How to teach children so they will be able to compete with robots

Even companies like Google are moving towards the promotion of "soft" skills

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The Independent Online

"Digital disruption" may have become a threadbare cliché in tech circles, but it barely does justice to the head-spinning scale of economic change laid out in today’s Future of Jobs report published by the World Economic Forum. Based on a survey of executives in fifteen of the world’s largest economies, the report sees us entering a “Fourth Industrial Revolution” which will transform labour markets in just five short years. 7.1 million jobs will be lost – with the greatest losses in white-collar and administrative roles. At the same time, some of these losses will be offset by the creation of 2.1 million new jobs in sectors such as nanotechnology and robotics and ever-more important functions within companies such as data analysis and sales. The report estimates that 28 per cent of the skills required in the UK will change in the four years to 2020 

The WEF report is reinforcing a message that others have delivered. Last year, Andy Haldane, Chief Economist of the Bank of England warned that nearly half of all jobs in the UK are under threat from automation in the next two decades - affecting people at all levels of the workplace.

Given the scale of this change in such a short period, what can the education system do to keep up?  Firstly we should acknowledge the perils of gazing into the crystal ball. As educationalist Sir Ken Robinson pointed out in his TED Talk, children starting school now will probably be working until around 2065 – yet we can’t even predict what the world will look like in the next five years. How can we possibly predict the skills they will need? In the 1980s, there were suggestions that Japanese teaching was essential in British schools, as that was seen as the business language of the future - obviously looking at it now time would have been better spent preparing for the digital revolution that was just around the corner.  

First of all we need to move to an expectation that workers will retrain and reskill throughout their careers. This has of course often been said, but now the need is becoming urgent. It may be exhilarating or alarming that over 90 per cent of Millennials (those born between 1977 and 1997) expect to stay in a job for less than three years, according to the Future Workplace “Multiple Generations @ Work” survey of employees and managers. 

We can’t predict exactly what those skills will be, but we can predict the qualities that will be required - soft skills like leadership, flexibility, communication, decision-making, working under pressure, creativity and problem-solving. The drift of educational policy has been to banish much of this from the classroom and fixate on core subjects like science and math to the exclusion of wider learning.  

It’s interesting that the demand for a wider curriculum is coming, not from some fossilized relic of 1970s teacher training, but from the world’s largest companies. Laszlo Bock, who is in charge of hiring at Google, said in a recent interview that “while good grades don’t hurt” the company is looking for softer skills too: “leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability and loving to learn and re-learn”. Julian Thomas, Head of Wellington College - another unlikely revolutionary - has spoken out about his sense that the current education system was “designed for a different era” and, under pressure from constant testing, has squeezed creativity out of the curriculum. Tony Little, former Master of Eton College, has written about the dangers that wider intellectual development is being stifled by an all-encompassing obsession with exams.

Some companies are stepping in to plug the gaps that they think are missing from the education system. Siemens, frustrated with the skills and knowledge among their graduate applicants, has developed its own “future-proofing” training scheme that everyone joining the firm undertakes. By the end of their course, employees are expected to be able to summarise tasks and explain how to solve them in English as well as German. 

Technology can make life-long constant retraining and reskilling a more viable option. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) have lowered the price of education and widened access by removing the need for students to be taught at set times or places, facilitating those already in employment to study or those who couldn’t otherwise afford to. Udacity, an online university, recently introduced ‘nano-degrees’ designed to train people for jobs as web developers or data analysts. With the galloping pace of technology, it’s likely that future employees are going to have to take several such courses through their lifetime.  

Amid this nervy uncertainty, the WEF report is hopeful about the prospects for the UK economy. For every job lost through automation and technological change here, it estimates that 2.91 new ones will be created – more than twice as many as in the US.  Just as the first industrial revolution created the Spinning Jenny and the steam engine, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is developing artificial intelligence and 3D printing. But far-sighted decisions by policy-makers are required to ensure our education system is rooted in the needs of the twenty-first century rather than the nineteenth. 

Vikas Pota is CEO of the Varkey Foundation and member of the WEF Global Agenda Council on the Future of Jobs

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