By 2030, up to 800 million of today’s jobs could be replaced by automated technology, according to a recent study by McKinsey Global Institute. They predict that a fifth of the world’s work force will be affected. Whether this results in a global job shortage or whether a host of new jobs will be created is unknown. However, one thing is for sure, adaptability is going to be key in a world that is changing exponentially.

Machines are not original or flexible thinkers; they will never be able to perform jobs that require judgment, ethics and critical thinking as well as humans. In the future, jobs requiring emotional intelligence involving human interaction such as doctors, lawyers, and teachers will be less prone to automation, whereas tasks carried out by office staff such as mortgage brokers, paralegals, accountants, are especially vulnerable to automation. Joseph Aoun, the author of Higher Education in the age of Artificial Intelligence, highlights the importance for workers of the future to be able to blend technical and social skills, in order to toggle between various jobs and tasks.

Preparing students for the unknown is not a new phenomenon, unique to educators of today, but the rapid advances in technology do place extra emphasis on our education system to keep up with the world around it. Could the educators of 20 years ago have known that so much of our world today would be based around technology? Could they have predicted what skills would be needed in the job market today? It seems unlikely, yet they had to do their best to prepare their students for this world anyhow. Nowadays, educators still face the same challenge, so where do we begin?

A good place to start would be to examine the qualities that humans possess that cannot be replicated by computers. Luckily, there has been some extensive research on this topic, which we can draw upon. In his book ‘The Global Achievement Gap’ Tony Wagner uncovered 7 survival skills required for the 21st century:

  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
  • Agility and adaptability
  • Initiative and entrepreneurialism
  • Effective oral and written communication
  • Accessing and analyzing information
  • Curiosity and imagination

The Partnership for 21st Century Learning; summarised these skills into a succinct framework called ‘The 4C’s ‘, standing for Critical Thinking, Collaboration, Communication, and Creativity. Since then, these 21st Century Learning Skills have been the topic of great debate amongst the teaching community. Many futurists predict that in a world that is changing exponentially, the skills within the 4C’s framework should be prioritised over knowledge. Educators on this side of the fence question why our students should invest their energy in learning various facts that they can search for in seconds? After all, we now live in the information age. On the other side of the argument, there are the educators who argue that these skills have always been a requirement and are nothing new. These teachers point to the fact that without knowledge, these skills become less powerful. They believe that as educators, we have constantly strived to prepare our students for the ‘real world’ that exists around them. They argue that if we focus on the key aspects such as learning how to read, write, and calculate. Then, the less tangible skills such as working in a team, thinking critically, and being curious will naturally follow as a by-product.

As usually is the case, I think the answer lies somewhere in between these two points of view. I would suggest that we focus on understanding and wisdom rather than knowledge. This subtle change in phrasing is important because although you can gain knowledge in seconds, it takes experience and practice to gain true understanding of a subject. As the old saying goes, “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it into a fruit salad”.

Putney High School in England were in the news this year as they have taken the bold step of hiring an in-house entrepreneur to inspire students to start their own businesses because so many traditional jobs will not exist in the future. They wish to encourage students to “blaze their own trail” rather than simply following well-trodden career paths. In Dubai, we are blessed with a community of parents who have a wide variety of interesting and successful career paths, as schools we would be foolish not to tap into this on behalf of our students. This term, I’ve been lucky enough to work with our gifted young students in an Enterprise club designed to unlock their true potential. They’ve learnt the principles of entrepreneurship and used this to design a product for one of the EXPO 2020’s key themes: Opportunity, Sustainability or Mobility. The students came to life during the programme as they had the chance to put many of their 21st Century Skills into action.

Whether these skills can be taught is up for debate, but teachers can create the circumstances in which they can be learnt. For example, to develop critical thinking skills students will need to develop an ability to approach problems in a variety of different ways to formulate their own solutions. To practice this, we should provide students with situations where their existing skills can applied to solve problems with multiple solutions, as we do not want to teach students that there is only one answer available, but instead that problem-solving can be a creative and personal experience.

Accessing and analysing information is an important part of critical thinking. Information has never been more readily available. It can be found at the click of a button, and now with advances in voice recognition tools such as Apple’s ‘Siri’ and Amazon’s ‘Echo’ we don’t even have to do that. This sudden and dramatic shift from a world with a limited amount and availability of information to a world of information flux and glut brings a new challenge. The skill for students is no longer finding information; it is being able to select the information that is relevant and credible. We cannot truly claim to have prepared our students for the world,
unless they can question the reliability of the information they consume.

When students begin school, they are naturally curious about the world and want to explore it. Their imaginations are vast and untamed, creating endless amounts of practical and impractical things. Our task as educators has less to do with teaching them how to be curious and imaginative, and more to do with not taking that away from them. We need to continue
to encourage them to develop these skills, as well as teach them how to apply them creatively and purposefully. One way in which we can do this is by focusing on creating instead of consuming.

The internet is a vast expanse of resources. It’s easy to be a consumer, but students who are willing to be creators will be at a huge advantage because when students create their own learning content, they’re more likely to remember what they learned. Once they have created
something, allow them to share their genius with the world by sharing it online. The creation of video can also enable students to learn how to speak confidently and clearly. This doesn’t come naturally, but with practice; enunciation, speed, volume, and gestures can all be perfected.

Clearly with the changes that are occurring in the world outlined above, our students are going to need to be comfortable with the idea of change and be willing to adapt to the changes around them. We can help prepare them for this by creating a dynamic environment within the
classroom that can help to prepare students for the future. Varying the teaching strategies we use, the setup of the classroom, the ways that learning is demonstrated by students can help students learn to adapt. Whenever I read about the future of work, many of the predictions are scary and suggest scenarios in which millions of talented people are unemployed. Yet if education is able to reform, many new jobs will be created in the process. Just as the education system adapted to meet the demands of the agricultural and industrial revolutions before, I’m confident that we can prepare the learners of today for the technological revolution of tomorrow.

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