What skills will be needed in the economy of the future?
Posted on 10-03-2020
Suppose a friend came to you and told you they wanted to visit Siberia for the whole of next February. They want to prepare for their visit, and to do so they need a precise weather forecast. They want to know exactly what temperature it will be at each hour of their visit, to within one degree of accuracy.
You tell them that just isn’t possible. You can’t predict the temperature that far in advance to that degree of accuracy.
Your friend is disappointed. Oh well, they say. Fine. I get that you can’t predict the weather. I’ll just travel in shorts and flip-flops, and pick up whatever else I need when I get there.
Clearly, that’s not the smartest decision. Of course you can’t predict next year’s weather in great specificity. But you can predict it in less specific terms which are still incredibly useful.
I can’t tell you the exact temperature will be in Siberia on the 24th February 2021 at 1.30pm. I can tell you that over the last 30 years, February temperatures in Siberia range from about -11 to -20. That’s enough information for me to able to predict that you will need some thermals.
I think about this whenever I hear people – economists, historians, educationalists, general opinion-formers – tell us that we cannot predict the jobs of the future, so there is no point in teaching school children content, and we should just rely on them picking up what they need when they need it.
Yes, of course, in one sense we cannot predict the jobs of the future. In the same sense that we cannot predict the weather down to the minute, we can’t know for sure what percentage of future jobs will require the Swift programming language, or if self-driving cars will totally take over from humans.
But we can make less specific predictions that are more reliable and more helpful. Just as we have decades of data on the average temperature in Siberia in September, we have decades of data on the value of literacy and numeracy in the workplace. We know that both basic and more advanced literacy and numeracy skills are enormously valuable. We know that literacy and numeracy have been valuable not just for decades, but millennia, and that they underpin many more advanced developments like programming codes and self-driving cars.
Technology is making huge changes to our society and our economy. But often, those changes happen at the cutting-edge, and the changes build on more stable foundations. MP3 players, Betamax recorders and fax machines are more likely to become obsolete than the alphabet and numbering system. In schools, the best way to prepare students for the changing future is to focus on those skills that have proved themselves valuable over long periods of time.
My new book, Teachers vs Tech, is all about these issues: the ways technology should change the classroom – and the ways it shouldn’t. It’s out now and you can order it here.