To download the full white paper and others in the Corwin Educator Series, click here.  

Education has always been concerned with preparing children and young people with the skills and capabilities they need for a full and rewarding future. However, within this statement there exists a significant assumption: that we understand what the future will be. History has shown that as a species we are not particularly good at conceiving of futures that are radically different from what we have today, let alone designing systems to deal with them. For most of us, thinking about the future involves extrapolating elements of our current life experience to create a picture of tomorrow. In other words, we use the past as a basis from which to imagine the future. The result is akin to the metaphoric rearrangement of the deck chairs on a cruise liner. The deck chairs may change position but the cruise liner remains the same. 

During periods of relative stability, such as those we have experienced over the last 50 or so years, incremental evolution of the education system has been (more or less) sufficient to keep pace with changes in the environment. In fact, the industrialisation of the education system has meant that more people than ever have achieved basic, if not moderately high levels of, numeracy and literacy. The 3 R’s of reading, writing and arithmetic have been, and largely remain, the key goalposts for an effective education system and the basis from which higher level skills can be developed, through either tertiary study or trade-based education. 

Over the next 20 years, however, society will face unprecedented levels of disruption and change. These changes will not just be limited to individual disciplinary domains but will spread across all spheres of endeavor. The changes many futurists are forecasting have radical implications for the general capabilities our children will need and, by definition, the design of education systems tasked with supporting them. Rearranging the deck chairs will not be an option for our children; indeed, the changes are likely to be so vast as to require a fundamental rethink of the cruise liner altogether. Let us give you some examples. 

It is widely discussed that by 2050 the human population will reach somewhere between 9 to 10 billion people. While this presents obvious challenges in terms of the availability of resources to support such a population, a potentially greater challenge exists that is less regularly observed. Based on current demographic projections, after 2050 the global population will contract sharply (Pearce 2011). This is due to the record low birth rates the world has experienced over the last couple of decades. While massive population growth is a significant concern, its impact may well be offset or reduced by rapid technology development. Developments in renewable technologies, for example, may reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, while developments in new forms of agriculture will increase food production, so that we can accommodate these vast numbers of people. 

In any case, a rapidly growing population presents challenges but so too does a rapidly contracting one. Generally speaking, the systems that drive society are all predicated on the assumption of growth—growing income, a growing economy, a growing cost base, growing consumption, and so forth. What happens when all of this goes into decline? Fewer customers, fewer employees, fewer homeowners, fewer homes…the list goes on. To be frank, it’s difficult to say what the implications of these changes will be but children entering the school system this year will experience both peak population and a population crash during their working lives—how well is the education system preparing them for that? 

It’s not necessary to look as far out as 2050 to see massive changes in the capabilities schooling needs to deliver. Within the next 10 years, the emergence of the Internet of Things will give rise to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0. This disruption will completely change the way in which products are designed, manufactured and managed, and with that the skill profile of the workforce. These changes in the structure and organisation of production can already be seen ineconomic data produced by the Reserve Bank of Australia (Heath 2016) and shown in the graph below. What the graph illustrates is the changing mix of skills that have made up the Australian workforce over the past 30 years. To understand the graph, it’s important to distinguish the types of roles associated with each of the skill types. ‘Routine manual’ characterises manufacturing, assembly-line-type roles, while ‘routine cognitive’ refers to more routine service-type roles like bookkeeping, accountancy, and paralegal work. Even roles in the medical profession such as radiographers would fall under this category of work. 

As a proportion of the workforce, both these skill forms are being progressively automated through computing and robotics. Over the next 10 years, advances in computing power, artificial intelligence and robotics will see these work forms move from a steady decline to a dramatic disappearance as a job option for school and university leavers. 

This leaves ‘non-routine manual’ and ‘non-routine cognitive’ roles as the main source of employment in the future. The first category refers to technically unskilled jobs like waitressing and hospitality, for example. These roles, whilst also susceptible to increased automation, are less easily replicated by computers and robotics, so as a proportion of the workforce they will continue to grow.

It is important to note, however, that this doesn’t necessarily mean there will be a growth in the total number of these jobs – just that they will be less disrupted than their ‘routine’ counterparts, which leaves ‘non-routine cognitive’ roles as the likely future for young people leaving the school system over the next 10–20 years. 

Non-routine cognitive roles are typically associated with high levels of complex problem solving, creativity, entrepreneurship and resilience—the ability to adapt to changes rapidly, learn quickly and embrace uncertainty. These are the areas that are most difficult for computers and robots to emulate and so will remain the least affected by Industry 4.0. True artificial intelligence remains a long way off, and may never truly materialise depending on which expert you listen to (Walsh 2017); however, the impact of the automation of a wide array of jobs arising from the artificial semi-intelligence that is coming will be sufficient to fundamentally change the landscape of jobs and the general capabilities needed to obtain them. 

Non-routine cognitive skills are often developed over the course of an individual’s career, through a combination of relatively unskilled entry-level jobs, university study and more than a bit of pain. Career pathways have developed in different industries enabling graduates to move through increasingly complex and challenging roles, creating a conveyor belt of employment and general capabilities. The disruptions associated with Industry 4.0 will fundamentally change this conveyor belt forever. 

The entry-level positions that have traditionally provided a foothold in the job market for graduating students will be the first to be automated. Whilst it does not always follow that what is easy for a human is also easy for a computer, in the case of many entry-level jobs the relatively low skill requirement can make it easier for a machine to replicate—with the result that non-routine cognitive skills will not be learnt through these roles anymore. 

Traditionally, it was considered the role of universities to support the development of these abilities, building on the 3 R’s learnt through schooling. However, the corporatisation of the university sector over the last few decades has seen a considerable devaluing of these skills in university courses, replaced by what is easy to measure and easy to deliver through online means—content in the form of academic facts. Employers have complained that it increasingly falls to them to support the development of 21st century skills. Large corporates like Microsoft have even launched their own in-house universities to try and address the shortfall. When viewed as an overall system, however—school through university, to entry-level roles—the opportunities to develop the skills that will be most needed are either absent or in significant decline. 

The cruise ship Education is running aground and all the effort is on rearranging the deck chairs. 

For reasons of brevity, we have not discussed the potential impact of climate change, mass extinction, systemic failures in the economic system, breakdowns in democracy, increased nationalism…. the list goes on. The level of instability and uncertainty the next generation will need to deal with is of a different order from that faced by their parents and grandparents. 

What does this mean for education? Are the traditional goalposts of the 3 R’s still appropriate and if not, what should they be? How can schooling prepare children to thrive in the non-routine cognitive roles it appears will make up the bulk of the future workforce? Of more concern is that if we need to change the education system to properly address these issues, we don’t have much time.  

Industry 4.0 is less than a decade away.  


To read more from “Towards Education 3.0: The Changing Goalposts for Education” and other white papers in the Corwin Australia Educator Series, click here.