Education needs to prepare students to solve emerging problem not the problems of the past

Professor Stephen Parker AO, National Education Sector Lead
Professor Stephen Parker AO, National Education Sector Lead

Education systems are preparing students for forms of work that are disappearing. We focus on solving existing, rather than emerging, problems. Without urgent action, Australia risks being left behind as competitor nations lift their productivity and prepare their citizens better for the future world of work.

The fourth industrial revolution — that collision of related technologies such as automation, artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain, the internet of things, brain ­enhancement, additive manufacturing, synthetic biology and data analysis — will fundamentally change the nature of jobs.

There is no escaping this, and purposeful leadership is ­required. Forty per cent of jobs have a moderate to high likelihood of disappearing in the next 10 to 15 years.

School curriculums will need to adapt to reflect the science, technology, engineering and mathematics knowledge needed in an information ­society. But the new world of work ­requires more than heightened STEM literacies. It needs reflective people who can reason ethically and consider the impli­cations of emerging techno­logies.

I believe a reconciliation of the humanities and sciences — separated for two centuries — will be required.

Australia is not doing particularly well. In the main international standardised testing of school students — the Program for International Student Assessment — Australian students’ performance declined in reading and scientific literacy between 2006 and 2015. Mathematical literacy fell ­between 2012 and 2015. Similar patterns are evident in other international assessments.

About 35 per cent of Australian 15-year-olds show low proficiency in problem solving and 27 per cent in digital literacy and 29 per cent in financial literacy.

Our universities perform well in world rankings but the earnings advantage of Australian graduates is declining, as is the graduate ­employment rate.

It is time to act. We need first to redesign the education system to reduce divisions between its component parts and plan it as a whole. The separation of federal and state responsibilities is a ­recipe for politicking — what is at stake is too important for this.

A first principles reform process, involving government but not driven by it, should be convened by industry, the professions, trade unions, educational institutions and student bodies, to imagine a joined-up system that teaches and assesses what is needed.

We must bridge the academic-vocational divide better and change the cultural attitudes that accompany it. Ways to achieve this include ­experiment­ing with European-style polytechnic institutions, which marry high-level knowledge with mastery of technical skills, and degree apprenticeships that are now taking off in Britain.

Assessment is a crucial issue. Although the recent Australian curriculum has a focus on capabilities, there is no consistent ­national approach to assessing and reporting students’ acquisition of them. At the least, we need to measure capabilities alongside the National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy and the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank. The Australian Qualifications Framework needs revisiting. The bachelor degree may have a history stretching back 800 years, but is it fit for purpose now?

I see micro-credentialling taking off, where short courses are taken online or in person, then assembled into portfolios that are recognised by some academic institutions and employers. There is plenty of room for experimentation here.

A move to a different form of education for the future inevitably will be controversial. During this process we would need some restraint among the public and the media. Outrage is not a substitute for evidence.

Of course, a good society is one where people are fulfilled, not just prosperous. There is more to education than preparing people for work, but unless people are prepared for work we will lose the prosperity that ­finances the education system to begin with.

Read more: Educating for the new world of work

This article first appeared in the Australian on 7/6/2017. Used with permission

6 thoughts on “Education needs to prepare students to solve emerging problem not the problems of the past

  1. Thanks Stephen, a great article with lots of food for thought. Having returned recently from teaching in a European Business school, I am not totally convinced that the grass is greener there though as I experienced very outdated approaches to learning and assessment. What we need both in our educational institutions and in workplace learning initiatives is a more holistic approach to capability development to recognise individual/organisational and societal learning/growth needs.

    1. Thanks Judy. I know what you mean about European pedagogy, but the idea of offering practical learning at the highest level – which dates back to the Royal Polytechnic Institute in London in the mid 19th Century (I think) – is the central point. We can celebrate maestros, ie people who are exceptional at doing things, as well as theorists.

  2. Great insights Stephen – indeed “it is time to act” – we’re sometimes so absorbed in the day-to-day and don’t really appreciate how the world is now capable of changes at an unthinkable pace, and although I sometimes see there are emerging discussions on the issues you articulated so well in this article, they are quite ad-hoc, and there are still major rethinking to be done in how we approach Education. I also have young children myself, and they’re growing up fast, so it’s a topic close to heart indeed.

  3. Great article Stephen, and perfectly aligned with KPMG’s Corporate Citizenship focus on ‘Skills for the Future’.

  4. Marcia Pitstock

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    Great article. My daughter started high school this year and their Headmaster is strongly advocating the same principles of creative thinking, entrepreneurial skills and preparing kids for the jobs of the future. It’s a scary world for the next generation, and schools must keep pace with the rapid changes to prepare our kids for the jobs of the future.

    1. Thanks Marcia. I too have come across school principals and senior leaders who do seem to get it, but changing the system at large will be a national challenge. Stephen

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