The Future of Work

Work is one of the most important ways that ‘modern man’ makes meaning, defines meaning in life – individually and collectively. Therefore, the future of work and the impacts on work of today’s technological developments are critical areas that we should pay attention to, as educators. These are the things that will shape the lives of the children we have in our schools today.

Yet this troubles me. All too often, we see educators who have convinced themselves that if they can just find ways to do what they did before, by degrees of 1 or 2% better, we can make a better version of yesterday’s education and can pat ourselves on the back that we’re reforming, innovating and delivering something world class.

Instead, with the speed of change so rapid in the world today, we need to be thinking in far more bold and creative ways about what schooling and education should be today in order to prepare young people for the world of tomorrow. If we don’t do these things we shouldn’t be surprised if the education available in our schools is seen as less and less relevant, less and less applicable to the evolving lives of young people. Worse, for those of us engaged in schools development in developing countries and away from the economic powerhouses will be condemning the young people we work with to the disadvantages that have held their countries back ….. but multiplied far worse.

One simple example stands out. Over the last 20 to 30 years one of the biggest engines of growth for developing countries was the shift of manufacturing to those countries. There were multiple reasons for this. In the western countries environmental laws and employment laws became more rigid and more costly to comply with. however, by far the biggest influencer was the relative cost of manpower/ labour.  Western workers became too expensive to employ in labour intensive manufacturing environments. In fact, often the developing country labour was so much cheaper that companies didn’t even need to be hasty about introducing or developing advanced equipment for manufacturing.

However, we’ve now hit a critical tipping point with automation, robotics and the harnessing of AI. Companies are moving manufacturing back to developed countries. Governments, such as the USA, make a big deal of this as a conscious effort to support the common man in their countries, to bring back jobs etc. However, the truth is that much of that manufacturing goes on almost entirely without the need for labour and so will have little or no impact on wages and unemployment. However, it now leads to reduced costs of distribution for the manufacturers and a favourable environment to innovate, automate and  harness to new technology.

This represents a challenge for the mass of people in all parts of the world. Job growth in the developing world slows down, job growth doesn’t really materialise in the developed economies (except McJobs with zero hours contracts). In the meantime, the proportion of the world’s wealth flowing in to the hands of the richest and the biggest corporations increases.

(Ironic that I’m writing this the weekend that the American government passed laws to massively cut tax rates for big corporations (who are frequently already sitting on massive cash piles or engaging in aggressive buy-backs of their own shares as the best way to generate shareholder returns).

I came in on the point that educators should be taking account of where the world is going. Only if we do that do we have any hope of providing effectively for the education needs of a generation who are growing up to a very different world to any that has been experienced before.

To this end, here’s the podcast and report from McKinseys;

McKinsey Pocast – What is the Future of Work?

Then, here is the report from McKinsey. This is the summary article that includes a link to the full PDF downloadable report;

What the Future of Work Will Mean for Jobs, Skills and Wages

As I reflect on the content, what it’s telling me is that we need far less didactic teaching of content and syllabus. We need to hasten the transition to teaching and learning that emphasises the development of Twenty First Century skills and competencies. Also, we need to continue to make schools places where students come to own their own learning, have real and genuine agency and don’t wait for teachers to put learning in to them. Rather, we need environments where children hold themselves accountable to learning goals from an early age, working to build the grit, resilience, tenacity, flexibility,  creativity and adaptability to be able to lead and reshape themselves in an ever changing world.

It’s an exciting time and potentially one that can be phenomenally rewarding for young people. However, it won’t be if they’ve been ill-prepared. Children prepared to excel in the world of yesterday will just struggle immensely in the new world of tomorrow.

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Schools of Possibility and Hope

Problem Based Learning

You don’t have to wait to grow up before you can apply your mind to real-world problems and challenges. Will students in such an environment lack motivation or question the relevance of what they’re learning?

This is development of real world skills in a real world context, whilst as a by-product the children just happen to acquire masses of knowledge (which they retain better because of the high levels of motivation, the relevance, the emotional engagement and the connectedness of what they're learning.

For teachers who want to start thinking about how to build more problem based learning in to their repertoire, here's a starting point from Edutopia;

Edutopia - Solving Real-World Issues Through Problem Based Learning

More Creativity, Please.

In our schools – at least the more progressive ones – we tell children that we want them to be creative and that creativity is a vital skill to grow up with. However, I believe we don’t do nearly enough to explore with children what creativity is, where it comes from/ manifests and how a person can develop a higher quantity/ quality of creativity. It’s almost treated as ‘you’ll know it when you see it.’ Further, i think all too often, the actions of the adults in our schools frequently send conflicting messages. On the one hand children are told that creativity is a good thing, but on the other hand when they choose to be creative or to act creatively in the way of their choosing, this is actively discouraged or sometimes even punished.

The reality is that one person’s creativity can often sit uncomfortably with others. Creativity, by its nature doesn’t run along neat pre-set lines like a train running on tracks. Rather, it has a random and uncontrolled aspect to it and this is likely to be even more the case for a child within whom their creativity and it’s counter-balancing elements of self-control are still developing.

Another issue is that a person’s creativity requires an element of separation and distancing from others. The reality today is that the more progressive a school is, likely the more students are encouraged to be actively engaged with their peers through projects, group work or even pair work or peer tutoring. Introvert habits of isolating the self fro others are frequently actively discouraged. Here’s a very interesting article that explores the role of isolation and solitude in creativity.

Lifehacker – Is Solitude A Key Element Of Creativity?

It makes a number of references to the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and I would thoroughly recommend his book on creativity for anyone who wants to delve further in to this area.

I believe that, as in so many things, balance is the key. We need school premises and infrastructure that provides for both group and individual space and activity. We need to build the flexibility and balance in to timetables to ensure that students have the freedom to be with themselves, to explore inside as well as to work in groups and collaborate. And, we need educators who understand the balanced needs of both interpersonal activity and solitude. We need to actively help children to understand how this aspect of their mind works, the role and value of daydreaming and we need to respect when they open up and share the material of their daydreams. To acknowledge isn’t to agree.

My guess is that, right now, in most schools we’re probably doing a better job of the engagement and busy activity of projects and group work than we are of the solitary aspects of creativity. Both are needed to develop key citical skills for the Twenty First Century.

Critical Thinking

Plenty of educators say that they want young people to grow up to be critical thinkers and that 'critical thinking' is an important skill for children growing up in the Twenty First Century. However, how many educators are really clear in their definition of what it is (and isn't)? How much time is really being given to teaching these skills and how much opportunity are children getting to use the skills, make mistakes with them, hone them and make them a natural part of how they approach mental processes.

This is a nice, short video that provides a useful starting point.

Preparing Children for a Changing World

WEF 200116

The World Economic Forum gathering in Davos just got under way, against a backdrop of crashing world stockmarkets, currency turmoil and new lows for world oil prices. Rightly, the discussions and thinking there are as much on the longer term as the short term – there’s not too much that anyone can do to change what’s happening right now!

The image shown above was shared in today’s deliberations, along with a prediction that automation, robots etc. will eliminate an estimated 5 million jobs between now and 2020. That’s not even 5 years away, so when we think about implications for the children in schools today, the likelihood is even more stark.

Everything about this data tells me that we’ve been spot on when advocating that today’s school education needs to undergo major changes so as to emphasise on the development of soft skills and with a strong focus on young people who have high levels of resilience, self-actualisation and flexibility to deal with the speed of change in the world.

Five years from now is about when this year’s Board exam students will enter the world of work. When looking at the list of ‘in demand skills listed above, I find myself concluding that today’s standardized tests do little or nothing to further the development of those skills in young people. In fact, the focus on the standardized tests detracts massively from developing these skills. Students and their parents become convinced that they must direct all their energy towards squeezing out maximum achievement in the exams and tests whilst teachers and schools feel obliged to ‘teach to the tests’ and resort to excessive direct instruction, drilling and rote rigour to drive students to the best possible scores on these tests.

How much real, quality experience are children getting in school to develop their complex problem solving, creativity and critical thinking? How can we get far more emphasis on emotional intelligence, interpersonal and interacting skills?

Over the last 10 years, whenever economies have picked up positively, industry after industry has had its ability to ride the buoyancy held back by their inability to find the talent required with the necessary skills. Looking at this list and the massive mismatch between the predictions for skills required and the actual things going on in schools, I see this deficit getting far worse. This is very bad news for economies, but even worse news for the young people who will find themselves unwanted and unattractive to employers through no real fault of their own.

We need to be addressing these issues, and soon.