The New Learning

The New Learning

Born in Prussia around 1794, our present learning system has all the elements of the Industrial Revolution: specialisation, standardisation, synchronisation, concentration, maximisation and centralisation. Schools and universities are engaged in ever more specialised subjects.

The diplomas and students are standardised. Just as a 1kg pack of sugar tells the consumer that the bag contains a thousand grams of sugar, school or university diplomas tell employers what they buy. Until recently, education was synchronised seamlessly to the world of work, while being concentrated in ever-larger institutions, a process that is still going on. Output is maximised through greater access to higher education, providing more prosperity and equal chances for everyone. Education is highly centralised with government departments deciding on finance, setting the standards for curricula and diplomas, approving teachers and teaching materials and more.

For a long time, the system has worked well. It is the basis of our prosperity and it is therefore nourished by politicians and educators alike, making it virtually impossible to change. Yet, it is changing. A multitude of experimental new school types have emerged, some now well-established, like the Montessori schools. Universities have added roles to their original tasks of education and research1 not to mention distance learning and a host of other experiments. Home teaching has grown although it is statistically insignificant. So, there are changes but they are only marginal in scale. This picture is going to accelerate, because right now new, strong forces for change will challenge the system in a fundamental way, causing it to convert into what we propose to call The New Learning. The forces of change come from the demand side of learning as well as from the supply side of education and we will discuss them briefly.


Forces of change on the demand side – students and employers

While there is much hot air in the discussion about the Millennials, it is undeniable that young cohorts of school leavers and graduates have different career objectives than had previous generations. They seek challenges more than money, they want to work for a coach, not a boss. Most of all, they focus on life, rather than the job; status does not interest them, many don’t own a car, let alone a bling-bling one. It is no surprise then that 55% of them feel unengaged at work2.

At the same time, employers no longer want ‘standard’ graduates but rather ‘made-to-measure’ personalities. This means that the school or university diplomas rapidly lose their significance. Diplomas serve as an intermediary between the person looking for work and the employer – the ‘1 kg of sugar label’. This system is being replaced by negotiations in which the employer brings in ‘honest’ job descriptions (free of hyperbole) and the potential employee provides a pitch illuminating what he or she stands for, what educational pattern she has taken and what he is looking for. Naturally, state diplomas in areas of public interest, such as for medical practitioners, judges, gas fitters, are there to stay. There is opposition against the notion that learning is a matter of cost/benefit analysis. Nancy Rothwell, in an article in the Financial Times, posits that university courses are not only a purely financial investment: “Studying at universities should be a unique and transformational experience, challenge your principles, take you out of your comfort zone”3.


Forces of change on the supply side – educational institutes

In universities, teaching has always been a suppositious child; if you want to make an academic career you must publish and your quality as a teacher hardly matters. The result is bad teaching and a host of crap appearing in scientific journals. It now seems that teaching is undergoing a re-evaluation and becoming a profession by itself. These changes come from four sources: pedagogical research, internet, artificial intelligence and brain research.

To start with the latter, there is a vast amount of research into the workings of the brain being undertaken worldwide. These billions worth of research is bound to throw light on the workings of the ‘last unknown organ’ of the human body. That could enlighten us how we learn, from the neuroscience point of view.

Pedagogical research, together with plain common sense, challenge the current system. Why should students be working in same-age classes, rather than in mixed age-groups? Why should a student be forced to repeat a year – and waste time and motivation if only some subjects are weak? Why should pupils and students follow standard programmes when neither they, nor the job positions they are going to fill, are standard? So, the trend is towards self-study, learning in small groups and individual tutoring.

Another trend is ‘phenomenon-based learning’ as in Finland’s Design Factory4. Students work on a project, either alone or in a team; school children are perfectly well able to build a drone, make it beautiful and write the manual in French.

Internet has a vast impact, partly because of specialised companies put courses in the market – Udacity, Coursera, EdX and the like. AI-assisted learning is still in its infancy but it holds vast promises. Robots at the University of Aberystwyth can carry out an entire scientific process: formulating hypotheses, designing and running experiments, analysing data and deciding on further experimentation5.

Conclusions in short:

  • “No lectures, no classrooms, no majors, no departments” – Christine Ortiz at MIT6
  • “Rise of the challenge-driven university” rather than coercion-driven education – Geoff Mulgan
  • End of overspecialisation – knowing more and more about less and less – A.D. Lindsay of Oxford. Instead: return of the ‘Renaissance men (and women) in transdisciplinary research (Towards the Third Generation University, op cit)
  • Teaching becomes a succession of team-projects and individual learning projects with increasing complexity (‘levels’, as in games) with students take their fate in their own hands in an entrepreneurial atmosphere.
  • Teachers become coaches rather than orators. Teaching becomes a high-standard profession with transdisciplinary Institutes of Advanced Learning at major universities.
  • Contacts with all kinds of employers start at day one.
  • Students learn to pitch what they have learned and what they seek in employment.



1 Etzioni, H. (2017 and earlier books). The Triple Helix: University-Industry-Government Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Routledge, 2nd ed. See also: Wissema, J. G. (2009). Towards the third generation university: Managing the university in transition. Edward Elgar Publishing.

2 Gallup Poll (2016).

3Rothwell, N. (2016). There is more to university than money, Financial Times.

4Helsinking. (2016). The Economist.

5Dodgson, M., & Gann, D. (2017) Universities have sown the seeds of their own disruption.

6Higher education – flying high. (2016). The Economist.

Hans Wissema is Professor Emeritus at the Technology University in Delft, the Netherlands, Managing Director of Wissema Consulting Ltd and Chair of DIWA Foundation. During the course of his career, Prof. Wissema has combined his academic work with a consultancy career in the field of management, innovation and entrepreneurship and has advised numerous large and small companies, public organisations and universities. Hans Wissema founded and chaired a number of societies and foundations in private equity, technostarters and SME development in the Netherlands and abroad. He was a board member of several management societies and management publications, including IEEE Transactions on Transactions on Engineering Management and Long Range Planning. Hans Wissema is the author of sixteen books and numerous articles on management and policy issues including many that have been translated from the original Dutch or English.

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