As an entrepreneur, innovation is at the heart of what I do. In the early days of Kusto Group, our success came about by teaching old industry hands how to reinvigorate ailing enterprises in post-Soviet Kazakhstan. Today, I see the same important link between innovation, learning and our survival. As resources become increasingly finite and automation transforms our industries and workforces, we must prioritise teaching new generations how to innovate for the future. This is a question of investing in education – creating new systems of learning for a new world. Already, there is a new type of education emerging in the US and Kazakhstan where school students are learning these skills. And it is precisely this type of sustainable investment in our future that will enable new generations to survive.
Only last October, at the annual European Institute of Innovation and Technology Awards in Budapest, European Commissioner for Education and Culture Tibor Navracsics commented sagely that “[European] Education policy is tomorrow’s economic policy.” Yet, recent Eurostat data shows that average spending on education as a proportion of GDP in the European Union alone has been reduced continuously from 5.3% since 2009 to 4.9% in 2015.
However, this is not only a European issue. In my home country of Kazakhstan, there is also significant underinvestment in our education sector compared with countries of a similar income. Student learning outcomes, according to PISA, are considerably below the OECD average. In fact, Kazakh 15 year olds’ performance in mathematics are two years behind their peers elsewhere. To solve this problem, investing in the right type of education is key. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates recognised this when he recently announced that his Foundation will invest more than $1.7 billion in supporting schools interested in developing new, innovative approaches to teaching. We too need to make sure that schools are teaching the right soft skills – like creativity, critical thinking, high levels of communication and collaboration – for our children to thrive.
Sitting on the Board of Trustees at the Almaty Management University in Kazakhstan, I have witnessed first-hand how secondary education fails to prepare young people for university and the workplace. The traditional rote learning method at the heart of teaching does not allow young people to develop the critical thinking skills we need for innovation. Nor will it create a dynamic, future workforce equipped with the necessary skills to remain relevant as work and industry become increasingly automated.
One organization that is challenging the education status quo and cultivating students ready for the global workforce is High Tech High in San Diego, California. The thirteen-school strong network of charter schools was founded on the principles of Project Based Learning (PBL), a form of teaching where the curriculum requires students to explore and research solutions to real-world problems according to their natural inclinations and interests.
I remember spending my formative years in education bored and uninspired – learning was only about reading theory not practice. Yet, spending a day at High Tech High with CEO Larry Rosenstock I saw students develop focused-projects around discrete, multi-disciplinary topics
taking personal responsibility for individual aspects – distilling, collaborating, presenting and then delivering. It was amazing to watch these children work with such independence and creativity, finding their own solutions to real-world problems.
High Tech High’s example inspired me to co-fund the development of something new – Kazakhstan’s first Project Based Learning-inspired school which will open in late 2017. My vision is to create an innovative educational environment in all senses: open sight-lines, natural light, laboratories and collaborative spaces for children to communicate with one another. Every day in our PBL school, a child will be in life’s laboratory, constantly experimenting, gaining the knowledge and mental rigor only available through trial and error, team work and collaboration.
While this model has been borrowed from the US educational system, it provides an example of what could be a blueprint for a world class education, promoting flexibility, creativity and agility. Such models have provided the basis for exciting and effective reforms across Northern Europe, including the UK where the free school reform has been modelled on the American charter school revolution.
Nonetheless, aside from recent adoptions of Project Based Learning, education has traditionally been one of the most change-resistant public services today. While it is hard to change the minds of policymakers, the critical urgency of the situation has spurred some reform in Europe. Only last month, the European Commission adopted a proposal to improve the conditions and outcomes of apprenticeships in the EU with the aim of boosting competitiveness across society and European economies. More of this is needed and I believe there is a strong role for entrepreneurs to play in demanding a better, different type of graduate to encourage these developments.
Our future needs will require character, flexibility and problem-solving capabilities from our workforce. We will therefore need to challenge the system by empowering our children to think and learn for themselves. Thankfully, schools like High Tech High in California are flourishing around the world. In September 2017, I opened our own High Tech Academy in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s first PBL school. Since its opening, the school has received praise and interest from educational experts and entrepreneurs alike. It is my dream and personal goal to grow this network of innovative schools in my country – improving the system one school at a time – so that our children will be equipped to take their place in the new, dynamic workplaces of the future.
Yerkin Tatishev is the founder and Chairman of Kusto Group, a Singapore-based industrial holding. Later this year, he will open the first project-based learning school in Kazakhstan, inspired by High Tech High, San Diego’s innovative education facility.