The future sounds like sci-fi – False.
The future doesn’t sound like sci-fi – False.
Read again. Reflect. How can we reconcile what the future looks like when all predictions have been way off the mark in the past 40 years or so of the cognitive revolution?
With such an uncertain future where we cannot even imagine ‘what shade of grey’ will the sci-fi like world look like how can we imagine what knowledge, skills and attitudes will be relevant for this future?
I asked this question of myself when I was driving back from a startup boot camp. The boot camp had a bunch of young and eager entrepreneurs who present their ideas/business/prototype while a bunch of middle-aged folks judge them with cookie cutter selection criteria and assessment that looked more like a school examination.
It was certainly amusing, if not concerning, that we are using the tools of the 20th century to assess ideas that will change the world in the 21st and 22nd century. What’s more, we have evidence that we have failed to predict the future using our knowledge of the present!
So back to the question…
What do we learn today that will be useful tomorrow?
New age schools, and I heard about one on the radio the other day, pride in teaching children how to code and learn a foreign language of the future – Chinese. That is the differentiation.
Can we say with confidence that by the time the children enter adulthood, sometime say in 2030, AI would write better code than humans? Or Google Translate will seamlessly and in real time translate our native language into Chinese or any other language? Many of us would probably say yes.
Then are we teaching skills that we know will be obsolete by the time you get to use them?
What is the model of schooling?
Are our schools today, in their fundamental construct, substantially different from the 18th century schools? It is still like a production line – the same concrete building with cubes that have 30 children each and every hour or so an adult walks in and throws a lot of information – as if you already didn’t have enough on Wiki or Google – with some senseless templates of teaching strategies thrown in with exotic sounding names. Sample this – student led lessons, differentiated learning, learner style, adaptive learning, multiple intelligences, dynamic assessments. I could go on.
Everyone agrees that this model of education is bankrupt. And it’s easy to make jokes at this model. But there is no viable alternative yet. Many digital learning innovators see digital learning as the panacea. But can their model impact a village student in Vietnam as well as the student in an elite school in Dubai is still under question.
We need to reinvent the curriculum and teach skills that will still be useful in an uncertain world.
A bold new model of education
Reinvention – Neurological reasons dictate that adults are simply not good at making synaptic connections and gravitate to the familiar than something new. This model of reinvention must be directed at young learners while they still have the capacity for mental flexibility and resilience. These are traits (attitudes) that are far more valuable in the uncertain world and yet are more difficult to teach. This is also, partly, due to the teachers themselves being incompetent on these attitudes.
Is technology the solution? Yes to an extent it is. Perhaps to the extent that the technology is ‘servant to the learner.’ The current model of technology is inexorably moving towards controlling the audience. Google, Baidu, Facebook and Amazon are keen on knowing (and already do) what triggers a response from you than letting you choose. They want to control your content consumption behavior and direct you to things (read manipulate) that make money for them. You have surrendered control over technology.
To regain a semblance of control the learner needs to develop competencies. There is already a plethora of information (and misinformation) available through Wikipedia, TED Talks, free online courses that an average human can take several lifetimes to ingest. The last thing you need teachers to provide is more information. Instead we need to make sense of information, synthesize it to build a broad view of the world.
This was the idea of ‘liberal’ education for centuries but it has to be redefined for the 21st century.
The schools should be teaching the core skills to process the knowledge or information and not information itself.
According to me these are:
Critical Thinking – not in the traditional ’liberal arts education’ way but how process, evaluate, synthesize and organize the avalanche of information that exists or hits us daily. For example, simply how using the right search words can give you more authentic information listing on Google is an important component of critical thinking. A skill to filter pieces, or sources, of information that have an inherent biased towards a point of view e.g. Flat Earth Society or ‘Did man land on the moon doubters’ or time wasters like funny cat videos that are really ‘click baits’ is also a skill.
Creativity – in the 21st century is less about path-breaking inventions that change the world but how to connect innovations to create value for self and society. The ability to blur the boundaries of arts, humanities vs. hard science and technology is an important competency.
Communication – The channels of communication have multiplied and how we come across Twitter vs. e-mail vs. WhatsApp vs. SnapChat vs. the good old phone or a face-to-face setting requires specific flexibility to adapt to the medium.
Collaboration – In a far more connected world collaboration skills are even more important. There are many species in the ‘little blue planet’ but humans are the most successful for one and only one fundamental reason – they can collaborate. They can use complementary pieces of knowhow and work together to contribute their specialization for the greater good. This skill will be even more important in the uncertain future than in the past notwithstanding the short -term shocks of protectionism we see around us.
Adaptability – ability to anticipate and deal with change, or a skill I often call ‘learnability’, is probably the most important of all. I do not believe it needs elaboration.
We have a choice – surrender to the algorithms that AI and Bots will decide for us or to take charge make technology our servant. I suspect a majority of human kind will succumb to the latter but the brave new agents of human progress will be the former and have the skills (not information) to make technology the servant.
So to all innovation assessors out there – no disrespect intended – please adapt your innovation assessment to the 21st century skills.
Dr Ajay Shukla