The Times They Are a Changing

quote bob dylan

Last night I was watching a program on the television and an economist was predicting up to 30 % of current jobs in the U.S. to be replaced by automation, artificial intelligence, and globalization over the next ten years.  If he is correct, this means 30% of jobs currently in existence won’t exist when our 3rd grade students graduate high school.

As I pondered this, I considered the steady march of technological breakthroughs that have been significantly changing the labor market since the Industrial Revolution.  Throughout history, people have worried that such technological advances would result in widespread unemployment and economic doom.  Textile workers in the early 1800’s England destroyed industrial equipment in response to the threat it posed skilled textile workers.  In the 1920’s rural workers in the U.S. experienced significant job losses displaced by improved agricultural technology, such as the tractor.  The entry of robotics to the automotive assembly lines replaced routine assembly jobs once held by assembly line workers.

Despite the worry over technology threatening jobs, throughout the 20th century mechanization and automation did not result in apocalyptic unemployment, it shifted how and where people worked and actually stoked economic growth.  Manual labor jobs did not disappear completely, but the rise of knowledge workers fueled an economy where the white-collar worker became more important.  These white-collar occupations were not easily susceptible to mechanization and automation.  Urban centers grew, and possessing a college degree was viewed as the pathway to a brighter future. From 1965 to 2015, total college enrollment increased by roughly 240 percent in the U.S.

Rapid globalization and the ability to outsource white-collar jobs to lower paid workers in other countries has steadily challenged the knowledge worker economy over the past 20 – 30 years.  Once again, a variety of voices have sounded the alarm bell warning of impending economic doom as once safe, prosperous jobs shifted offshore.  As we near the 3rd decade of the 21st century, the new worry is that advances in computerized artificial intelligence will soon threaten even the jobs previously impervious to technological advances due to the need for human intelligence.  In a 2013 Oxford University study, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne estimated that approximately 47% of workers in America had jobs at high risk of potential loss due to computerization.

So, how do we educate our 3rd grade students today if estimates are correct and somewhere between 30 – 50 % of the jobs in existence now will not exist when these students graduate high school?  I think the answer lies in meeting the anxiety over loss of predictable career paths with the optimism that technological changes have historically resulted in shifting labor in new directions rather than eliminating jobs altogether.  Companies and governments will need to make it easier for workers to acquire new skills and switch jobs as needed.  Likewise, educators need to help students develop the ability to adapt, and to hone emotional intelligence skills.

No matter how advanced artificial intelligence becomes, jobs involving empathy or social interaction are likely to be done better by humans. Winners in the 21st century economy will not be those who can memorize the most facts, or even those who hone the ability to analyze complex data better than others.  Computers can do this much more efficiently than humans.  In the medical field, for example, computer software solutions are increasingly more accurate at diagnosing medical conditions and identifying the most effective treatment protocols than doctors.  Computers cannot, however, provide the empathy and emotional support that are so important in managing a patient’s emotional well being throughout the course of treatment.  Schools need to strategically address the development of emotional intelligence in our students.

Winners in the 21st century economy will also need to be able to adapt, anticipate people’s needs, and think in creative ways.  Schools will best prepare students for the challenges of the 21st Century by building their capacity to deal with change in positive ways.  Students need to understand how they can actively look ahead to leverage innovation to their advantage instead of waiting to respond as innovations make previously valued skill sets obsolete.  Dr. Bruce Nussbaum, Professor of Innovation and Design at Parsons School of Design writes: “It is about more than thinking, it is about learning by doing and learning how to do the new in an uncertain, ambiguous, complex space–our lives today.”

As we look to the future for our students, our biggest challenge may be in letting go of the past.  As teachers, we have to move beyond doing school the way we experienced it, focusing the majority of our time regurgitating facts that students can now easily access on their smartphone.  We need to help students develop an aptitude in what Daniel Pink refers to as Symphony: “Symphony, as I call this aptitude, is the ability to put together the pieces. It is the capacity to synthesize rather than to analyze; to see relationships between seemingly unrelated fields; to detect broad patterns rather than to deliver specific answers; and to invent something new by combining elements nobody else thought to pair.”

To do this, we have to let go of the traditional approach of single-subject, content heavy instruction and challenge students to apply learning from multiple disciplines in connection to issues or opportunities in the real world.  Project-based or problem-based learning gives students the chance to do this.  As students identify local needs or global issues of interest to them, we have the ability to connect a variety of disciplinary learning around meaningful projects that require students to hone the skills for success in the 21st century.

APIS Middle School Students and Teachers working with  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to survey and track data on the Hauula Reef

Reef Survey

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