If you woke up today and felt like you didn’t recognize the world around you - or see your clear place in it - you are not alone. It feels to me like the world has just hit puberty, and there is a whole lot of confusion going on in our collective bodies that we don’t understand, and feel ill-equipped interpret, much less control. Though much like puberty, we are going through a massive change of progress - we as a unified globe of 7.5 billion, are growing up; we’re getting strong, faster, and smarter.
Even a few decades ago, the notion of a Centenarian life was mostly left to the Guinness Book of World Records (and the Japanese). But with this population on track to double every decade, we will be surpassing 4 million of these century-dwellers in the next three decades alone. This an unprecedented extension of the average human lifespan, due to a happy convergence of cheaper and better technology. Why is this important though? Well, when the modern notions of work and education were conceived, it was understood that humans had anywhere from 30–60 years on Earth. Operating under the assumption that our meaningful adult productivity timeline lands us somewhere between 25% and 60%, this meant work was averaging around three decades. But thanks to advances in science, this number is increasing to potentially longer than six decades of working time! Balance that with the relentless pace of innovation constantly demanding new skills and knowledge to keep pace, we have a brand new ecosystem of work and learning to respond to. Global connectivity, smart devices and instantaneous media are just a few of the forces catapulting us into this totally unfamiliar regime, and they’re fundamentally reshaping the way we think about information, learning, and the future of work.
So why is it then that the industry at the heart of all human progress, the very driver to our professional success, seems to be stagnant in its response to these exponential technologies? Incumbents have demonstrated downright resistance to embracing technological progress in favour of standardization, but with today’s lightning pace of growth this standardization is simply, untenable. The orthodoxy of a one-size-fits-all approach to learning does not meet the dynamically shifting needs of today’s knowledge economy, much less the needs of the future “connected economy”, yet it remains the gold standard. Industrial-born institutions have remained hypnotized by the fantasy of past realities, stubbornly resisting the inexorable need for a revolution — teachers are receiving much of the same training that they had decades ago, and the format of distribution and content delivery is much the same as in the early Industrial Age. The thesis here is that education as we know it is no longer fit for purpose — our global body has matured beyond standardized education, and it’s time to come to terms with the temporary awkward stage while we blossom into this strapping young lad.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF CONVENTIONAL EDUCATION
As famously stated by Sir Ken Robinson, “our current system of education was designed for a different age; it was conceived in the intellectual culture of the enlightenment and in the economic circumstances of the industrial revolution”. Born in the industrial age where mass efficiency and standardization became synonymous with success, traditional formal education was designed for mass distribution, at maximum speed. Effectively a factory manufacturing model, children were placed on a learning conveyor belt to be sorted, packaged and labelled based on output: their so-called “intelligence”.
Schools were organized like assembly lines: with subjects specialized, students batched together by age, bells signaling the end of each period, and the rotation of large groups into different subjects. This model of education was architected to mold students into passive recipients of information, unilaterally transmitting knowledge from teacher to student, with minimal opportunity for context, clarity, or challenge. Values like control, competition, standardization, conformity, and acceptance of the status quo were considered benchmarks for successful implementation.
The result: students became highly dependent on teachers for their learning needs. The Ford model of education literally bred in a systematic dependence on structure, fostering a predilection for closed-minded thinking. “Education” became obsessed with the acquisition of abundant inert knowledge, often impossible to apply in a practical environment, infrequently adapting to upgraded information. Consider how easily your grandparents would assimilate into a modern classroom today — sure the whiteboards replace chalkboards, but they’d be eerily familiar with lecture halls, class rotation, and curriculum scantily changed since their grade school.
It was this hegemony of industrialized education that led to the acceptance of standardization as a rule, and conformity, the desired outcome. While clearly an anachronism today, it all made sense at the time…so don’t blame the old folks! This was an era where capital was power and information was far from ubiquitous. But it’s important to recognize the differences today — it was a time when basic education was sufficient to be considered uniquely qualified, and where rote memory power was a testament to one’s intellectual capacity. Life in the industrial economy was a linear narrative, viewed as a series of discrete segments that simply no longer apply.
THE FAST FOOD MODEL OF EDUCATION
“We have sold ourselves into a fast food model of education, and it’s impoverishing our spirits and energies as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies” — Sir Ken Robinson.
So what’s the big concern you ask? Am I being unnecessarily hyperbolic? My education worked just fine, let’s not fix what ain’t broke, so they say.
But here’s the thing, we’re facing an insurgence of the modern economy in all corners of the globe, and people are clearly not happy. Spend a few minutes on Google, and you’ll see the internet rife with malcontent, confusion and despondency collectively plaguing our youthful generation. From the growing Luddite movement seeking withdrawal from technological advancements, to reality celebrities bullying their way into leadership of arguably the most powerful free state, our global community is struck with paralyzing fears of the future.
Here’s a quick snapshot of current stats:
65% of children entering grade school this year will work in a job that hasn’t been invented yet
49% of current jobs have the potential for machine replacement, with 60% having at 1/3 of their activities being automated
80% of the skills trained for in the last 50 years can now be outperformed by machines
At a global level, technically automatable activities touch the equivalent of 1.1 billion employees and $15.8 trillion in wages
The argument is simple: the change is here, there’s no avoiding it, so it’s time to adapt. The habits of institutions must change to keep up — and I don’t mean they need reform; there’s no use in improving a broken model. We are on the brink of a fourth industrial revolution, and we need a full-scale transformation, an education revolution to keep up to the world, 4.0.
INTERNET IN OUR POCKETS
The single greatest driver of the shift in the education economy is the advent of the World Wide Web. With 2.5 billion people now having Google in their pockets, the historical benchmarks for success in Industrial education like rote memorization, standardization, and regurgitation, are just simply, obsolete. The facetious adage that millennials should thank Wikipedia and Google for their degrees is far more of a truism than we’d perhaps like to admit. With Google officially being indoctrinated as a verb in Webster and the myriad of cheeky links like “justfuckinggoogleit.com” becoming our auto-replies to simple data queries, our near appendage-liked extension of ubiquitous technologies has led to an unprecedented and immeasurable wealth of information.
Illustrating the extraordinary access we have to data today, “a Maasai Warrior on a mobile phone has better mobile communications than President Reagan did 25 years ago; and, if he were on Google, he would have access to more information than President Clinton did just 15 years ago.” We no longer live in a world of asymmetrical and top-down information controlled by the elite, but rather democratized knowledge abundance. Google has flattened the information resource chain, with a one-sided supply model no longer in existence. Learning doesn’t need to take place in a classroom, and it doesn’t even require teachers. On-demand knowledge is available, it’s free, and it’s fast.
So what does this mean for us humanoids?
THE ROBOTIC REVOLUTION
The impact of computerization on the labour market is well-established, drawing even as far back as 1933 with John Maynard Keyne’s predilection that widespread technological unemployment and “ our discovery of means of economizing the use of labour, will outrun the pace at which we can find new uses for labour”. A harbinger of structural unemployment, Keynes foreshadowed today’s realities: indeed, robots will supplant humans in all routine work and repetitive processes, with casualties even extending to middle-class jobs and professional specialties.
The arguments have their merits: machines have the advantage of computational processing, pattern recognition and an infallible memory orders of magnitude greater than human minds. Given that our intrinsic cognitive skill-sets were forged — and constrained — by the demands of evolution, we are objectively inferior in many regards to a robotic brain. AIs don’t suffer from human body limitations; “unless they’re explicitly programmed to do so, robots won’t get restless or bored or experience sudden shifts in mental clarity and mood. They won’t get emotionally swayed or biased, or be prone to addictions. And perhaps most profoundly, they won’t experience mental anguish or physical pain.” Robots of the future will even be capable of reproduction, or what mathematician John von Neumann called, “kinematic self-replicating machines”. Even today they are already able to transfer and upload their digital minds from one to another should the robot body be rendered inadequate. Unless Altered Carbon becomes a reality in the next few years, how can we beat that?
I will not claim dystopia here however; I don’t subscribe to the belief that machines will result in the obsolescence of human workers. We will not be “job-less”, just job-agnostic. I see Industry 4.0 resulting in the convergence of man and machine — there will be a dramatic shift to decentralized, collaborative production, with us leveraging the power of machines to augment human capacity. We need to arm ourselves with new age skills to enable smoother transitions between, and through careers, meaning an acceptance of a lifelong career characterized by fluidity and dynamism.
SO WHAT DO WE NEED TO BE CAREER READY?
The irony with all of the sensationalist media commentary on the lack of jobsisn’t that jobs don’t exist, it’s just the we’re not skilled for the rights ones. As history has repeatedly shown, we’re experiencing an event in structural unemployment — we lack people with the “right skills” and knowledge to meaningfully contribute to a progressively faster moving economy. To paraphrase James Dale Davidson in The Sovereign Individual, the “future economy will hail the triumph of individual autonomy and equalization of opportunity based on merit”. With the almost comical dormancy at which educational institutions have responded to the changing needs of the employee, and Davison’s forecasted disintegration of institutional power, it will now be the sole responsibility of the individual to master learning themselves.
What used to be an environment of stability and security is now an environment where even the smartest and talented need to consistently reinvent themselves. “Working hard was the industrial era approach to gaining a leg up, learning hard is the knowledge economy equivalent”. As renowned futurist Alvin Toffler wrote: the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”. It will be crucial for people to learn their multiplier skill, their meta-skills, the skills they possess that can be transferrable to new businesses that haven’t even yet been conceived.
Technology now changes at a pace so rapid that even some skills taught in college become redundant or outdated by the time of graduation. To compete in the future economy, children need to learn a laundry list of soft skills such as nuanced communication and negotiation, abstract problem solving, interdisciplinary learning, and civic responsibility — an argument so strongly contended that Minerva, a new four-year college program — teaches its students exclusively such skills.
Our current education system is obsessed with tests. And tests work great with machines, where a single output is required. But testing often has the adverse effect on human intellect — it rewards students for demonstrating sycophantic regurgitation rather than deep learning and mastery of principles. Standardized testing is by definition, standard. Hence, it cannot measure qualitative skills that are evermore becoming critical indicators of future success like leadership, resourcefulness and creativity. It prescribes a rhetoric that all must fit their various-sized square pegs into our uniform round hole. But what about the rest of us whose square pegs just don’t seem to like the squeeze?
Fortunately, the trend towards personalized learning offers a solution. Seeking to accelerate learning by tailoring the instructional environment — what, when, how, and where students learn — it addresses the individual needs, skills and interests of each student to ensure authentic comprehension. Students take ownership of their learning, while also developing personal connections with each other, their teachers and other adults. It tailors learning to each student’s unique strengths, thereby encouraging curiosity while keeping them engaged and present. This type of personalized and adaptive training has been supported by “technopreneurs” such as Mark Zuckerberg and Peter Thiel in their investment into the AltSchool which focuses on adaptive learning technologies. If these guys don’t lend some credibility to the industry, I’m really not sure what will.
A SHARING ECONOMY FOR LEARNING
As we transition from a formerly passive society to more participatory one, a new generation of “producer” has resulted. The “sharing economy” — whilst not a new principle, is a term coined only within the last two decades. And yet, it has fundamentally changed the way we shop, work, commute, and sleep, focused primarily on the democratization, demonetization, and dematerialization of goods and services. As traditional education unravels at the seams, a paradigm shift moving from a teacher-centered to learner-centered education enabling personalization will ensue. Recognition that disintermediation equals individual power, qualities like collaboration will continue to be encouraged through open-sourced tools (Slack and GoogleDrive) and crowdsourced material (consider free tools like Wikipedia, Quora, Reddit). Sites like the HMH Marketplace and other digital communities that offer new opportunities for both educators and EdTech companies alike will become the new norm.
THE RISE OF THE DIYers
We’re living in a world of DIYers. Dubbed the “true entrepreneur generation”, a growing number of millennials have been raised “non-traditionally”, and therefore, are in need of non-traditional learning channels. Today’s rapidly evolving job market requires job applicants to be adaptable, independent and resourceful much earlier and much better than their predecessors. With 67% of millennials wanting to start their own projects, and only 13% yearning for a traditional corporate path, the landscape of career pursuits is fundamentally shifting.
Emphasis will be shifted to practical skills, with a growth in alternative schools emphasizing the power of the “maker space”. By replacing the chalk-and-talk pedagogy of the past with inquiry, problem-based and project-based learning, the focus will transition to arming students with real-world skills that are representative to their jobs. Germany’s vocational schools are exemplary of the success of apprenticeship training, with America following suit through programs like ApprenticeshipUSA, a new government-and-business-sponsored program backed by large corporates like BMW and Volkswagen, to offer a combination of a technical and practical degree.
Microschools like the Portfolio School in TriBeCa, Manhattan, and QuantumCamp in Oakland, California (where kids can learn anything from geochemistry to molecular gastronomy) are examples of free-form supplemental programs where students are encouraged to think creatively and an apply concepts directly to real-life scenarios, rather than in isolated functional spheres. Gamified schools like Acton Academy focus on encouraging Socratic dialogue using hands-on projects designed with game-theory incentives to deliver an engaging learning experience. And further supporting the claim for “doing-it-yourself”, even revered formal institutions such as Harvard, Stanford and MIT are now offering free MOOCs, implemented as a way of promoting democratic education and bringing new learning opportunities to the public.
SEEKING ABUNDANCE: YOUR NEW JOB IS TO LEARN
So where are we now? The world is going through a period of dramatic and unprecedented change. And we all agree that change is hard. By definition, it means disruption of the old, and the coming of the unfamiliar, and without question, a lot of cringe-worthy uncertainty. But I hope this article begins to offer a blueprint for the future of learning — the idea of lifelong and experiential learning — that is dynamic as we are. Collaboration and productivity will reign as paramount principles. From encouraging new ways of approaching workspace design, to increasing one’s ability to work from virtually anywhere, and even training and hiring for new skill sets — we are all experimenting on what it means to work in the Economy 4.0.