Thoughts for schools striving to create top-class humans and not second-class robots.

Written by Jack Hylands, Co-Founder FourthRev

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is ushering in a period of unprecedented global transformation dramatically impacting the way we work, live and learn:

“It is characterized by a range of new technologies that are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds, impacting all disciplines, economies and industries, and even challenging ideas about what it means to be human” (Schwab, 2016).  

The consequences of this mean today’s school children will graduate into a world dramatically different to that of their parents and teachers. A world where an estimated 65% of current primary school students will be performing jobs that do not yet exist (McLeod, Scott, & Fisch, 2016). A world where tomorrow’s graduates are expected to have 17 different jobs across 5 different careers (FYA, 2017). A world where human contribution will increasingly be dependent upon harnessing the power of artificially intelligent machines.

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Whilst the world around us undergoes dramatic transformation, we can no longer rely on only teaching students the things we learnt, in the way we were taught. Optimistically, our education systems have risen to new challenges before, including the successful transition from industrial economies to global knowledge economies in the last century. Yet it is undeniable that the exponential rate of change of the 4IR poses new and unique challenges. Andreas Schleicher, Director OECD Directorate for Education and Skills, states that:

“Education has won the race with technology throughout history, but there is no guarantee it will do so in the future” (Schleicher, 2019).

Fortunately, multiple schools already exist as beacons of innovation providing blueprints for possible paths forward. The schools most successfully adapting to these challenges place digital technologies at the centre of their practice, such Wooranna Park Primary in Victoria’s Dandenong North. Here students experience personalised learning journeys driven by cutting edge technologies that go beyond coding to include robotics, 3D printing, networking and blockchain.

Apple’s distinguished schools program celebrates institutions that have demonstrated best practice through school wide innovation, and provides resources to guide practitioners through tried and tested approaches:

“We’ve found that the most innovative schools in the world evaluate and improve their practices while paying close attention to the world their students graduate into. And they innovate, not for the sake of innovation, but with the vision to build relevant and inspiring teaching and learning communities” (Apple, 2017).

Apple have found that the most successful institutions create dynamic environments that support teachers as learning experience designers who empower learners for the modern world. Alongside technical knowledge and skills, the most successful schools develop students with the new foundational capabilities required to succeed in the 21st century. As artificial intelligence enables machines to outperform humans over increasingly complex tasks, students must be taught the human skills that will differentiate their contributions into the future.

Often referred to as enterprise, or 21st century skills, these capabilities include communication, collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving. At their core is the age-old human trait of empathy, which underpins design led approaches to help understand the true needs of others and how they can be best supported. Teachers can leverage these approaches to enhance their own teaching practice, as well as instill them upon future generations whose humanity will be more important than ever.

A strong consensus has formed on the need for a lifelong approach to learning, supporting people to navigate change across long careers and multiple jobs. Alvin Toffler’s famous quote highlights that this is not a new insight, but it is perhaps now more prescient that ever:

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn” (Toffler, 1970).

It is within our schools that this mentality must be created, gifting students the growth mindset that embraces challenge as a learning opportunity and enables students to chart their own path through an uncertain future. And if teachers are going to fulfill the vital role of guiding learners on this journey, they must also be empowered with the resources, time and support to keep pace with our fast-changing world.

Yet ultimately, to respond to the abundance and continuous change of the 4IR, we cannot expect our teachers to stand at the front of the classroom imparting students with the latest technological wisdom. Instead, the exciting future of our schools sees teachers as the designers and leaders of open, diverse maker-spaces working in collaboration with students and individuals from different walks of life. It is within these dynamic learning environments that future generations will be empowered with the skills of the 21st century.