An education is supposed to prepare you for the future. Traditionally, that meant learning certain facts and skills, like when explorers arrived in America or how to calculate an answer using long division. Today, curricula have shifted to focus on a more global and digital world, engaging students in subjects like cultural history, basic computing skills, and writing code.
Yet, the challenges our kids will face will be much different than those of our generation. Most of what a typical student learns in school today will no longer be relevant by the time they graduate from college. A study at the University of Oxford found that 47 percent of today’s jobs will be eliminated over the next 20 years.
Over the next few decades, much of what we “know” about the world will no longer be true. The computers of the future will not be digital. Software code itself is disappearing, or at least becoming far less relevant. Many of what are considered good jobs today will be either automated or devalued. We need to rethink how we prepare our kids for the world to come.
The subjects we learned in school were mostly static. The answer to two plus two was always four. Interpretations of certain subjects may have differed from place to place and evolved over time, but we were taught that the world was based on certain facts. We were evaluated on the basis of knowing those facts.
Yet, as the complexity theorist Sam Arbesman has pointed out, facts have a half-life. As the accumulation of knowledge accelerates, those half-lives are shrinking. For example, when we learned computer programming in school, it was usually in BASIC, a now mostly defunct language. Today, Python is the most popular language, but will likely not be a decade from now.
The best way to prepare for the future is to develop the ability to learn and adapt.
Computers themselves will be very different as well, based less on the digital code of ones and zeros and more on quantum laws and the human brain. We will likely store less information on silicon and more in DNA. There’s no way to teach kids how these things will work because nobody, not even experts, is quite sure of that yet.
Kids today need to learn less about the present and more about the systems future technologies will be based on, such as quantum mechanics, genetics, and the logic of code. Economists have consistently found that routine jobs are most likely to be automated. The best way to prepare for the future is to develop the ability to learn and adapt.
Applying Empathy and Design Skills
While machines are taking over many high-level tasks, such as medical analysis and legal research, there are some things they will never do. A computer will never strike out in a Little League game, have its heart broken, or see its child born. So it is very unlikely, if not impossible, that a machine will be able to relate to a human like other humans can. That absence of empathy makes it hard for machines to design products and processes that will maximize enjoyment and utility for humans. So design skills are likely to be in high demand for decades to come as basic production and analytical processes are increasingly automated.
We’ve already seen this process take place with regard to the Internet. In the early days, it was a very technical field. You had to be a highly skilled engineer to make a website work. Today, however, building a website is something any fairly intelligent high schooler can do — and much of the value has shifted to front-end tasks, like designing the user experience.
With the rise of artificial intelligence and virtual reality, our experiences with technology will become far more immersive, and that will increase the need for good design. For example, conversational analysts (yes, that’s a real job) are working with designers to create conversational intelligence for voice interfaces. Furthermore, virtual reality will clearly be much more design intensive than video ever was.
The Ability to Communicate Complex Ideas
Much of the recent emphasis in education has been around STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math) and proficiency in those areas is certainly important for today’s students to understand the world around them. However, many STEM graduates are finding it difficult to find good jobs. On the other hand, the ability to communicate ideas effectively is becoming a highly-prized skill.
Consider Amazon, one of the most innovative and technically proficient organizations on the planet. However, a key factor to its success is its writing culture. The company is so fanatical about the ability to communicate that developing good writing skills is essential to building a successful career there.
The jobs of the future will not depend as much on knowing facts or crunching numbers as on humans collaborating with other humans to design work for machines.
Think about Amazon’s business and it becomes clear why this is the case. Sure, it employs highly adept engineers. But in order to create a truly superior product, those people need to collaborate closely with designers, marketers, business development executives, and others. To coordinate all of that activity and keep everybody focused on delivering a specific, high-quality experience, communication must be clear and coherent. So, while learning technical subjects like math and science is always a good idea, studying subjects that delve into the art of communication — like literature, history, and philosophy — is just as important.
Collaborating and Working in Teams
Traditionally, schoolwork has been based on individual accomplishment. Growing up, you were supposed to study at home, come in prepared, and take your test without help. If you looked at your friend’s paper, it was called “cheating” and you got in a lot of trouble for it. You were taught to be accountable for achievements on your own merits.
Yet, consider how the nature of work has changed, even in highly technical fields. In 1920, most scientific papers were written by sole authors; by 1950, that had changed and co-authorship became the norm. Today, the average paper has four times as many authors as it did then, the work being done is far more interdisciplinary, and it is done across greater physical distances than in the past.
Make no mistake: The high-value work today is being done in teams. This will only increase as more jobs become automated. The jobs of the future will not depend as much on knowing facts or crunching numbers as on humans collaborating with other humans to design work for machines. Collaboration will increasingly become a competitive advantage.
That’s why we need to pay attention not only to how our kids work and achieve academically, but also to how they play, resolve conflicts, and make others feel supported and empowered. Value has shifted from cognitive skills to social skills. As kids will increasingly be able to learn complex subjects through technology, the most important class may well be recess.
Perhaps most of all, we need to be honest with ourselves and make peace with the fact that our kids’ educational experience will not — and should not — mirror our own. The world they face will be far more complex than that. It will be much more difficult to navigate than anything we could imagine back in the days of Fast Times at Ridgemont High.