49th St. Gallen Symposium "Capital for Purpose": 8–10 May 2019


Preparing for uncertainty - Education in a post-labour age

Amidst all the talk of robots taking our jobs, the future of education is often assumed to be radically different - as though we'll need entirely different skills, and hence an entirely different educational system. But experienced educators suggest the system we have may serve us well in the future, if only we can tweak it a bit. That means the real question isn't why should we bother learning in the future but how can we best prepare ourselves for the unpredictable decades to come?

Learning to learn: teaching the necessary skill set

At the symposium, education experts agreed that the key change to the educational system of the future will be finding a way to make learning life-long. Vocational training is one way. Online courses are another. But a far more fundamental skill, one that’s vital to begin teaching now, is knowing how to learn. “When shaping our educational system, we have not to look for a particular outcome because the world will always be changing”, says Justin Lee, founding partner of the ‎Walden International School in Ontario, Canada. “School needs to focus on creating priming life-long learners, where they stay excited about a topic because they learn it within a context.”

To cope with the challenges of the future, classes should get practical. “We should not just learn for our exams; we need to be able to reflect on situations,” says Rajeeb Dey, a Leader of Tomorrow who founded Learnerbly, a platform connecting employees to learning and development opportunities.

Putting students in real-life situations, where they have to resolve a problem, helps them not only learn from the interaction with one another but also make links between their courses. “We have to connect the subjects to make them relevant and engaging for the students,” Lee says. “Why do we stop wanting to learn certain subjects at some point? For me, it comes down to not understanding the purpose behind them and not grasping the concept.”

Vocational training is one way to make learning life-long. Online courses are another.

Failing: the key to resilience

One of the hardest things for students and parents to cope with is failure. That, too, needs to change. With failure comes resilience, which will be especially needed in the age of automation. “A lot of learning comes from experience,” says Dey. “You have to be willing to fail, to take a risk, and be comfortable with uncertainty.”

Although this often-difficult lesson can be taught at school, the entrepreneur believes it is a shared societal responsibility. Says Dey: “Parents should encourage their children to take risks and be uncomfortable, encourage teachers to take risks and fail, and prepare society to be more open to failure.”

There’s a darker side to failure, one that society may find hard to accept. “You have winners, but inevitably losers,” says Leader of Tomorrow Lisa Mallory, a high school humanities teacher in Alberta, Canada. “I do not see how to build a system that works for everyone, especially if you are trying to teach a certain set of skills or knowledge that everyone has to learn.”

“You have to be willing to fail, to take a risk, and be comfortable with uncertainty.” -Rajeeb Dey
Justin Lee, Lisa Mallory and Rajeeb Dey at the 48th St. Gallen Symposium

Incorporating tech in the classroom, but deeper than you thought

Just changing the system is a huge challenge. Textbooks – let alone pedagogical approaches – can take years to update and reform. How can schools be adapted to cope with fast-moving technological change? “It is very expensive to update education systems constantly, and impossible to manage politically,” Mallory says.

Perhaps new technologies could be part of the solution. “Artificial intelligence could help by developing and adjusting the curriculum of the kids, individually, every month, based on their performance,” Mallory says. With computers helping take care of part of their jobs, teachers could focus on giving kids individual attention.

There are concerns to this increasingly automated approach to learning. Mallory worries that personalized curricula risk making education itself impersonal. "We use technology to allow the students to move at their own pace and do their own projects", she says, "but then their learning is not connected with their surroundings. 

The solution may be a mixture of strategies: Classroom learning and field trips, technology and human contact, and working in large groups so that children develop social skills while personalising learning through individual tutoring. No matter what, our approach to education - and our teachers - has to be flexible to keep up with a society changing at an exponentially faster rate.

How can schools be adapted to cope with fast-moving technological change?