The teaching profession hasn't changed all that much over the past few centuries. For generations, teachers worked to fill the heads of young disciples with enough knowledge and specific skills to transform them into wise and contributing members of their community. These teachers were men and women whose mastery could not be questioned and who dictated and regimented education, deftly guiding students toward their predefined answers and worldview.
But over the past 20 years, this long-standing status quo has crumbled.
Teachers no longer hold a monopoly on knowledge. Search engines took care of that. Control over what topics students can learn, and when and how they learn them has given way to the flexibility of YouTube and free online courses. And the assumption that knowledge or a specific trade can guarantee lifetime employment is quickly falling by the wayside thanks to advances in robots and artificial intelligence (AI).
In all, the innovations happening in the outside world is forcing a revolution inside our education system. How we teach our youth and the role of teachers in the classroom will never be the same.
The labor market refocuses education
As mentioned in our Future of Work series, AI-powered machines, and computers will eventually consume or make obsolete up to 47 per cent of today's (2016) jobs. It's a stat that makes great many anxious, and rightfully so, but it's also important to understand that robots aren't really coming to take your job—they are coming to automate routine tasks.
Switchboard operators, file clerks, typists, ticket agents, whenever a new technology gets introduced, monotonous, repetitive tasks that can be measured using terms like efficiency and productivity fall by the wayside. So if a job involves a narrow set of responsibilities, especially ones that use straightforward logic and hand-eye coordination, then that job is at risk for automation in the near future.
Meanwhile, if a job entails a broad set of responsibilities (or a “human touch”), it’s safe. In fact, for those with more complex jobs, automation is a huge benefit. By hollowing out a job of wasteful, repetitive, machine-like tasks, a worker’s time will be freed to focus on more strategic, productive, and creative tasks or projects. In this scenario, the job doesn’t disappear, so much as it evolves.
Put another way, the new and remaining jobs that robots won't take over are those jobs where productivity and efficiency are not important or not central to success. Jobs that involve relationships, creativity, research, discovery and abstract thinking, by design such jobs are neither productive nor efficient because they require experimentation and an aspect of randomness that pushes the boundaries to create something new. These are jobs that people are already attracted to, and it's these jobs that robots will foster.
Another factor to keep in mind is that all future innovations (and the industries and jobs that will emerge from them) wait to be discovered at the cross section of fields once thought to be entirely separate.
That’s why to truly excel in the future job market, it once again pays to be a polymath: an individual with a varied set of skills and interests. Using their cross-disciplinary background, such individuals are better qualified to find novel solutions to stubborn problems; they are a cheaper and value-added hire for employers, since they require far less training and can be applied to a variety of business needs; and they are more resilient to swings in the labour market, as their varied skills can be applied in so many fields and industries.
These are just a few of the dynamics playing out across the labor market. And it's also why today's employers are on the hunt for more sophisticated workers at all levels, because tomorrow's jobs will demand a higher level of knowledge, thought, and creativity than ever before.
In the race for the last job, those selected for the final interview round will be the most educated, creative, technologically adaptable, and socially adept. The bar is rising and so too are our expectations about the education we’re given.
STEM vs. liberal arts
Given the labor realities described above, education innovators around the world are experimenting with new approaches concerning how and what we teach our kids.
Since the mid-2000s, much of the discussion about what we teach has zeroed in on ways to improve the quality and uptake of STEM programs (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) in our high schools and universities so young people can better compete in the labor market upon graduation.
In one respect, this increased emphasis on STEM makes perfect sense. Almost all of tomorrow's jobs will have a digital component to them. Therefore, a certain level of computer literacy is required to survive in the future labor market. Through STEM, students gain the practical knowledge and cognitive tools to excel in varied, real-world situations, in jobs that have yet to be invented. Moreover, STEM skills are universal, meaning that students who excel in them can use these skills to secure job opportunities wherever they arise, nationally and globally.
However, the downside of our over-emphasis on STEM is that it risks turning young students into robots. Case in point, a 2011 study of US students found that nationwide creativity scores are falling, even as IQs are on the rise. STEM subjects may allow today's students to graduate into upper middle-class jobs, but many of today's purely technical jobs are also very much at risk of being automated and mechanized by robots and AI by 2040 or earlier. Put another way, pushing young people to learn STEM without a balance of humanities courses can leave them unprepared for the interdisciplinary requirements of tomorrow's labor market.
To address this oversight, the 2020s will see our education system begin de-emphasizing rote-learning (something computers excel at) and re-emphasizing social skills and creative- and critical-thinking (something computers struggle with). High schools and universities will begin forcing STEM majors to take a higher quota of humanities courses to round out their education; likewise, humanities majors will be required to study more STEM courses for the same reasons.
Restructuring how students learn
Alongside this renewed balance between STEM and humanities, how we teach is the other factor education innovators are experimenting with. Many of the ideas in this space revolve around how we better use technology to track and improve the retention of knowledge. This retention will become an important element of tomorrow's education system, and one we'll cover more in depth in the next chapter, but technology alone won't solve modern education's chronic challenges.
Preparing our youth for the future labor market must involve a fundamental rethink of how we define teaching, and the role teachers must play in the classroom. In light of this, let's explore the direction outside trends are pushing education towards:
Among the biggest challenges educators need to overcome is teaching to the middle. Traditionally, in a classroom of 20 to 50 students, teachers have no choice but to teach a standardized lesson plan whose goal is to impart specific knowledge that will be tested for at a specified date. Due to time constraints, this lesson plan gradually sees slower students falling behind, while also leaving gifted students bored and disengaged.
By the mid-2020s, through a combination of technology, counseling, and student engagement, schools will begin addressing this challenge by implementing a more holistic education system that gradually customizes education to the individual student. Such a system will resemble something similar to this following overview:
Kindergarten and elementary school
During children’s formative school years, teachers will train them on the fundamental skills needed to learn (traditional stuff, like reading, writing, math, working with others, etc.), along with fostering an awareness and excitement for the difficult STEM subjects they will be exposed to in later years.
Once students enter grade six, education counselors will begin meeting with students at least annually. These meetings will involve assigning students with a government issued, online education account (one that the student, their legal guardians, and teaching staff will have access to); testing to identify learning disabilities early; assessing preferences toward a specific learning style; and interviewing students to better understand their early career and learning goals.
Meanwhile, teachers will spend these middle school years introducing students to STEM courses; to extensive group projects; to the mobile devices, online learning and virtual reality tools they will use heavily in their high school and university years; and most important, introducing them to a wide variety of learning techniques so they can explore which learning style works best for them.
Additionally, the local school system will pair middle school students with individual caseworkers to form an after-school support network. These individuals (in some cases volunteer, senior high school or university students) will meet with these younger students weekly to help them with homework, steer them away from negative influences, and advise them on how to deal with difficult social issues (bullying, anxiety, etc.) that these children may not feel comfortable discussing with their parents.
High school is where students will encounter the most dramatic shift in how they learn. Instead of the smaller classrooms and structured environments where they gained the foundational knowledge and skills to learn, future high schools will introduce students grades nine through 12 to the following:
- Large, gym-sized classrooms will hold at least 100 students and up.
- Seating arrangements will emphasize four to six students around a large touchscreen- or hologram-enabled desk, instead of traditional long rows of individual desks facing a single teacher.
- Each classroom will have multiple human teachers and support tutors with a range of specializations.
- Each student will gain access to an individual AI tutor who will support and track the student’s learning/progress throughout the remainder of their education.
- On a daily basis, the data collected from the students' individual AI tutors will be analyzed by the class' AI master program to regularly re-assign students into small groups based on each student's learning style and pace of progression.
- Likewise, the class’ AI master program will outline the day’s teaching itinerary and goals to the teachers and support tutors, as well as assign each to the student groups that most need their unique set of skills. For example, each day tutors will be assigned more one-on-one time to those student groups falling behind the class’ education/testing average, whereas the teachers will offer special projects to those student groups ahead of the curve.
- As you might expect, such a teaching process will encourage blended classrooms where almost all subjects are taught together in a multidisciplinary manner (except science, engineering and gym class where specialized equipment may be required). Finland is already moving toward this approach by 2020.
- Students will gain complete access (through their online education account) to the full, month-by-month teaching plan that outlines exactly the knowledge and skills students are expected to learn, a deep syllabus of materials, as well as the full testing schedule.
- Part of the day involves the teachers communicating the day’s teaching goals, with most basic learning completed individually using online reading materials and video tutorials delivered by the AI tutor (active learning software).
- This basic learning is tested daily, through end of day micro-quizzes to assess progression and determine the next day’s learning strategy and itinerary.
- The other part of the day requires students to participate in daily group projects both in and out of class.
- Larger monthly group projects will involve virtual collaboration with students from different parts of the country (and even the world). The group’s learnings from these larger projects will shared with or presented to the entire class at the end of each month. Part of the final mark for these projects will come from grades given by their student peers.
- By high school, the annual meetings with education counselors will become quarterly. These meetings will discuss education performance issues, learning goals, higher education planning, financial assistance needs and early career planning.
- Based on the career interests identified by the education counselor, niche afterschool clubs and training bootcamps will be offered to interested students.
- The relationship with the caseworker will continue throughout high school as well.
University and college
By this point, students will have the mental framework needed to perform well in their higher education years. In essence, university/college will simply be an intensified version of high school, except that students will have more say in what they study, there will be a greater emphasis on group work and collaborative learning, and far greater exposure to internships and co-ops in established businesses.
This is too different! This is too optimistic! Our economy can't afford this education system!
When it comes to the education system described above, all these arguments are perfectly valid. However, all of these points are already in use in school districts around the world. And given the societal and economic trends described in chapter one of this series, it’s only a matter of time before all of these teaching innovations are integrated into individual schools nationwide. In fact, we predict the first such schools will debut by the mid-2020s.
The changing role of teachers
The education system described above (particularly from high school onwards) is a variant of the ‘flipped classroom' strategy, where much of the basic learning is done individually and at home, while homework, tutoring, and group projects are reserved for the classroom.
In this framework, the focus is no longer on the outdated need for knowledge acquisition, since a simple Google search lets you access this knowledge on demand. Instead, the focus is on the acquisition of skills, what some call the Four Cs: communication, creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration. These are the skills humans can excel at over machines, and they will represent the bedrock skills demanded by the future labor market.
But more important, in this framework, teachers are able to collaborate with their AI teaching systems to design innovative curriculums. This collaboration would involve coming up with new teaching techniques, as well as curating seminars, micro-courses, and projects from a growing online teaching library—all to meet the unique challenges presented by each year's unique crop of students. These teachers will help students navigate their own education instead of dictating it to them. They will transition from a lecturer to a learning guide.
Now that we've explored the evolution of teaching and the changing role of teachers, join us in the next chapter where we'll take a deeper look into tomorrow's schools and the tech that will power them.