Are traditional approaches to education still relevant in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution? Fred Swaniker, co-founder of the African Leadership Academy and African Leadership University, doesn’t think so. Read on to learn more about the crucial role of learning in the 21st century and why education systems need to be redesigned to meet the challenges of a highly uncertain future.

Roy Morrison: With the pace of change accelerating in the 21stcentury, a key requirement to thrive is lifelong learning and the ability to acquire new skills quickly. How can “learning to learn” and the ability to be continually reinventing oneself be fostered in children from a young age?

Fred Swaniker: It starts with a recognition amongst all educators that the world is changing. To prepare people for the future, you need to design an education system that is forward-looking and not backward-looking.

In today’s world of artificial intelligence, robotics and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, you have to prepare people for uncertainty and promote agility and adaptability.

This requires a reorientation all the way from early childhood education to primary school to university education. It means encouraging flexibility rather than specialization. It requires training and retraining teachers, as well as redesigning education systems and curricula.

“Instead of learning to memorize facts and figures, students need to ‘learn how to learn’ and how to solve problems.”

We need to completely reimagine education. Instead of learning to memorize facts and figures, students need to “learn how to learn” and how to solve problems. And they should be allowed to learn independently. Changes are needed at every level. You have to infuse things like entrepreneurship into the curriculum because with the disruption that’s going on, many people are going to have to create their own jobs.

We may end up in a world in which people are more likely to be autonomous contractors than to have a secure job lasting for a lifetime. We need to completely reframe the system of education based on where the world is going, instead of continuing to do the same thing over and over again.

RM: In your talk Reimagining University, you talk about how most of today’s education model is broken, given the accelerating speed of change. How can schools and universities remain relevant in this landscape?

FS: I think it requires breaking down the barriers that exist between education and the real world. We should bring the working world into education a lot earlier and take education into the working world.

Education used to be a one-shot game, now it has to be a lifelong game. You don’t just get educated once. You need to go in-between learning and work. You have to bring professionals into the classroom to teach. You have to work on projects for real organizations from the beginning, and you have to go out into the environment, into communities. You have to understand the real problems that people are facing so you can shape your learning around those problems rather than just look at a textbook.

“We should bring the working world into education a lot earlier and take education into the working world.”

Education has historically been what I call “Just in case education”, which gives you all kinds of facts and figures just in case it may become relevant to you. But today what we need is “just in time education,” which has three characteristics:

  1. It never stops. It’s lifelong; you’re always learning.
  2. It’s focused on learning how to learn and learning how to solve problems.
  3. You learn in a variety of ways, not just in the classroom. You learn from projects, you learn from field study, you learn from interviewing experts, you learn from experiments and prototypes and in a variety of other ways.

Educational institutions need to adapt accordingly.

RM: Do you think that in the future it will still make sense to spend five to seven years earning a master’s degree or a PhD, given how quickly things are changing in the digital world?

FS: I think there will still be a need for deep specialization in certain fields. But in the course of specialization, you should pursue two objectives. First, you should acquire expertise in a certain area that you’re passionate about. But second, you should also learn how to learn – so if you find that the world has changed, or your passions have changed, the time you have spent hasn’t been wasted. And if it turns out that the area you have specialized in is still relevant to the world, –good for you.

You need to envision multiple scenarios, telling yourself, “If the world shifts like this, fine; if it doesn’t, what’s my plan B, my plan C, my plan D?” Education should set you up to be flexible rather than forcing you into a box.

RM: In response to this situation, you have established an innovative educational institution: the African Leadership University. What have been the biggest challenges, and how have you overcome them?

FS: The challenge has been three-fold:

Number one is regulation. If you want to be an accredited university, you have to comply with lots of regulations that are designed for a world of 50 to 100 years ago. If you want to allow students to declare a mission rather than a major, for example, that’s completely against the regulations. When you say “Let’s allow students to pick a problem to solve and curate their own learning experience, let’s give students more autonomy to drive their own learning, and let’s assess them on the basis of projects and portfolios, not just exams” – these are all things that go against the regulations.

Another big challenge is staff and other personnel. I have found that people are so used to what they themselves have gone through that their inclination is to try to replicate what they experienced at the universities they came from. We’re trying to overcome barriers and do something different. So we have to be very careful when hiring to make sure that the people we hire have the courage and the passion to break with convention, and that they don’t want to just replicate the status quo. That’s incredibly difficult to do. Some people have joined us saying they’re passionate about our disruptive model, but then want to do things the conventional way.

The third thing that has been challenging is financing – raising money, especially given the high level of poverty in Africa. People who need education cannot afford it. As such, cashflow from fees is very low. So you have to think differently about how to finance it and make it affordable.

“Education used to be a one-shot game, now it has to be a lifelong game.”

RM: You ask students to choose their life missions rather than a particular degree, and compared with most educational institutions, this is obviously quite unconventional. What decisions have led to this way of thinking, and how does it affect the way students learn and the way they’re being taught?

FS: It aligns with what we were talking about earlier: Today most people end up in careers that have nothing to do with what they studied in college or university.

Whenever I give talks to professionals who have been out of university for five to ten years, I ask how many of them are doing a job that precisely matches what they studied in college. I’ve never seen more than 10 percent of people put up their hand.

That really tells you something. So, if that’s the case, why do most universities force you to pick from a menu that they came up with?

The world’s big problems will not be solved by looking at only one discipline. They’re solved at the intersection of disciplines. What we believe is that instead of giving people a menu of academic disciplines, we should give them a menu of problems and challenges that the world is facing, and then have them pick one of them and curate their learning experience around solving those problems. The end goal is to impart methods of learning rather than pure content. Let’s teach them to solve problems rather than memorize facts and figures.

“Instead of giving people a menu of academic disciplines, we should give them a menu of problems and challenges that the world is facing.”

So when we ask students to declare a mission and not a major, we’re saying: “Pick a problem you want to solve and build your learning around that.” It’s about giving a purpose to learning and not just learning for learning’s sake.

And it’s about creating problem solvers, because problem-solving will always be relevant even as the world changes. Even when a machine makes your job obsolete – if you’re a problem solver, you’ll still have relevance in the world.


Fred Swaniker is a Ghanaian serial entrepreneur. He is the founder and CEO of the African Leadership Group, a network of institutions dedicated to educating future generations of African leaders. In 2012, the World Economic Forum recognized him as a young global leader.


  1. I am afraid I have to disagree with one of the major themes of this interview. Recognition that the world is changing has to begin with those with the power to act. Any educator worthy of adopting that title is already fully aware that the world is changing and that education reform is too important to be left to vested interest groups. Moreover, they recognise that such vested interest is already reshaping education in ways that threaten the very qualities that make us human. Unless leaders release their grip on education policy, I am afraid we are going to fail a generation of young people.

    With one eye looking backward, to some fictitious golden age of education, to prescribe what is needed by way of reform, and another looking greedily to the eductec market many yearn to cash in on, whether it is in the best interests of our common humanity or not, our young people are no more than pawns in a global game. The global education reform movement is aptly referred to as the GERM because of its harmful effects.

    In the UK, the learning of facts and the proliferation of testing has caused untold damage to real education. In those schools where the fear of failure is minimised, children have rich learning experiences and are provided with creative opportunities to collaborate in real-life problem solving activities. In contrast, in those where the fear of failure is keenly experienced, children are force-fed a narrow diet of factual information, often working alone in front of computer screens in a desperate attempt to remember disconnected facts. These are the very children that need opportunities where dialogue is central, where talking to learn happens as of right and where childhood is not seen as some preparatory period leading to a world of employment, as important and challenging as that might be. If I were to change the title of this interview it would be “We need to completely reimagine what education is for.” I have a few suggestion on how that might go.

    By answering some basic questions, we might imagine an education experience worthy of presenting to children and young people.

    Is childhood a preparation for later life or does it serve some greater purpose in itself that needs safeguarding?
    Are education and training different or contradictory and equally important in the uncertain, fast-changing future?

    Does learning to learn have a greater relevance to education than to training?
    If we agree they serve different functions, at what stage in development is it deemed appropriate to focus more attention on specific training?

    I am intrigued to read that “You have to bring professionals into the classroom to teach” in a response to the need for change. We have professionals that already do that job, so I take it that the professionals in question would have specific work-related skills etc to offer. Educators are specialists with knowledge of child development, not to be confused with technicians. The younger the child, the greater the importance of this specialist knowledge in working to bring out that which is hidden.

    It appears to me we lack a shared vision of what constitutes the balance between individual and societal needs. Nowhere is this more evident than in the rush to apply often untested technologies in developing so-called personalised education. Our understanding of the impact of screen-time and prolonged exposure to computer technology is woefully inadequate.

    Respectfully, I have to disagree once more. The statement that what we need now is ’just in time education’ is fundamentally flawed. It suggests a production-line approach to learning. What we really need is ‘just take time education’, as exemplified in the Slow Education movement that offers such positive benefits for children and young people in or fast world.

  2. I think this is very important for us young people, please keep shaping us to be self-driven by what we most enjoy doing. Thank you!

  3. According to me, the school must not be a place to learn facts and dates, but it must be a place to share your ideas and teaching, where every student must be willing to go to, instead of finding excuses not to go.

  4. All these innovative methods of teaching help to identify each student’s true capability and potential. This, in turn, helps them build confidence in themselves and the subject and also learn in a way that they want to. The main advantage of a learning app is its flexibility. A student’s learning progress can be tracked and stored and then can be evaluated later by the teacher, who can grade them accordingly.

    1. yeah because if you listen the learners is a good way of giving them time of speaking their ideas.

  5. We the inhabitants of the world need to see the problems that the world are facing and learn how to solve the problems. If this new system of education is put into place than this world will always be a better place.

  6. Firstry ,thank you for this message .I think most of us we learn how we can change ourself through this discussion .to build our real education which is needed to boast productivity.thank you alot.

  7. For the benefits of the world this system could help students to explore deep down inside them what they can

  8. Many of the things that you rise are absolutely write. Our world needs a problem solver. But how to solve a problem and how to think thigs critically needs some guidance.

  9. Yes ofcause what we need is not to be specialist in on thing but we need to be flexible so we can adapt in any situation without many callenges

  10. students need to learn how to learn and how to solve problems.
    ‘key to success’…..who ever solves a problem makes money (monotary exchange)

  11. I strongly believe in this interview.
    The traditional tertiary institutions tend to focus their class learning objectives on the past events, without a clue of what the present is like, and the problems facing them.

  12. Nothing to say, but only to thank Fred for his construction to the African wall of stoping A frixa from facing problems and getting solutions to the future challenges.

  13. Education should be put in place regarding to the way of fighting the daily problem which are facing the whole World. Thanks

  14. Education should be improved but regarding to the ways of fighing against daily problèmes whixh are facing the whole World.Thanks!!

  15. Exactly ! I believed that we students we need to learn how to learn and how to solve problems not memorizing facts and figures,this will help us to solve many problems that our african societies are facing,like unemployment ,poverty etc…thanks

    1. I’m very inspered with Fred swanikar history and I believe when we students we have to learn how to learn and focusing on problems solving instead of memorizing the facts and figures thanks

  16. it will be good for us student when we use to learn how to learn and to solve problems instead of learn to memorise facts and figures I think this is really good way of learning for us thank you!

  17. Can’t get enough words to thank you for this idea of helping Africa to have many young leaders!! Most especially when it comes to choosing a field one wants to join and stop giving students a menue to choose instead they are given a list of problems to solve!! This is what the world needs today!! Thank you once more.

  18. It’s Amazing to hear about this.For really education of today need to cooperate with the real world.this shall resolve the problems that surround our communities

  19. No where to find this required full package today. The only way is to study in ALU but all world universities must follow this conventional aim as a debit they have for the world.

  20. thanks for this really I get a great advise here, we have to learn from problems as we solve them in our fail or success we get a lesson for how to solve them later.

  21. This is one of important message that I from this document because we may learn about the challenge that we face on it.
    “Instead of giving people a menu of academic disciplines, we should give them a menu of problems and challenges that the world is facing.”

  22. According to me this is so important as a students we really need to learn how to learn and how to solve problems.

  23. I absolutely agree with this statement “Instead of learning to memorize facts and figures, students need to ‘learn how to learn’ and how to solve problems.”
    As student we must never learn to memorize facts instead we learn to learn and overcome challenges.
    Thank you so much.

  24. More of university students and leaders should frequently dedicate their learning time to designing systems and modules compatible with the current circumstances.

  25. This inspirational and coming ”just in time learning,” i agree from personal school experience that the curriculum provided is all about when what happened how something was done. Which will not make a student an effective leader to meet the dynamic world.

  26. As a young leader, I do believe in you and hope through learning from problems and challenges rather than figures and facts will leads to economic development for both Africa and globe in general.

  27. The more I read about ALU’s renovated education system, the more I feel the sense of belonging. Mr Fred swanikar is truly an inspiration

  28. Base on this article, it’s already said that young people should not only focus on now relevant but rather be a problem solver for the future, in case any changes occur in future.

  29. Personally, I believe when we(students) are given the opportunity to choose a path in line with our passion we wouldn’t mind going lengths to do all sorts of assignments, carry out research and bring solution to problems that burden our society…This is the best educational system we will ever have

  30. I will say education should not just be about theory, facts and figures but also about sharing ideas with peers, solving problems critically, and having concrete practicals. Thank you

  31. Exactly learning with the aim of solving real world problems is the tremendous need in todays education because it will bring a morale in learning through learning things you passionate about and also make the world a better place than we found it.

  32. Thank you, this is a great message our ideas should be expressed and we have to put in practice what we learnt not to just learn them .

  33. This is so mind opening and my favourite part was “We should bring the working world into education a lot earlier and take education into the working world.” Am so glad I read this article, thank you.

  34. according to what I read am appreciate for that because it is very good to us as learners ,it help us to achieve our goal

  35. And I believe that if we respect all articles I had seen above we will develop ourself,our country and allover the world

  36. To day’s world is changing at quick pace and as student what we need is to know how to learn to learn not by memorizing the fact and figure however, we need to be exposed to the community field where people are facing problems to see how we can help them to overcome these issues, anther thing we need to have just in time education that never quit learning and this is must be possiple only when the young generation who need to be educated are independently allowed to go for what they are passionate about.

  37. Students should be allowed to learn independently and learn how to learn and to solve their problems instead of memorising facts and figures but to me what’s most is that students should be given ways to express their ideas .

  38. I am grateful for the good message to the youth that we should learn to learn and on the point of being given a menu of problems and challenges that the world is facing will be great because this is driving a Africa and world at large to a better future with reduced problems compared to now as they will be solved. Thanks!!i

  39. There is a saying that goes, “learning is a continous process.” Learning goes on and on and on without stoppage but how we learn to learn is the key point. We need to learn from the problems faced by others and then shaping our learning around those problems already faced by others that is finding solutions from those problems so as not to repeat such mistake. The world changes very fast, so what we have learnt may not be relevant to the present dispensation, so at that point, we need to be updated in such specialization, so for one to be very relevant in such specialization, learning must still take effect.

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