How might we prepare our students for an unknown future?

How might we prepare our students for an unknown future?

If we accept that we are living in times of rapid change and that the world our children will inhabit is likely to be very different from the world of today, or perhaps more importantly, different from the work our current education system was designed to serve, what should we do to ensure our children are able to thrive?

One approach to this conundrum is to contemplate what that world of the future might be like. We can expect that technology will continue to accelerate and that it is likely to expand its sphere of influence. The first industrial revolution resulted in the replacement of human labour by machines, the next is expected to remove humans from much of the cognitive labour we currently perform. Artificial intelligence is set to expand and while we can guess at some of the ways this might impact our lives, the full impact is yet to be imagined. We might readily imagine a world where the transport industry is revolutionised by driverless vehicles and can perhaps fathom many routine information processing tasks being taken over by computers, but what happens when AI allows computers to move into domains that we believed required a human touch. Will we accept that the telephone counsellor who listens tirelessly to our woes and offers sage advice might be a robot?

When we look back to 2007 we begin to see somewhat of the challenge that we confront when we try to predict the future and make plans based upon today's circumstances. 2007 was a busy year. Apple introduced the iPhone and with it the notion of a device that fits in your pocket, performs many of the tasks which previously required a computer and thanks to an always-on internet connection gave you access to all of the world's information, anywhere you are. The iPhone was just the shiny tip of the iceberg for 2007. Big data became a big thing thanks to a still little known company called Hadoop. GitHub became the go to repository for computer code and by making it easy to share code accelerated the pace of software development. Twitter expanded, Google bought YouTube and we all became video stars. The Kindle eBook reader launched. Airbnb launched us into a new world of sharing and with it a new economic model was born. 3G communication meant that mobile data was beamed into our devices at a pace that made it practical.

Thinking about the consequences of the technologies launched in 2007 is made more interesting when you consider that most children currently in Primary School were not alive then. They have grown up in a world where all of this technology was neither new nor shiny, but normal. Trying to predict what the world will be like in 2030, when our current Kindergarten students leave high schools seems like pure folly and yet the challenge confronting school systems is to prepare our students for this world.

What thinking might guide us? Is there a way we can approach this question that does not rely on potentially flawed predictions of what the future might be like? Can we prepare our young people in ways that will allow them to rise to whatever challenge the future brings?

Such thinking leads us to identifying a set of dispositions and capabilities which are flexible, adaptable and when sought in combination perhaps most importantly uniquely human. A machine may possess some of these capabilities but it is at least for now inconceivable that a machine would possess them all.

At the heart of this is a perceived demand for graduates capable of creative and critical thinking, collaboration, problem finding/solving, self-organisation, empathy, innovation and agency. Students who have this skill set should be able to quickly develop the technical expertise required of specific tasks and it is this skill set that prepares students for the unknown. As writer and futurist Alvin Toffler (1970) puts it ‘the illiterate of the twenty first century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.’

My belief is that our focus should be on developing our students' ability to think and to do so in ways that allow them to confront unfamiliar situations with confidence backed by relevant educational experiences. David Perkins says we have impoverished models for thinking. This results from excessive emphasis in schools on the transmission of knowledge. 'Education is a process of self transformation that enables a person to negotiate changes that are as-yet indeterminate, as well as the changes that must surely come.’ (Kalantzis & Cope 2012 p92) For this to become the reality our students experience we need to empower them to become the driving force behind their learning now and beyond school. Thus the output of our education systems shifts from being educated people to being people well prepared for a life of education; true life-long learners.

Beyond accepting that education shall be a life-long endeavour, our children will need to embrace their agentic potential and understand that they have the capacity to shape their world. By combining a sense of Agency with empathy we prepare our young people to make sense of the challenges faced by themselves and others and to then take action which makes a difference. This combination of empathy and empowered agency if anything is the distinction between the human and machine world that matters most. It is said that a machine charged with making paper clips will do so until all matter is transformed into a paperclip. A human will understand that there are richer goals to be achieved and change course.

The challenge of the future is real but now is not the time for despair. Education surely has a central role to play and learning and the dispositions of the learner have greater value now than perhaps ever before. Now is the time for new Renaissance for education not as preparation for an unknown future but as the one constant which flows through our lives and allows us to flourish amidst unceasing change.

By Nigel Coutts

Kalantzis, M. & Cope, B. (2012). New learning: a charter for change in education. Critical Studies in Education, 53, 1, 83-94.

Toffler, A. (1970). Future shock. New York: Random House.