Another dot in the blogosphere?

Avoiding irrelevance at 40

Posted on: May 5, 2017

Sir Ken Robinson tweeted this recently.

He urged his Twitter followers and others who stumbled on his tweet to discuss this statement: Most of what kids currently learn at school will probably be irrelevant by the time they are 40.

There are so many ways to approach this statement.

One might be to point out that if schools still operate as dispensers of content, they are bound to be irrelevant.

Such content does not have to just be useless for work or life after 40 years. It can also be irrelevant immediately if it is not meaningful to the learner right there and then. Content does not need 40 years to be irrelevant; it can take just 40 seconds.

Schooling and education should also be about changing thinking, values, attitudes, and behaviours. All these take an extended period to happen, and they might retain their currency for much longer too.

However, such qualities might still lose relevance in the future. For example, cultures that value unquestioned compliance are not likely to nurture critical or creative thinkers. If you are taught more to listen and obey than to talk and take action, then you will tend to do just that.

All this is just opinion. The premise of the article that sparked SKR’s “discuss” seemed to be that algorithms and artificial intelligence threaten to take jobs and create a “useless class” in the future.

The article outlined how the processing of information and content, quick and focused algorithmic thinking, and slow-responding schools might contribute to an unemployable group of people.

One part of the article focused on the role of schooling and education:

Since we do not know how the job market would look in 2030 or 2040, today we have no idea what to teach our kids. Most of what they currently learn at school will probably be irrelevant by the time they are 40. Traditionally, life has been divided into two main parts: a period of learning, followed by a period of working. Very soon this traditional model will become utterly obsolete, and the only way for humans to stay in the game will be to keep learning throughout their lives and to reinvent themselves repeatedly. Many, if not most, humans may be unable to do so.

Industrialised and modern countries might have policies in place to promote “lifelong learning”. For example, Singapore has SkillsFuture.

Aside from some teething problems and unsavoury practices, the effort seems like a stop-gap measure. It deals with the symptoms (like retrenchment, unemployment, growing irrelevance) instead of underlying issues (changing expectations, more fluid and connected work, managing information).

If current workers were schooled to think and operate narrowly, they are unlikely to see the need for continuous and constant learning. Their mindsets might read like this: I am done with school, why force me to go back?

Values are more CAUGHT than they are TAUGHT.

To avoid the problem of being irrelevant at 40, all learners, young and old, need to learn and practice what some might call a growth mindset. Some of this might be taught, the rest — I would wager a large part — is caught.

So schools need teachers as models of such a mindset. But here is the Catch-22: Are schools the best place to find such models?

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