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Winners and losers

What does the future of education look like?

In my last post, looking at the ‘big shift’ in education, I talked about society’s changing landscape and what we need to consider as educators in order to take advantage of it. In this article, the second in our series looking at the future of education, I’m going to consider who might be the winners and losers as we experience this latest industrial revolution.

In the film Hidden Figures there is a point where a group of talented mathematicians find out that their role is being supplanted by the first generation of computers at NASA - what had been a highly skilled job was now being performed by a machine. There were two options open to these ladies: either, lose out to the inexorable wave of technology that was changing the world around them, or find a way to win by adapting to their new working environment.

Winning and losing is a part of life, so much so that we have songs about it, innumerable books written to help us be on the winning team, and even cartoons whose principle storyline is based on someone winning at the expense of someone else. So how do we go about identifying who will be the Roadrunners of the future, and avoid being Wile E. Coyote?

Whether we like it or not, technology is going to have a significant impact on which group we find ourselves in, and not just through our ability to use it effectively. The society we live in is evolving more rapidly now than at almost any other point in history. As in the previous industrial revolutions, certain job-types and careers are being altered or replaced by technology, and this is only going to become more widespread as 5G, the ‘internet of things’ and AI start to make their mark in society.

This societal change will have a significant impact on education, affecting those being taught as well as those who teach. Now, I know that we are not always comfortable talking about winners and losers in education, but this not a zero-sum equation. The task ahead lies in making sure that everyone has the opportunity to join the winners’ circle. So where do schools and the education system lie in all of this? Well to start with, let's consider that first group, those being taught:

It is generally accepted that today’s students are entering a workplace where some degree of digital literacy, along with an ability to operate and manage computerised equipment is a basic requirement.

Even jobs that were once considered vocational, such as welding, petroleum production, and even factory work, are now high tech, and require specialized knowledge that includes ….  a robust science background and familiarity with the computerized machinery that keeps heavy industry humming¹

But, as Kurshen points out, if students are to “participate meaningfully in our digital world rather than being steamrolled by it” they need to be able to do more than simply work the technology. They will need to be able to employ the sorts of skills which go beyond those that have been traditionally taught in the classroom, including what the National Education Association refers to as the ‘four Cs’:

  1. Critical thinking and problem solving,
  2. Communication,
  3. Collaboration,
  4. Creativity and innovation.²

For example, it has become increasingly clear that if students are to make sense of the current digital environment, they will need to be able to use critical thinking in order to identify credible sources of information and separate these from the chaff of social media, advertising and ‘fake news’.

The four Cs are less to do with what might be termed ‘product output’, and more about harnessing the power of technology to determine what can be achieved. As computers get ‘smarter’ we will find that students need to learn to manage technology as opposed to operate tools.

This being the case, what are the implications for our second group - those who teach?

Whilst there are notable exceptions, how many of us are still using technology to deliver exactly the same teaching material we always have, albeit in a more ‘techy’ way? The reality is that a boring, low-order task on paper will remain the same when done on an iPad, unless the iPad enables opportunities to redefine and transform that learning opportunity. But, technology on its own cannot transform teaching.

Part of the problem we face is that many of us feel that our students are often more ‘educated’ than we are when it comes to digital technology, and as a result, we can be reluctant to spread our ‘digital wings’ in the classroom. However, as Futurelab points out,

Even if a teacher knows less than a student about how to operate a particular piece of technology, they are still more equipped with the higher order critical thinking skills and the subject knowledge to apply to digital technologies.”²

This is an important shift in emphasis. Traditionally, as teachers it has been incumbent upon us to teach students how to operate the tools they use for learning - such as how to hold a pen, how to use laboratory equipment, and so on. But, whilst there is still a place for teaching students how to use software for specific purposes, take CAD in Design Technology for example, this does not fall under the remit of most teachers.

These days, the students can already use the technology they need, allowing the teacher to focus on developing the ‘four Cs’ mentioned earlier. Nevertheless, the new digital landscape will have implications which need to be reflected in the kind of support that teachers receive.

Teacher CPD therefore, needs to support practitioners to understand the ways in which digital literacy can contribute to their students’ development of subject knowledge and what digital literacy means for them in their teaching.²

Note that the focus here is the contribution that digital literacy can make to to educational practice. There is a recognition that technology should be a tool to enhance teaching and learning and not a separate entity, divorced from the classroom.

As Michael Fullan points out, “pedagogy is the driver, technology is the accelerator.” The challenge for teachers is to embrace innovation, work with the opportunities that the digital landscape presents, and allow their teaching to evolve. That is, if they are to meet the needs of their students in order to prepare them to face the future.

Every significant shift in society carries with it the possibility of winners and losers, but there is nothing to stop us from increasing the chances of being on the winning team. Yes, the future is an uncertain one, but the impact of technology is already being felt and is only likely to become greater.

We have an opportunity now to shape what that future is going to look like and how to position ourselves to give us the best chance of ending up in the winners’ enclosure.

“Sometimes, Hem, things change and they are never the same again. This looks like one of those times. That's life! Life moves on. And so should we.”
Spencer Johnson³

¹ Barbara Kurshen, “Teaching 21st Century Skills For 21st Century Success Requires An Ecosystem Approach”, Forbes, (2017)

² Hague, C., Payton, S. “Digital Literacy across the curriculum”, (2010)

³ Johnson, S., “Who Moved My Cheese?”, (1998)

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