USA: George Cigale
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George Cigale - Education For The 21st Century Workplace
George Cigale founded Tutor.com in 1998 and has been serving as the Chairman and CEO ever since. He brings over 20 years of experience in education, software, and Internet industries and under his leadership Tutor.com is now the leading on-demand homework help and online tutoring service in the world.
This interview took place at the HQ of Tutor.com in New York, and George Cigale speaks as an employer, an educator and a parent about the challenges faced by an education system struggling to match current employer needs.
George starts by making a bold and provocative statement: that the core curriculum in the USA has not changed since the late 1800s, adding
"If we are really serious about creating a workforce that understands how to work together, listen, instruct others, and be really efficient in a service economy, we haven't addressed that as a starting point in our schools, in any way".
George is fascinated by education, both in his role as Chairman and CEO of Tutor.com, and as a parent of young children, and passionately expresses his beliefs and opinions throughout this interview.
A New Approach To Education Reform
George immediately launches an attack on education reform, echoing some other leading US thinkers in this interview series with his condemnation of the incremental approach to education reform:
"Taking the status quo and running with it for over 100 years and making very small tweaks along the way might actually make things worse rather than better"
He argues convincingly for the urgent need to re-imagine how we adapt our education system to meet the needs of rapidly evolving economies and societies:
"We need a national board of people who are responsible - in a centralised way - for looking at how our society has changed. Every twenty or thirty years they need to ask 'What are our economic needs? How does the curriculum need to change?' and they can then make really strong recommendations with teeth behind, pushing forth that kind of reform."
George believes it has been very difficult for the US to instigate this kind of systemic change, in part due to the barriers around bringing disparate groups of policy makers, legislators and educators together around a coherent strategy. He believes that the strong structure of school unions makes it
"... difficult for thought leaders to gather the information, the data and to actually push forth any kind of dramatic reform".
"There are obstacles to any kind of substantive change in both the actual content of what kids are taught, whether it will be soft skills or core curriculum... It is not just the disconnect between the economic needs of the business world and what we are teaching kids in school; there are a lot of points of disconnect along the way".
George's argument is that there are deep structural issues to address in that the various parts of the existing education system are not designed to work together, citing the example that
"... we graduate kids from high school into college who don't have the necessary skills to be good students in college".
Another part of this 'structural problem' lies in the complex administrative architecture inherent in the US district school model:
"We have got 15,000 school districts in this country... If you believe in real reform you should have 70 school districts. One for each state and one for the top 20 metropolitan big city school districts. And then you have a centralised curriculum".
Skills In The 21st Century Workplace
George is interested in discussions around so-called soft skills, and in particular how the 21st century workplace demands a new set of competencies and behaviours from employees. He identifies weaknesses in communication, listening skills and team work as being common in graduates and explains his conviction that empathy - a desire to understand others - is ever more critical in the business world:
"Whether you are giving a speech to a large group, trying to motivate your own employees, writing an email to a customer or doing a sales presentation, you must know your audience. Do your research. Understand their perspective"
He believes that most people don't understand "basic fundamental issues around listening styles and communication styles" and describes the legacy of formal education failing individuals in this respect:
"Although some people intuitively get it and adjust to their audience... (it is) one of the most difficult things to teach to anybody that works for you".
George points out that the 21st century workplace needs people who can navigate the complexities of large, interdisciplinary projects and teams:
"The fundamental rules of how groups work are unknown by most people who are working in teams, and most managers don't understand how to harness a team's energy properly... As a leader or manager, your job is to figure out how to harness different opinions and turn conflict into the best decisions and the best implementation plans".
Preconditions For Creativity
George also has an intriguing take on an issue now widely recognised as crucial to the future success of advanced knowledge and service economies: how to embed a culture of innovation and creativity.
He believes that we don't "teach people enough how to ask questions and ask for help" and, pinpointing the biggest problem facing educators:
"As a society, organisationally, and right from a very early age with our kids and students, we penalise failure".
"If you accept the contention that creativity and innovation are at the core of a successful economy, inherent in that there has to be an acceptance of a huge amount of what we would term as mistakes or errors. So you have to create a culture that doesn't trample on people who make a mistake because we need people who can take risks, who can think outside of the ordinary."
George then links this back to education, remarking that the historic stress on rudimentary testing of topic specific knowledge means that the penalties for a 'wrong answer' are great, and the rewards for thinking differently are non-existent. His argument can be interpreted as a call for a more nuanced view of achievement in schools, and one where understanding and ideas are recognised as much as recall of facts. With a clear view on the future of work and the US's position in the global economy, George adds:
"I think there is a fundamental disconnect between what is being taught and what is needed to be taught. We can't focus all of our education on hard facts or skills; the fact is (to get creative and innovative people) we want people who are artists, musicians as well".
Having identified gaps and opportunities for improving current educational practices, in 1998 George Cigale set about exploiting the power of the internet and established Tutor.com. Their stated aim is to connect students with tutors at anytime from anywhere, and the business is now one of the most successful education providers anywhere in the world. Tutor.com has thousands of tutors and has delivered over 4.5m tutoring sessions, delivered to students in their home, through libraries or via schools, community colleges or corporations. Tutors help with homework, project work, studying and preparation for tests or exams across every taught subject.
George describes how students are encouraged to ask questions and tutors ensure they are given the extra teaching time that he believes is so important:
"We now do six or seven thousand live one-to-one tutoring sessions every night. (In these tutorials) there are listening skills, a lot of articulation skills...that's something that many kids in our school systems never, ever get".
He also realised that Tutor.com would succeed if it could bridge the gap between school and home, especially for those in situations where parental support is lacking:
"One of the things our school system doesn't acknowledge is that so many kids have nobody to turn to. They are stuck at night, and they fall behind on their work because there are no resources available for them".
So George's mission, through Tutor.com, is to create a connection between what children are taught in school and their learning at home, and in so doing, prepare them for the next day in school and offer them the personal attention that the existing education system cannot possibly provide.
Teaching A Curriculum That Makes Sense
For George Cigale, there is a simple adage that needs to be heeded before the US can hope to see what he refers to as 'real reform':
"Rule number one of getting out of a hole is stop digging".
He believes we need to acknowledge this where education reform is concerned and address the issues afflicting teaching standards and quality head on. He references some teachers' lack of knowledge in specific areas, stating:
"Right now, even at sixth and seventh grade when math concepts are so critical right before you get into algebra, we have teachers who just don't know the subject well enough".
He believes this is due, in part, to deficient teacher training, but also a result of a failure to attract people of a sufficiently high calibre into teaching:
"We are not incentivising with dollars people who are very knowledgeable on those subjects to become teachers... The front line need to be manned by people who not only want to teach, are well compensated, but who go through a learning-to-teach process that includes what they really need to know about education".
Finally, George suggests taking a fresh look at the curriculum by bringing together people from academia and business:
"Let's get out of the industrial revolution age and into the service economy. Let's put together some smart thinking... this is not rocket science. You put together a panel of 10 or 12 top academics, teachers and business people and you're going to get a curriculum that makes sense."
The Future Of Education In The US
George Cigale is hopeful that the new administration signals a change in approach and may auger a new era for education reform in the US:
"I think President Obama, as well as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, care deeply about education reform, as much as the pressing issues they need to fix in our economy, health care, energy, and military efforts".
He concludes on a positive tone, saying:
"I have a lot of hope. If the administration makes good progress on our economy reforms-, they take small incremental steps to education reform, and then they go for major structural changes to our educational systems in three or four years, I would be ecstatic."