By Sean Culey
In July 2022, I had the pleasure of presenting a keynote on “the future of work” to over 200 head teachers at the Delta Academies Trust conference in the UK. The background of the attendees was somewhat different from my usual audience of business and supply chain leaders, and this led to a different set of questions, mostly focused on how they, as educators, could stay relevant in this world of constant disruption and exponential technological advancement.
The questions asked included:
- “How should we best prepare the next generation of students for a world that is unknown and for jobs that may not yet exist?”
- “You mentioned that tech companies such as Google, Meta, and Apple are developing their own academic institutions to train their future workforce. How do we as public educators compete?”
- “How do I inspire my students and motivate them to realise the danger and take action to learn these skills now? I have students whose grandad was a plumber, dad was a plumber; and they assume they will just become a plumber, too. How do I get them to aspire to be more?”
- “How long do we have before we are replaced by machines?”
The plumber question made me chuckle because, in my book Transition Point: From Steam to the Singularityi, I specifically use plumbing as an example of one of the jobs that are very difficult to automate away! While machines can make almost everything a plumber uses, we are decades away from robotic plumbers. Plumbers are also in high demand, especially in the UK, as young people were encouraged to go to university rather than to technical colleges (most of which were closed down), creating a glut of social media administrators and marketers but such a shortage of skilled tradespeople that the UK needed to import skilled labour from abroad. I advised the teacher that perhaps, rather than persuading his students not to become a plumber, he should instead encourage them to examine how they could become the best plumber possible, explore what makes an excellent plumber versus an average one, and inspire them to create a successful plumbing business and grow it so that it was not solely reliant on his own labour. What are the skills needed to become entrepreneurial? How could they create a premium value proposition by providing a level of service and quality that sets them apart from the competition? How could you inspire them to grow a successful plumbing business, rather than just be a plumber.
Other questions raised the issue that there was an apparent gap between the subjects they were teaching in their schools and the skills businesses needed moving forwards – a case of industrial-age education in a digital world. One of the head teachers freely admitted that teaching styles and content had changed little in the last two decades and that my keynote had scared him because it highlighted just how far behind the education curriculum had fallen. The dawning realisation that the subjects they teach, and in many cases their own personal knowledge, are out of date and no longer relevant.
What Should Education Focus On?
The question I was asked most at the event was a variation of, “If we don’t know what the jobs of the future are, and therefore what skills those jobs will need, how do we decide what to teach our students?” I thought about this on the long drive home, pondering the question as to what educators should teach in a world where the future looks nothing like the past, where the jobs their students will likely be competing for do not yet exist, and thus the specific skills that employers will seek are unknown. How do state education systems compete in a world where all knowledge is instantly searchable on a pocket device that virtually every student owns?
The industrial-age education model was designed to mass-manufacture workers into the stable and predictable world of long-term careers and mass employment. However, the world we live in now is no longer stable and predictable; it is volatile and uncertain and will remain so moving forwards. Which explains why the questions asked of me were really variations of, “How do we ensure that our students leave the education system with the skills needed to attract the attention of employers?” But I’m not sure this is the right question. The right question, in my mind, is, “How do we ensure that students leave the education system with the skills needed to become the master of their own destiny and have a successful life?” This, I think, is the better question, because it opens so many more opportunities for both the educator and the student, freeing them from a rigid focus on industrial-age skills and instead allowing them the freedom to create digital-age mindsets.
Opening Minds to the Opportunities; Preparing Them for the Journey
In my book Transition Point, there is a section called “A Tale of Two Mindsets”, where I detail how the digital age is providing people with the option of two futures, the selection of which is primarily dependent on their mindset. The first future is one of unbridled opportunity, the second unlimited distraction.
For the very first time, we are in a world where your ability to educate yourself is not dependent on your family background, wealth, or geography. The schoolteacher or professor is no longer the font of all knowledge. The digital age has cleared that bottleneck, providing instant access to a whole series of online education providers, such as Coursera1, FutureLearn2, Udemy3, and Khan Academy4, enabling people to investigate and learn about almost anything they are interested in. Want to know about quantum physics? Coursera has 25 courses5 on the subject, nearly all provided by the world’s best universities, most of which are free, and all of which can be accessed at a time, location, and speed that suits you, not the provider.
We are also living in a time where you can start up a business with just your laptop and your time, free from the significant capital expenditure that setting up an enterprise required, and which became such a barrier in the industrial age. No longer do entrepreneurial people need the permission of banks before they can act on their aspirations. Most of the tools and software necessary to run a business are now available as a rentable service, allowing you to scale these up as required or as your finances allow.
Yet we are also at a time where more people than ever feel lost, depressed, and directionless, and the double-edged nature of technology means that, as well as providing more opportunity, these new digital tools and platforms offer rabbit holes down which people can lose themselves, their time consumed without generating anything of value. Hours spent scrolling nonsense on TikTok, watching YouTube videos, or playing online games. And as we hurtle towards the metaverse, and the line between what is real and what is not blurs, you can see how people could become lost in a world of distraction, devoid of aspiration, and gaining what little fulfilment they have from achieving virtual goals in a virtual world with virtual friends. A hikikomori6 life awaits far too many.
However, those with the right mindset can use these very same platforms for opportunity, not distraction, taking advantage of them to broadcast their passion, skills, or knowledge and attract an audience of people who like what they do and provide them with an income through clicks, views, sponsorship, and product purchases. From video streamers to YouTube content creators, people have been able to build a fanbase and create a career doing what they love – something that would never have been possible previously.
So people now have a choice whether to dedicate their time to becoming a creator or being a consumer, to use these tools and platforms to enhance and educate themselves, or just be entertained by them. And it is in understanding that this is a choice – a critical one – and that it is both in your best interests to make the right choice and within your capabilities to do this. Helping students to make better choices and find their passion in a world of limitless choice but limited direction should therefore be at the heart of the education journey.
A Curriculum for the Future
So how can we help these educators to answer the primary question, “How do I ensure that my students have a successful life?” I believe it is in teaching them the skills to develop and hone the ability to become the master of their own destiny and not a victim of circumstances. To answer that question, I considered my education and that of my children and then looked forward to what was coming down the road. What do I think would have helped my children and me to be more successful in life, and what do I think would help future generations?
To compete in a world of machines, I believe we need to teach our young people skills that are uniquely human in a way that makes them more likely to be able to craft a life of their choosing in the coming decades. There is obviously the need to provide the highest-possible teaching in the basics (the ability to read well, write well, and do basic arithmetic), but it is also important to understand scientific principles, gain an understanding of society and its history (both good and bad), and learn concepts such as psychology and philosophy.
However, here are the additional subjects I feel would provide future generations with the best chance of being successful in the digital age:
- Mindset development
- Next-generation technology and data science/analysis
- Critical thinking, decision-making, and rationality
- Problem-solving, first-principles analysis, solution simplification, and systems thinking.
- Innovation, design thinking, and customer-centricity
- Circularity – circular thinking, business models, supply chains, and economy
- Life skills – communication, collaboration, time and money management, adaptability, entrepreneurship, and how to create and maintain healthy relationships and develop a positive self-image.
Rather than go through each one of these (far too long for a single article, but I might do this in the next edition of Transition Point), I’ll expand on the few that I think will be particularly useful in the coming decades.
Why Mindsets Come First
It has been over a decade since I first read Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and growth mindsets and, during those years (especially speaking as a parent whose sons have grown up during that period), I’ve come to realise just how important it is to the long-term success and happiness of the individual to learn how to transform a fixed mindset into a growth one. Fixed-mindset people think that intelligence is fixed and struggling is a sign of weakness, whereas growth-mindset people believe that intelligence can be developed and accept the struggle, because they realise that this is the most important part of the learning process.
Fixed-mindset people are often incredibly smart but rarely achieve their true potential, because they avoid uncomfortable situations where they feel exposed or where failure is an option. They’d rather not try than try and fail. This is an awful combination, because it leads to a life of frustration; you end up knowing you were capable of much more, but you just couldn’t motivate yourself to put those smarts to good use. In this world of endless opportunity, helping students to explore what they are passionate about while also investigating and exploring what they need in order to turn that passion into a viable and fulfilling future would be essential life skills.
There is great value in teaching students how to develop a growth mindset, one that values continuous learning, where they realise that the effort expended is its own reward. In a world where everything is searchable in an instant, where education and entrepreneurship have been democratised, where almost every question could be answered simply by asking Siri, Alexa, or your own personal digital companion, then the real skill is in knowing what questions to ask. Yet, asking a question requires an element of curiosity, a willingness to accept not knowing, and a desire to find out the answer. Knowing “why to learn” and inspiring them to “want to learn” is more important than “what to learn”. Without a “why” and a “want”, the “what” has no purpose.
Education has to be much more than the acquisition of knowledge; it must create a generation who willingly seek to put themselves into situations where they are uncomfortable and out of their comfort zone, and accept that success requires effort and disciplined execution. Huge benefits could be achieved for the student, the tutor, their communities, and even their country if we created a growth-mindset generation who want to learn and develop their capabilities, embrace the struggle, and help others to do the same. The latent talent of the population could be unleashed if we teach people that their starting point only determines their destination if they let it, that learning is its own reward, and that the journey is the real prize, not the destination.
Understanding the “Why” of Technology
We have long taught people that tools are generally single-purpose, so you only need to learn about them if your chosen career is likely to use them. Not any more. Technologies such as AI, digital twins, blockchain, and the metaverse are creating an enormous number of potential possibilities across every industry sector, and people need to know how to use these for their benefit. As Stewart Brand once quipped, “Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.” Educating people not only to be part of the steamroller but actually to learn how and where to drive it will be of enormous use to them and any future employer.
We therefore need to teach students to think about technology differently:
- Explain what’s coming and how it works.
- Get students to consider the different ways that these tools could be used, what benefits each one could bring, what impact they would have, and what new jobs and opportunities they will create.
- Get them to explore what obstacles they might face in their implementation, what industries could use them, and what impact they would have on current jobs and skills.
- The key is not only to create an awareness of these new tools, but also the ability to analyse their potential, their implementation considerations, and their impact.
Critical Thinking, Analysis, and Decision-Making
It is also essential to help ensure we teach the young how to think, not what to think, especially in this world of propaganda, indoctrination, and fake news. Teach them to develop a constant desire to ask questions and get to the truth of the matter, not to blindly accept what they are told.
This requires teaching students to be curious and inquisitive, to investigate issues, perform research, evaluate information and sources, analyse and quantify results, and determine what the data tells them and what to do with it. Also, teach them about how the brain works and about the common fallacies, biases, and emotional drivers that distort human thinking and lead to imperfect results
The art of good decision-making is also critical, for the ability to make better ones will have a significant impact on the outcome of their lives. Knowledge isn’t power; the application of the right knowledge at the right time is, so the ability to understand trade-offs, identify the potential consequences of poor decision-making, and learn how to analyse and evaluate risks will help them personally and in a professional environment. Books such as Mindset7,The Chimp Paradox8, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People9, 12 Rules for Life10 ii and Thinking Fast and Slow11 are incredibly popular, because they teach fundamental decision-making and life skills that help people to help themselves. These skills should be taught at school, allowing people to make better decisions and choices early when their future is open and options plentiful, not read with regret years later when they are already knee-deep in debt and stuck in a rutiii.
The success of a company resides in its ability to innovate and produce goods and services that customers value more than the competition and are willing to pay for. The success of a country is currently measured by the ability to attract investment and create jobs and economic growth. The success of the planet depends on our ability to move from the linear, industrial model of take, make, use, and dispose to circular thinking, where we turn outputs into inputs, produce items to last and be repaired and reused rather than disposed of, and generally use the resources of the planet in a more sustainable and beneficial way.
There exists a great opportunity for the next generation if they can learn to develop innovations that combine customer-centricity, circularity, and profitability in order to provide value to the individual, to the company, and to the community. What we have realised is that the industrial model and its focus on profitability above all else developed products and solutions that were increasingly complex, complicated, and costly. This needs to change. Luckily, innovation is a skill that can be taught, and skills such as systems thinking enable students to view the world as a connected system rather than a set of separate components. Design thinking helps students to learn how to reframe ill-defined/unknown problems in human-centric ways and focus on what’s most important for users. Learning from first principles helps them to ground themselves in foundational truths, breaking down complicated problems to their bare essence, and generating original solutions by removing unnecessary elements.
Combined with the sessions on critical thinking and decision-making, these innovation skills will help students to think far more clearly, rationally, and logically, able to strip problems down to their essence, and see solutions where others only see problems. These are valuable skills that are critical to concepts such as circularity, allowing them to explore how to make things better through the removal of unnecessary elements and focus only on those things that actually help solve problems for people.
Human Life Skills in a Machine World
In a world of machines, it is more imperative than ever that we teach people the skills of being a successful human, both individually and collectively as part of a team and community. Communication, listening skills, empathy, understanding, and collaboration are all critical human skills that I don’t remember ever being taught, but which are essential in terms of becoming not just a good employee or leader – but also a good parent and partner.
Developing a sense of community across generational and social boundaries is also vital, because that is something we are losing at a rapid rate and this constant atomisation of the individual scares me. We need to teach people how to be considerate of others and work to protect and enhance the community we live in and the planet we live on. The definition of a nation’s success also needs to change to include the happiness and well-being of its citizens, especially in these divisive times where there is more wealth than ever before but a bigger divide between the tiny number who have that wealth and everyone else.
This leads me to something else I wish they taught: money skills and time management. Whether we like it or not, moving forwards, money will still be what makes the world go round, and the ability to obtain and manage it is a critical life skill, enabling people to achieve long-term security so that they can avoid being put on the back foot. What do we sacrifice to acquire that money? Time. Learning how to manage time teaches them how to prioritise their activities and better control the massive number of digital distractions and algorithms that are seeking to steal this finite resource from you.
We also need to spend more time teaching people actually how to learn. It’s assumed we all know. We don’t. Different people also learn in different ways, so establishing whether people learn best from reading, listening, or watching is important. Luckily, we now have the capability to tailor learning to suit the student, not the teacher, so understanding which format is most appropriate for that individual enhances the likelihood that an interest in learning will be acquired and knowledge will be absorbed.
Finally, in an unpredictable world, the ability to be adaptable and resilient is essential and therefore teaching adaptability and resilience using tools such as scenario modelling and gamification would be helpful. As Charles Darwin highlighted, it’s not the strongest that survive but the most adaptable to change. Adaptability increases your survivability. This shouldn’t be left to chance.
No fate but what we make
We still live in a human-centric world:
- Machines can make and move products – but they cannot imagine what products to make.
- Machines can create images from text and write books – but cannot determine what images to create or books to write.
- Machines can help make decisions – but they cannot decide what decisions are important or what outcomes are good.
- Machines can capture vast amounts of data and find trends and patterns within it – but don’t know what to do with that information.
- Machines can help us find answers to questions – but they don’t know what questions to ask.
Machines are always “what”, sometimes a “how”, but never a “why”. That’s the world of human creativity, imagination, and entrepreneurship. Education, therefore, should stop teaching people to remember facts and instead help them discover their “why” and create the mindset and desire to act on it. This can come through a better understanding of how to use the one thing that will distinguish them from the machines – their minds. I would imagine that igniting passions and seeing people grow is why most educators and teachers joined the profession in the first place, so not only is it better for the students, but it’s also more exciting for them.
Get this right, and not only will you provide a generation with the skills needed by future employers, but you will embed them with the belief and skills for them to become the employers of the future. They’re also more likely to leave this planet in a better state than when they joined it.
This article is originally published on December 01, 2022.
About the Author
Sean Culey is an award-winning keynote speaker on business transformation, supply chains, and disruptive technologies. He is also the author of Transition Point: From Steam to the Singularity, an in-depth examination of the causes of technological progress and how the current wave of change disrupts our business models, economy and society, and species. Sean is also a Visiting Fellow at Cranfield University, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (FCILT), Transformation Advisor for the Association of Supply Chain Management (ASCM), and a certified SCOR Master Instructor. He has recently been focusing on decision intelligence and developing the self-driving, self-learning, cognitive supply chain.
- Coursera https://www.coursera.org/
- Future Learn https://www.futurelearn.com/
- Udemy https://www.udemy.com/
- Khan Academy https://www.khanacademy.org/
- Coursera Courses https://www.coursera.org/search?query=quantum%20physics
- Hikikomori: Behind Japan’s modern hermits, ItsYourJapan, March 2022 https://itsyourjapan.com/hikikomori-japan/
- Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, GoodReads https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/40745.Mindset
- The Chimp Paradox, GoodReads https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12228097-the-chimp-paradox
- The 7 Highly Effective Habits of People in Personal Change, GoodReads https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/36072.The_7_Habits_of_Highly_Effective_People
- 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, GoodReads https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/30257963-12-rules-for-life
- Thinking, Fast and Slow, GoodRe https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11468377-thinking-fast-and-slow
i S.A. Culey; ‘Transition Point: From Steam to the Singularity’; Troubadour Publishing, November 6th, 2018
ii Stephen R. Covey; ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change’; Free Press, November 9th, 2004
iii Jordan B. Peterson, ‘12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos’; January 23rd, 2018
iv Daniel Kahneman; ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October 25th, 2011