How to Educate Yourself For the Future

Here’s a scenario that will set your head spinning: In less time than it takes for a student to go through K-12 schooling, Uber created and eliminated an entire job market. The ride-hailing industry leader started in 2009, created thousands of jobs across the country, and is now introducing self-driving cars that will replace those jobs. In fact, a recent report from the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) showed that 40 per cent of jobs are in danger of becoming obsolete. This phenomenon is called the Law of Accelerating Change, and it’s not going to slow down any time soon. The only thing we can do to prepare for such change is to learn how to adapt to, better yet anticipate, it.

Where do we start? Rebecca Winthrop, head of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution, says education needs to “go beyond academic knowledge to deal with the disruptions wrought by automation, free trade, and other economic shifts.” Mary Mulcahy, director of education and outreach with the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), agrees: “It’s important that students have a set of skills they can apply to a range of jobs and careers.”

But what do these skills look like? That part’s a little tricky. A “21st century education” comes with a lot of buzzwords: project-based, inter-disciplinary, hands-on, etc. Many educators support the “Six C’s”: creativity, communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and connectivity. Others would add the ability to take control of one’s own learning; to empathise and get along with others; and to appreciate the wider world and its diversity of viewpoints. Some educators don’t even use the term “21st century skills,” favouring “soft skills” or “non-cognitive skills.”

“Basically we’re trying to explain student success educationally or in the labour market with skills not directly measured by standardised tests,” says Martin West at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “The problem is, you go to meetings and everyone spends the first two hours complaining and arguing about semantics.”

But none of these are new skills, or even newly valued. Societies throughout history, around the world, valued these skills even if they called them something else. So, in a sense, the skills that are in high demand today have always been in high demand and always will be. The difference today, maybe, is how they can be applied. Educators don’t need to focus more now on communication or creativity than they did ten or twenty or fifty years ago; they’ve always been important skills that can get you ahead in the real world (whether we acknowledged them or not). Instead, educators need to help students anticipate how the skills themselves will change over time. What will communication look like in five years? Two years? One year? What will creativity look like? Teamwork? Critical thinking? These skills aren’t going out of style, but the ideas and technologies we associate with them are changing at the speed of light.

So what is that skill—the ability to anticipate how important skills will apply to future scenarios? In a word, imagination. “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” wrote Einstein, and it’s truer now than ever before. To be as prepared as possible for a rapidly shifting job landscape, we need imagination so that we can try to predict what that landscape might look like, and so that, once we’re part of the workforce, we can use imagination to figure out how to apply our skills to the landscape, whatever it ends up looking like. But are we taking the time to cultivate it, both in formal education and in our daily lives?

“Our ability to overcome the constraints of the present environment and travel to distant places and hopeful futures all in the mind is a skill that is hugely neglected in today’s society,” writes Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the Imagination Institute. “With our intense focus on enabling students and employees to master what is, we are missing out on the huge opportunity for them to also imagine what could be.”

So how do we teach this, both to ourselves and others? We’ve got a few recommendations for you.

1. Don’t specialise.

The broader your spectrum of expertise, the wider the range of your imagination: “I personally think there’s going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal-arts majors than for programming majors and maybe even engineering,” says tech billionaire Mark Cuban. “When the data is all being spit out for you, options are being spit out for you, you need a different perspective in order to have a different view of the data.”

2. Become a casual historian.

To anticipate future trends, you need to understand the past. Crack open your old World History textbook or spend an hour on Wikipedia each day until you feel like you’ve made a habit of enriching your knowledge base. It doesn’t matter if you feel like you already know it all; there’s always more to learn.

3. Become a casual techie.

Technology has pervaded every industry imaginable. Knowing how to use a wide range of tools and programs is no longer a skill reserved for computer science majors. To not only succeed at your current job, but remain successful down the road, you must stay up-to-date on the latest trends in technology. It’s a wise move to learn how to use tools outside your industry, too, in case they become relevant later on. For instance, fifteen years ago writers and editors would never have dreamed of needing to know HTML or CSS to do their jobs; now it’s practically expected.

4. Expect to have multiple careers.

It may not be realistic to plan for one career and one career only. Internalising this fact early on will help you approach your education in a more constructive way, whether it means earning multiple degrees, signing up for MOOCs, or creating your own informal learning syllabus on the side. Spend some time imagining how you can cast your net wider.

5. Watch the rest of the world.

Pay attention to emerging technologies and other trends in countries other than your own. Globally minded individuals catch wind of the future early on!

The job landscape is changing at an unprecedented pace, and the best way to keep up is to get ahead. In your own education, or as you educate others, push yourself to imagine how things could evolve. Get out of your comfort zone. Never stop speculating. Don’t look back; the future won’t wait for you.


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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