We have all heard it, and we are, almost universally, guilty of asking it of children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We wait with a smile for the silly answers, the sweet and the predictable. But what if the question we are asking is an impossible one to answer?
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), over the next 20 years, up to 46% of the jobs on the current labor market will dramatically transform or become completely automated. This presents a unique challenge for the educators of the 21st century. How can we prepare students for a job market that doesn’t yet exist?
The answer lies in rethinking education completely. Traditional education is bound very tightly to content. Everyone remembers going through school and memorizing facts for a biology quiz or history test. Memorization and the ability to recall facts were vital skills in the days before computers, more powerful than those that launched the moon missions, resided in our pockets. Workers of that time were judged on efficiency. While most students of those eras never had cause to use the dates of the Battle of Waterloo, the skills in learning to memorize them were used daily. In today’s world, the ability to quickly recall random facts is no longer an essential of the majority of careers. Instead, the ability to think critically, evaluate new and old information for reliability and bias, and to learn new skills is essential.
Take for example general technology education. This is not a specialized education for those who wish to become computer scientists, but rather the general access class. In the not so distant past, and in many cases the present, technology education was called “Computer Class”. In computer class students were taught to type blindly, trying to hit the mythical 40 words per minute for efficiency. They were taught the parts of a computer, basics of email and to become masters of specific programs. These classes were often stand-alone classes. However, where within the modern world does technology stand alone? The model is flawed and outdated. Technology moves too fast now to be taught or learned in the traditional sense. Employers are no longer interested in candidates who have mastered one program. They realize that all programs will be updated, revamped, changed or abandoned for something else maybe within months, if not weeks, of the initial mastery. Instead, they are looking for candidates who can demonstrate the ability to adapt and use technology in multiple contexts.
Therefore, technology education has moved out of the “Computer Class” and into the regular classroom. Good technology education is integrated into the regular curriculum. The focus is no longer on learning to master a program but to figure out how new programs function, problem solve and transfer skills from one tool to another in context. It is using tools to create websites about current events, craft animations to illustrate student-written stories, and most importantly it is seamlessly integrated and accessible. It is taught within context. Teachers do not break down programs for students. They introduce the tool, explain what it can do, give students a starting point and then let them experiment on their own. That is where the magic happens. That is where through true inquiry students learn transferable skills that build their technological literacy.
So, if programs are no longer taught and blind typing abandoned, what is the focus of general technology education? Digital citizenship and literacy become the focus. The Digital Citizenship Institute has identified nine areas of education and access for 21st-century learners. Technology education focuses on literacy, law, rights and responsibilities and etiquette. The students need to know how to ethically use information, to cite it properly, obey copyright laws and act in ways that respect the rights of all people.
As technology continues to change and evolve we will need a generation of students who are able to ethically evaluate the implications of these changes. Famously, in 2014 Stephen Hawking warned that AI had the potential to end humanity. While the rise of robot intelligence may seem like a science-fiction daydream, experts are already grappling with the very real possibility. With changes happening this quickly, it no longer makes sense to teach the average student the intricacies of Microsoft Office and to instead focus on the ethical and responsible use of technology.
This brings us full circle to the original question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. The answer we should hope for is an ethically responsible consumer, producer, and user of technology that is able to adapt to an ever-changing labor market with highly transferable skills. But that’s a bit of a mouthful.
Author: Amanda is the Middle Years (Grade 6-10) curriculum coordinator at Nova International Schools. She has a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Instruction with a concentration in Digital Teaching and Learning. She has been a certified educator since 2001 and has lived and taught in Venezuela, Albania, Mali, Tunisia and North Macedonia.