THE BLOG
08/20/2013 08:25 am ET Updated Oct 20, 2013

Summer Is Over - But So Is Schooling as Usual

Summer is winding down in the northern hemisphere and people get ready to resume their studies or careers full throttle. Here in France, where I have lived for the past 17 years, "la rentrée" is a yearly ritual officially declaring that summer is over. In the USA, Labor Day seems to fulfill the same function. While many of us have been working or studying from mid-June to the end of August, there is a different rhythm to what we do, a different intensity which often leads to a refreshing respite and allows us the luxury of experimentation and reflection.

I first realized this when my children were in primary and secondary school. It seemed to me that the people they were in mid-June when school closed for the summer were completely different from the ones returning in early September. A mere two and a half months had passed, but their intellectual growth and creativity seemed to have accelerated during that period much more than during the school year when they were supposed to be "learning". We didn't programme them to death during the summer - but they were perpetually active, spending their days in very different ways to the rigid school-set schedules they followed for the rest of the year.

At Oxford University's Said Business School (SBS), as with other top business schools around the world, MBAs spend the summer months doing internships or undertaking what we term "strategic consulting projects (SCP)". There is the choice of doing more coursework, but what I have found after several years of being at SBS is that those students who return from Asia, Latin America or Africa having done a two month SCP with a growing commercial or social business bubble over with excitement, new perspectives and a new sense of self.

Reflecting on the academic calendar, it seems out of whack with the way learning actually occurs. I am reminded of Mark Twain's often quoted warning, "Don't let schooling interfere with your education". Yet he was a writer, so he must have thought school or college had some merit. And to be sure, there are few things that personally frustrate me more than having to correct graduate students' (or professionals') spelling and grammar. My son attributes his strong writing skills to his 7th and 8th grade teachers. But schooling is the base, not one's whole. Becoming that whole is a constant, ongoing process which often is not what is filtered by schools, parents, governments or whoever happens to be in power.

We need to rebalance the time allotted to schooling and the time allotted to education. Today, the former dominates the academic calendar. This is no longer tenable, given the challenges faced by the global community. It is small wonder that we clamor and celebrate innovators.

Yet the irony is that our anachronistic public school system worldwide is poorly suited to innovation. The purpose of schooling as it was set up 200 years ago was to churn out workers that would be productive in a command and control structure, acquiesce to authority and compete with one another on the basis of individual merit. While not an innovation expert, I have been privileged to interact over a span of decades with some of the world's most recognized innovators - from those working at the grassroots to those at the helm of new industries. This has provided me with some perspective on the nature of innovation and the hurdles innovators face daily as they search for ways to disseminate their approaches and products.

What I have concluded is that a society's capacity to innovate arguably begins, or possibly ends, in school. For the vast majority of primary schools, among the qualities of a "star" pupil are tidiness, adherence to rules and directions, and good behavior. In secondary school, outstanding achievement is measured in grades, standardized test scores and sometimes, the number of extracurricular activities undertaken. These constitute the ticket to acceptance to top universities producing the world's elite. But it is not clear that this is how to develop the talents of tomorrow's innovators.

The educational system is reinforced by employment policies in most government institutions and corporations. When reviewing candidates, recruiters invariably look for evidence of academic achievement and a steadiness that produces good exam pass rates and grades rather than for experiences that might suggest a candidate is innovative and inspired, perhaps even rebellious. This is because most organizations have a low tolerance for mistakes. Risk-averse societies and organizations keep people from failing. They also keep them from trying. And the key to successful innovation is initial failure and persistence.

In his book The Medici Effect (Harvard Business Press, 2004), Frans Johannson describes what it takes to be innovative. Two of the six key inputs include being open to new ways of doing things, i.e., seeking diversity and exposure, and having the ability to reverse one's assumptions. Both of those are best "learned" outside the classroom.

The tragedy is that we KNOW our public education systems is failing us in key ways that we desperately need, i.e. in fostering creativity and innovation. Sir Ken Robinson whose TED talk on this subject is one of the most downloaded in TED history. The Manchester Craftsman's Guild founded by visionary social entrepreneur Bill Strickland is proof positive of how young people who have been written off by the traditional education system become innovative problem solvers.

We are headed for disruption of unprecedented proportions where we have to come up with ways to deal with looming global challenges including the fact that the world is getting hotter, resources are getting scarcer and commodities are getting more expensive as the middle class in emerging markets is growing. So why aren't we all ON FIRE to radically reform our school system?

I fear that my friend Paul Gilding is right. Paul is former head of Greenpeace International and now a key advisor to governments and corporations around the world. In his 2012 book, The Great Disruption, he posits that it is of little use to worry about climate change because it is already here. Hence, the coming decades will see loss, suffering, and conflict as our planetary overdraft is paid. However, these years will also bring out the best humanity can offer: compassion, innovation, resilience, and adaptability.

So let's prepare our young people in that spirit. Our entire education system from primary to university level needs to leapfrog into the 21st century so that we accompany and support young people to become conscious stewards of a global community whose future depends on collaboration.