From hard facts to soft skills

This article is part 2 of a 4 part series previously hosted on BBC.

To equip today’s students for the workplace of 2030, a whole new curriculum is needed: one that centres on skills, not content.

In a Canberra classroom, a group of teachers are getting educated. Yet, as they break out into groups to roleplay, the focus is not on facts but skills – and particularly soft skills. Following the 21st Century Learning Design program, these professional educators will spend two days learning how to teach some of the hardest and most quintessentially human topics of all: collaboration, communication, self-regulation, innovation and more.

With the fourth industrial revolution underway and progress accelerating at the speed of a million algorithms, children entering kindergarten today will need a very different education from the ones their parents received. The Class of 2030, a new paper from Microsoft and McKinsey, found that, as manual occupations enter their death spiral, 30 to 40 per cent of future jobs will depend on social-emotional skills. The curriculum of future schools will focus not so much on facts, which can easily be found on a phone, but on skills.

And the most important skills will be the soft skills, the empathic, personal ways of interaction that set humans apart from digital entities. Marcus Barber, a strategic futurist and co-founder of the Centre for Australian Foresight, points out that today’s educational practices originated with the need to prepare young people for the organised, hierarchical factories of the mass production era. As robots and algorithms come to replace many of the jobs we today consider essential, educators will need to zero in on the elements that make us decidingly human.

Student in-front of a group of students

“Collaboration and co-operation need to be foremost,” Barber says. “Things like mathematics or understanding how language is formed, the ins and outs of history, can be effectively carried by software programs and technology. But to be able to collaborate, co-operate and create new things, that’s still very human.”

By 2030, according to the report, jobs such as office support workers and predictable manual work – operating equipment, transportation, factory work – will be in decline. The administrative assistant will go the way of the stenographer and the coal miner will follow the weaver into obsolescence. On the increase? Managers, executives, educators, creatives, care providers and technology professionals – and, most likely, entire job sectors yet to be described since they do not currently exist.

Skills are key to preparing students for this uncertain future, says Travis Smith, Education Engagement Manager with Microsoft. “The question is: what do we do to prepare kids for future jobs?” he observed. “How do we equip them with the skills required for those jobs, so they do not end up leaving the education system into a declining job, a job that only gives you five years?”

The classroom of the future, Barber says, might not look very different from the classroom of teachers practising their 21st-century skills in Canberra. “You’d probably start with creativity 101 each day, you might have problem-solving 203: you’d have collaboration techniques, you’d have psychology,” he says. “They’re called soft skills, but soft skills are the hardest ones to learn. If it’s easy to put in a box and to get an exact answer, software will eventually replace it.”

And soft skills won’t just help the adults of the future navigate a world of new jobs. The gig economy is here to stay, with more than 25 per cent of Australians already employed on a casual basis, including almost 12 per cent of full-time employees. Social-emotional skills from flexibility to entrepreneurship can help young people adapt to a world where jobs will change and become obsolete at speed, and where the idea of picking a career path in Year 9 or Year 10 and sticking with it to retirement is utterly alien. Managing change, handling disappointment and self-regulation are likely to be considerably more important skill sets than a memory for dates, equations or molecular formulae.

Student using a laptop at a cafe

“We need to tell kids that it’s OK not to know your career path when you leave university – sometimes that won’t emerge until much later down the track,” Barber says. “We should remind kids that the pathway they select to start off with is unlikely to be their final pathway, and that’s OK.”

The uncertainty of the future workplace, Smith says, should not be a source of fear to parents, students or educators. “Over the past 100 years, I don’t know that we’ve ever known what the future of jobs is,” he says. “Before the Industrial Revolution they had no idea what the future of work would look like. And then the first industrial revolution hit and suddenly jobs looked completely different. This fourth industrial revolution will probably be the same.”

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