What could future proof education look like?
The wave of research and reports predicting the imminent social and economic changes due to the Fourth Industrial Revolution is turning into a tsunami. In January this year, the Founder and Chief Executive of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab, declared
We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.
In 2011, Institute for the Future, a non-profit interdisciplinary research organisation, published a Future Work Skills 2020 Report which analysed key drivers that would reshape the landscape of work and identify key work skills needed in the ten years leading to 2020. The infographic version of this report has been widely reproduced and touted as the answer to what our students need to learn to be effective in future workplaces.
In 2014 Price WaterHouse Coopers published their report The Future of Work – A journey to 2022 which predicted that the expectations of organisations and the aspirations of the people who want to work for them will diverge into three distinct ‘worlds’ of work: Blue (where corporate is king and individualism trumps social responsibility), Green (where companies care and sustainability is a key driver) and Orange (where small is beautiful and specialised small business collaborate via networks).
In June 2015, the Committee for Economic Development of Australia published a major report focused on the future of Australia’s workforce, Australia’s future workforce? Amongst other things, this report stated that recent technological breakthroughs meant that computers and robotics could potentially replace human labour in diverse settings and that machine-learning algorithms will encroach on roles previously perceived as skilled jobs outside the domain of automation, while also increasing the productivity and decreasing employment requirements for many roles. The consequence of these changes is that almost 40 per cent of the jobs in Australia have a high probability of being substituted with computing in the next few decades. An additional 18 per cent has a medium probability, while the remaining jobs are safe from digital disruption for now.
Also in 2015, the Foundation for Young Australians published their report The New Work Order: Ensuring you Australians have skills and experience for the jobs of the future, not the past. This report examined the forces shaping the future of work and suggested a range of policy options (with overseas examples) that either enables participation in future work or protects workers from the downsides of the predicted future work environment.
Now, in 2016, we’ve had the World Economic Forum publishing its report The Future of Jobs: Employment, Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution; Deloitte Access Economics publishing their report based on expert opinion and a survey of over 1,400 Australian labour market participants, The future of work: How can we adapt to survive and thrive?; and the Foundation for Young Australians delivering its report based on ‘big data’ analysis of 4.2 million job advertisements over a three year period, The New Basics: Big data reveals the skills young people need for the New Work Order.
But these ideas are hardly new in K-12 education circles. As early as 2002, P21 were working on their Framework for 21st Century Learning aimed at the making sure the K-12 sector prepares students for success in work, life and citizenship. Sir Ken Robinson’s 2010 Ted Talk on Changing Education Paradigms (if you haven’t seen the RSA Animate version, please, watch it now – just come back!) was a clear call for sweeping educational reform, but governments in Australia have turned to standardised testing (NAPLAN) and standardised curricula in learning area silos (Australian Curriculum, implemented in 2013). The Global Digital Citizen Foundation is another organisation focussed on the fluencies required, called Essential Fluencies, for the workers and citizens of tomorrow. Preparing students for future employability is not an idea confined to K-12 educators either. Dr. Ruth Bridgstock, a fellow staff member at QUT, is exploring Graduate Employability 2.0 during her current Office of Learning and Teaching National Senior Teaching Fellowship.
Throughout my own teacher education I was most drawn to connectivist learning theory, developed (and explained here) by George Siemens. On top of that, I have always been an unusually transdisciplinary person; I didn’t know anyone else doing graduate entry teacher education during the late 2000s that combined humanities (History) and IT curriculum specialisations and both students and university staff continually commented on the unusual combination. The advent of the Australian Curriculum and the detailed prescription of content and approach by a national authority signalled the end of my school teaching career. I felt that I lost the freedom to create complex, real world, problem based learning opportunities for my students and I strongly believed that we were not preparing our students for either further education or future work. Apparently the last few years The World Economic Forum, The Committee for Economic Development Australia and the Foundation for Youth Australia have managed to produce evidence based reports that agree with my intuitions (wish I’d take a bet out on that one!)
It seems that the higher education sector may finally find support from business, government and professional accreditation bodies to significantly transform higher education in order to prepare students for what we all now recognise will be a significantly different world of work in the future. It will still take a lot of work and we are more likely to convince these stakeholders, as well as the community and our prospective students if we have a clear vision of what is important for students to learn and how they should learn it. So, if we now have the impetus, what do I think a future proof education could or should look like?
Discipline knowledge or expertise is no longer the Holy Grail
Just as at one time the people who could memorise and retell the stories of their tribes well and knew how to identify and use plants for medicinal purposes were considered the wise men and women of society, from Enlightenment onward, deep knowledge in particular disciplines has been seen as the pinnacle of academic and intellectual success, usually gained by extensive reading and formal education. In a networked world this is no longer the case. Being able to find, critically assess and apply information in novel and relevant ways is essential. But knowing all of ‘the right content’ in detail, in an invigilated examinable way, is a waste of the capabilities of a human brain.
Transdisciplinary or enterprise skills and knowledge are essential
As described by all of those organisations listed above, predicted by both the worlds foremost experts and shown in analysis of data from job advertising, our students need a different set of skills to the ones we focus on by delivering discipline focussed degrees. My synthesis of all of the future focussed work skills reports and predictions distils the requirements down to eight key areas, shown in the image below.
The eight essentials of a future proof education, which need to be developed alongside discipline knowledge and given as much emphasis in both teaching and assessment, are:
- Innovation, Creativity and Design Thinking
- Metacognitive skills, cognitive load management and resilience
- Digital Intelligence
- Computational Thinking
- Critical Thinking and Sense Making
- Communication and Collaboration Skills
- Global, cross-cultural and sustainable perspectives
Universities need to partner with students
Despite the shift towards a ‘students as customers’ mindset, there is still a huge power differential in our higher education system and a pervasive attitude of distrust of our students. I believe this is because academics see students as trying to ‘game the system’ and get by with minimal effort, while students feel that much of their education is unnecessary and irrelevant to professional life. I lost count of the number of times I was told by practising teachers that most of what I was learning at university was irrelevant and to make the most of my placements because that was where the real learning happened (much of this sentiment held true, unfortunately). If we give students ownership of their data and their study paths, and support them (through learning experiences and industry partnership experiences) in developing a portfolio of real work as evidence of their learning and capabilities, they have no need to try and ‘game the system’ or ask ‘will this be on the exam?’. This will require a shift to more authentic assessment practices and an increase in the associated marking time staff are allocated per student. It will also require a transformation of university system to allow students to fit blocks of learning in disparate areas together to create a degree of their choosing, with transparent curriculum block design and support for students to meet professional accreditation requirements where necessary. We can also establish a strong connection for a student’s life long learning career by working in this way, encouraging them to return to the university for further education in the future.
These are my core ideas about what students need to learn in order to have a future proof education, how I believe they need to learn it will be featured in another blog post soon. What do you think?
P.S. Winter must be the time for huddling down and thinking about the future. I sat in my lounge room and scratched out my original sketch a little over a week ago, I’ve had hallway conversations with several colleagues about this very idea following an articles in the Financial Review like this and this. When I sat down to write this blog post, I did more detailed research on the reports I’d read snippets of and realised ABC’s Four Corners had aired a show about this very topic that is well worth watching.