Preparing the next generation for their future, not our past

The knowledge and skills of young Brits entering the workforce are only marginally better than among those nearing retirement.

NS

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For those with the right knowledge and skills, digitisation and globalisation have been liberating and exciting. But for those who are insufficiently prepared, they can mean insecure work and few prospects. Our economies are shifting towards regional hubs of production, linked by global chains of information and goods, but concentrated where comparative advantage can be built and renewed. This makes the distribution of knowledge and wealth crucial, and that is intimately tied to the distribution of education.

The next generation of young citizens will create jobs, not seek them, and collaborate to advance a complex world. That will require imagination, empathy, resilience, and entrepreneurship. The most obvious implication of a world that requires constant adaptation from learners is the need to enable lifelong learning. We used to learn to do the work; now learning is the work.

That change needs to be supported by shifting from qualifications-based certification to more knowledge-and skills-based certification. It also means moving from documenting education pathways to highlighting what individuals can do, regardless of how and where they acquired their skills.

The UK has seen a massive expansion of university degrees over the past generation. However, the actual knowledge and skills of young Brits entering the workforce are only marginally better than among those nearing retirement – the slowest progress among OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) nations. There is a lot that government and society can do to help learners adapt. The easiest is telling young people more of the truth about the relevance of their learning, and to incentivise educational institutions to pay more attention, too. The UK is also doing well in developing alternatives to degrees, but apprenticeships are still seen as a last resort.

Things that are easy to teach are easy to digitise and automate. The future is about pairing artificial intelligence with the cognitive, social and emotional skills and values of humans. Contrast this with the fact that the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment rankings reveal memorisation remains the dominant learning strategy in British classrooms. Also, the push for smaller class sizes means UK teachers have less time for other important things.

Social media algorithms are sorting us into groups of like-minded individuals. Tomorrow’s citizens will need to think for themselves and join others, with empathy, in work and citizenship. They will need to develop a strong sense of right and wrong and a grasp of the limits on individual and collective action.

AI is ethically neutral. The only reason we should fear the robots is that they will always obey us and never rebel. That is why education in the future is not just about teaching people something, but about helping them develop a compass. Work-readiness today requires people to understand the dynamics of globalisation, and to be open to people from different backgrounds. If the UK succeeds with this, it can deliver a future for millions who currently do not have one.