with no option but to move on to the next topic, even though he or she hasn’t mastered the previous one yet.

We are handicapping students from their first “failure”, forcing them to build on top of weak (knowledge) foundations, and setting them up for more consecutive letdowns.

Adding to that, failing is regarded as highly negative. We are conditioned from a young age to reject failure, to feel ashamed of it, to let it define our self-worth and determine our level of intelligence. But in a world where failure is a constant, and in which our response to setbacks is critical to our ability to overcome them and, ultimately, succeed, is the grading system serving us? Is it making us more resilient? Creative? Confident? I don’t think so…

So, what is the solution? As Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, suggests in his TED Talk, we should be teaching for mastery, not test scores. A student should only advance to the next level of a subject once he has mastered the previous one, not just passed the minimum grade in a test. This is called Mastery-based Learning and can be achieved through gamifying the learning journey.

Gamification trumps grading. Not only does it make learning more meritocratic, but it also makes it more fun. The incentive to unlock the next level stimulates ambition and healthy competition, and its mastery-based system makes academic progress fairer and less subjective.


2.      Memorization-based assessments

Currently, our academic success is mostly dependent on our ability to get grades, which in turn is heavily dependent on our capacity of focus and memorization. Since our sense of self-worth is heavily influenced by the grades we achieve growing up, and since our happiness is heavily dependent on our sense of self-worth, we are conditioned from a very young age to index our happiness to our capacity of focus and memorization.

If memorization were crucial for our personal and professional success, that would make sense. But in a time when we have Google in our pockets, is memorization still relevant? As long as we are connected to the Internet, we can have the answer to pretty much anything in under five seconds.

Our computers can process and analyze more information in a second than our brains ever will in our entire lifetime. And yet we make memorization of information the most necessary skill to academic achievement.

At the pace of progress and change in our society, i’s no longer about “teaching how to fish rather than giving the fish”. It’s about teaching how to learn how to fish. If you learn how to learn, then you are equipped to learn whatever skills you need at any given moment. Teach the tools, frameworks and mindsets that will outgrow changes and remain useful despite – or even because – of it.


3.      Teachers

With the amount of information available at our fingertips, teachers are no longer the gatekeepers of knowledge. It is not humanly possible for a person to know as much as Wikipedia or Google. But with access to such vast amounts of content and tools, a new challenge arises: how can we skim through it? How not to be overwhelmed by such quantity and variety? How do we assess credibility and avoid sensationalism?

Yes, you can now learn almost anything online, but how do you decide what to learn? And how and where to learn it? And how do you form a critical opinion about what you’re learning? Technology might turn the teacher-as-a-messenger-of-information role obsolete, but it creates an opportunity for the emergence of curators: the ones who can filter, select and suggest the appropriate content for each student, the materials that are trustworthy, impactful and valuable.

In order to avoid extinction, teachers must adapt to the changing paradigms, by evolving to content curators, life coaches, career mentors and skill trainers. By focusing on the cognitive skills that a computer is not – at least for now – able to replicate: like creativity, critical thinking, empathy, self-awareness and emotional regulation, to name a few.


To sum up, I believe that in order to educate for innovation, we need to evolve from grading to gamification, from memorizing information to learning how to learn, and from learning from teachers to being guided by content curators and trained by mentors and coaches.

Learn more about how we’re applying these paradigm shifts to an innovative educational program at Ungap Year.

After brief experiences in strategy consulting, media startups and big tech, Marta Egídio Pereira joined Nova School of Business and Economics as Project Manager at the Venture Lab, bringing together academia, startups and big corps to innovate through co-development. Marta is the co-founder of Ungap Year, an 8-month program for college grads to kickstart their careers by travelling and working in the most exciting startups around Europe, while being coached and trained in the skills of the future.

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