Updated: Feb 12, 2019
In the past, people with formal university qualifications from the best education institutions, with the best networks of professional connections tended to get access to the best jobs, and were best prepared for success in whatever profession they set their sights on. This sort of educational elitism still exists but perhaps not for much longer.
The Age of Information
Things are changing rapidly. In our age of information, now anyone can Google almost anything at the click of a button. There are YouTube tutorials for virtually everything and apps like Teachable.com and Udacity.com that make studying a wide variety of subjects and courses easy and affordable. We now have the knowledge we need at our finger tips on a scale unprecedented in human history.
The Robot Revolution
But why does this matter? Well, for good or bad, technology and artificial intelligence (AI) are set to change everything. It's predicted that nearly two-thirds of current jobs won’t exist in little over a decade from now. The World Economic Forum predicts that 65% of primary (elementary) level students in our schools today will be employed in jobs which don’t yet exist when they eventually join the labor force. Many tasks that, at one time might have required a team of human workers to complete, are set to be replaced by robots which can work 24/7, require no rest breaks, no holiday and no sick leave.
"Dynamic skills like creativity, critical thinking, leadership and problem solving will be the attributes that modern firms and organizations seek above all else among fresh graduates in the coming years."
Whole industries will become obsolete. Whole sectors of the economy will be violently disrupted periodically by technological advances. Even highly skilled jobs in professions such as law won’t escape. It’s already been shown that today’s AI can take care of reviewing legal documents in a fraction of the time it takes a human lawyer with an average accuracy exceeding 94% (compared to only 85% for human workers). AI will replace humans more and more as technology progresses and we must prepare children for this in our schools today.
Education, Education, Education
Education is set to change beyond all recognition as well. Nowadays the cost of a university education has sky rocketed far beyond the means of most young people. Students are left with a devastating burden of debt, which can take a lifetime to pay-off. And still, modern companies and organizations complain that today’s graduates aren’t leaving university with the skills and attributes they actually seek.
There are probably many reasons for this discourse between higher education and graduate employability including a lack of dialogue between industry and academia. In addition, universities are complex organizations with hundreds of researchers, lecturers and support staff, making them expensive and slow to respond to changes in the labor market.
The primary reason for universities to exist in the first place is to act as research and innovation hubs for wider society. They are vital to research, innovation and the wealth generation of a successful economy, however we must remember that a) their main purpose is not to prepare students directly for employment, and b) research tends to be prioritized over teaching in higher education institutions, leading some to question whether universities offer good value for money.
"To quote a famous 80s anti-establishment song by Pink Floyd: 'All in all we’re just another brick in the wall.' Let’s not create clones in our schools, but maximize the talents and potential of the next generation by developing the whole child."
But this is set to change. Now other options exist for studying and getting the qualifications needed to progress in life. Now there are world leading self-study options, online courses and nanodegrees developed by industry experts in rapidly changing fields including technology, artificial intelligence, web development and marketing, which are growing in popularity and fast becoming valued and recognized by employers. Going to an expensive university to learn technical subjects like computer coding, for example, now makes less sense than ever before. Tech giant Google now offers industry-leading training courses that demand the respect of any top tech company in the world.
The Soft Skills
Instead it’s the soft skills (although I use the term dynamic skills) that are truly vital nowadays. Dynamic skills like creativity, critical thinking, leadership and problem solving will be the attributes that modern firms and organizations seek above all else among fresh graduates in the coming years. Indeed, an extensive study recently conducted by PayScale revealed that 60% of managers claim new graduates they see taking jobs within their organizations do not have the critical thinking and problem solving skills needed. Soft skills are vital to drive innovation and they can be applied to almost any industry, task or setting. Importantly, they are highly sought after by employers (at least for the foreseeable future) because computers and AI will have a tough time replicating these advanced human brain functions anytime soon.
"We could bury our heads in the sand and hope our sector is left untouched, or we could vehemently prepare ourselves for the uncertainties of the future by building our dynamic skills to help us future-proof ourselves in our fast changing world."
We can always brush up on our technical knowledge and learn things like new software programs – these are constantly changing in fast-paced industries - but dynamic skills on the other hand take time and commitment to master, cannot easily be replaced by technology (especially things like creativity) and help guide us to become more adaptable and resilient individuals. You could spend years becoming a skilled dentist only to be replaced by laser precision robotics a few years from now without the need for a skilled human dentist. Or you could hone your dynamic skills, particularly creativity and problem solving, in preparation for any challenge or opportunity which comes your way in an uncertain 21st Century future, dominated by technological change, and the inevitable social consequences this will bring.
Becoming Lifelong Learners
I'm hardly the first educationalist to point out the importance of children becoming lifelong learners this century. Lifelong learning characterized by online courses and tutorials will become a standard part of our academic and professional development. We will rely less and less on universities and more and more on open-source and industry-based learning resources to brush up on our technical knowledge, and keep abreast of current trends and advances in our chosen fields.
We might not like it, but the only thing we can do now is embrace the change that technology is set to bring. We could bury our heads in the sand and hope our sector is left untouched, or we could vehemently prepare ourselves for the uncertainties of the future by building varied and dynamic skill-sets to help future-proof ourselves in our fast changing world. I know which option I'd prefer to take.
"Many tasks that, at one time might have required a team of human workers to complete, are set to be replaced by robots which work 24/7, require no rest breaks, no holiday and no sick leave."
Change Brings Opportunity
Where there’s change, there’s opportunity. Let’s prepare tomorrow’s children for a future based on technology and ramp up our focus on dynamic skills to build an empowered generation of young people who can think, innovate, lead and problem solve for themselves. To quote a famous 80s anti-establishment song by Pink Floyd: “All in all we’re just another brick in the wall.” Let’s not create clones in our schools, but maximize the talents and potential of the next generation by developing the whole child through joined-up classroom and outdoor learning that truly recognizes the importance of developing the soft skills.
The ultimate outcome of any 21st Century education system should be to provide the skills needed to flourish in a globalized world dominated by rapidly changing technology. And what's one of the best ways to do this? By getting young people outside the classroom to learn through hands-on experience, build varied dynamic skill-sets and become well-rounded individuals, who are far more than simply book-smart.
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