Lessons from the Future (of Learning)
Well, the Future of Learning was certainly one of my life’s greatest learning opportunities. A very steep learning curve indeed!
Together with Cheryl Doig from Think Beyond and our incredible team, we successfully ran a national conference focussed on learning, on technology change, on the likely impact of accelerating technological change on the intersecting worlds of education, business, and government. We had great representation from those sectors, with 240 attendees representing diverse perspectives and bringing a wealth of knowledge and experience to the event.
I believe that this is one of the most important messages of our age.
Technology is changing everything we do, revolutionising industries, disrupting businesses, and changing the way our society operates. I think we all understand that fairly well really – however few people understand that the pace of technology change is accelerating.
Exponential technology change has fundamental implications for almost everything we do -from the skills we need for the future workforce, to the way we operate our businesses, and even to the careers and professions we choose to pursue.
Unless we start to prepare, start to recalibrate the way we work, the way we operate our businesses, and the way we learn and adapt, we are not going to be successful in the future. I think that is the heart of the matter, this is not something any of us can afford to ignore.
Leading up to the event, I spent a huge amount of time well, learning… I’m not an educationist, I’m not an academic who has studied learning, however, I have approached this with a fresh perspective, and a sound grasp on the implications of accelerating technological change. In recognising that I am not an expert in this field, I am keen to hear your thoughts – please comment below and share your opinions.
In this post, I’d like to share with you some of the concepts and ideas which have fascinated me most from the event, from talking to our amazing speakers and panellists, and from the many and varied discussions with the people who attended the event. The conversations and learning have been amazing! This is a high-level overview – but I am always keen if you want to discuss these issues – get in touch!
So let’s dive right in:
The future is not certain
One thing we can be certain about is that we can’t predict what will happen. As one of our panellists said, “we look at the future through our cracked crystal ball”. Our comprehension of the potential changes and challenges we’ll see in our lifetime is based on a biased and limited perspective on the world, a poor understanding of scale, and a mindset best suited for survival on the savannah, living in caves and avoiding sabretooth tigers.
Many (most?!) people don’t understand what exponential means, let alone understand the scope and scale and likely impact of this trend. That is a significant problem for us, as technological change is coming at us like a tidal wave – there is nothing we can do to stop it, or avoid it.
Adding to that, the fact that we are terrible at coping with change anyway. Our brains are not that evolved from the days of the savannah, where change equalled danger, a threat to our survival. Change resistance has been one of the key difficulties of the modern age, and the major contributor to the failure of business projects. In a world of accelerating change and uncertainty, how can we help people to adapt? This is a question which I have often pondered.
We are not able to predict the future, however, we are able to extrapolate known trends to begin to predict Probable, Possible and Preferred futures. Futurists use these perspectives to be able to communicate about uncertainty, to help people and organisations to understand what they can do now, to prepare for the uncertain future, and to build resilience. From my perspective, the best way to overcome change resistance is to collectively work towards the future – to play the “what’s in it for me” card and sell the hope of a better, more equitable way of life.
Skills change, sea change
One thing is quite certain – the skills we will need in the future workforce are going to change significantly. That doesn’t just mean we’ll need to prepare students for the future, but also help people in careers adapt – the vast majority of us have been educated in a system which is designed to meet the needs of the industrial revolution, not the world we are now rapidly heading towards.
Skills which are on the rise include analytical and critical thinking, research, collaboration and teamwork, creativity, digital fluency, curiosity. (see https://www.21cskillslab.com/what-21c-skills) It is clear that those are not the skills taught in schools – but they are critical to the future success of our children – and for ourselves.
Those of us who have trained for a professional career are no better off, indeed we may be worse. Artificial intelligence tools are aimed squarely at the skills we learn early in our careers – learning the ropes will become so much more difficult in a future of automation of any repetitive or repeatable skill. This is going to become a critical issue in many professions – and I don’t believe enough of them are paying attention.
I’m going to have to write a whole post about this concept I think…
The idea of a career mosaic, shared by our US-based keynote speaker Jason Swanson, from Knowledgeworks, is one in which the skills you have learned and become proficient in, are just as important as the roles you have filled during your career. Unlike a series of roles recorded in your Curriculum Vitae, or noted in LinkedIn, your career is likely to be multi-faceted. If you are anything like me, you’ve been in multiple roles during your life – I always said a career is simply a job you have been in too long! If you consider the skills you’ve learned in your private life too, your mosaic becomes a well-rounded reflection of you, your perspectives, and what you think is important in life.
If I was an employer, I would much prefer to employ someone with diverse perspectives and skills, a mosaic of skills which they are able to apply to the challenges in my business.
I don’t think most teachers are in the profession for the salaries… Nor do they relish the marking or administration our current education system dictates. From the educators I have spoken to – they are all in education for the right reasons – to help students achieve their potential and to pass on a love of learning.
Given that fundamental, I think it is time we started to look seriously at:
- What parts of learning need to be re-invented?
- What parts of the system need to be disrupted?
- How can we support educators to adapt and thrive?
- How might we apply technology to solve the challenges of learning at scale?
- What might the role of an educator look like in the future?
Learning at Scale
It is clear that if the predictions of the impact of accelerating technology change are realistic, that we are going to need to learn and relearn at a scale we’ve never managed previously. That means this change is not such a threat to educators – indeed we will need many more of them, sharing their passion for learning and helping people of all ages to adapt and learn new skills.
The automation and disruption of the education system should be embraced – it is the only way we can conceivably manage to retrain the vast numbers of people likely to be affected by technology change.
Of course, one of our challenges in this space is the huge number of people who have already gone through our flawed education system. It is clear that while the system works for some learners, it leaves a whole section of our society disenfranchised, unable to embrace learning and unable to adapt to change. This is a critical problem for our collective future.
Immersive learning experiences
Prior to the Future of Learning experience, I admit, I had thought Virtual Reality was a bit of a gimmick. I thought it had applications for gaming, virtual tours, etc but I hadn’t really understood it’s potential.
One of the surprising aspects of this which I hadn’t anticipated was that virtual environments can be very effective learning tools. Being immersed in the digital environment, even though it is still clear it is artificial, removes all the distractions to the learner – that means their attention is focussed on the task, and therefore they learn skills very effectively.
I had the opportunity to experience an immersive learning environment first hand in the lead up to the event. James Hayes, CEO of Virtual Medical Coaching, was kind enough to let me try my hand at radiology, x-raying a virtual patient’s knee. I have to say, this was an incredibly realistic experience!
Perhaps the most fundamental idea I got from the conference was Reciprocal Learning. This is the idea that more experienced learners can teach those who are less experienced.
Maori have a tradition which reflects this – called Tuakana-teina – the older siblings teach the younger ones, passing on the skills they need to be a part of the family unit. Discussion at the Future of Learning Masterclasses indicated that in some iwi this is now being flipped, so youth are teaching elders digital skills -helping them to adapt to technology change and to be successful in the increasingly digital world.
I think there is very real potential here. With baby boomers now exiting the workforce, many still have enormous wisdom and experience to offer back to today’s youth. Perennial skills which will help youth to be resilient in the disrupted future work environment are in great demand – and we can’t discount the contribution our elders can make to the future!
Digital natives & their devices
I’ve heard repeated concerns about the effect of technology on children’s learning – but I have to ask – is taking the device off children going to help them? Hardly! The more familiar and fluent and confident students are with technology, the better prepared they will be for the accelerating change we will see over the next 10-15 years.
“We have to stop pretending that we can “unplug” our children. Technology is an integrated part of our kids’ world – and it will continue to be throughout their lives. We need to change the conversation. Instead of restricting screen time, we need to teach our children balance in a world where technology is abundant.”
We need youth to not only be able to navigate the complex and changing world of relationships, social media and cyberbullying; but also to be confident exploring and learning about technology and applying it to challenges they encounter. My children (now in their final years of education) were lucky enough to be exposed to tech at a very early age, able to use a mouse before they could walk, to learn the basics of coding while they were in primary school. This has provided a foundation of skills and aptitude which will see them well positioned for the future – and I strongly believe we need all students to have the same advantages.
Some of the points I have made might sound a little doom and gloom, but I am confident that technology change also creates a very exciting opportunity. If we put the right foundations in place now, and we consciously design what the future might look like, we may just be able to conspire and collaborate to survive and thrive in the future.
I’m no Pollyanna, but I am part of a growing movement of “Techno-optimism” – intelligent optimists who look towards the future and act to apply technology to some of the greatest challenges faced by humanity and the planet.
As individuals and as organisations, we need to recalibrate the way we operate to thrive in the future. We need to prepare now, start to mobilise our workers and adapt our organisations – if we hesitate, we could readily become the proverbial “frog in the slowly heating pot”…
It is only by embracing technology and using it to improve the way we learn, that we can hope to overcome change resistance. It is my very firm belief that this message needs to get out to many more people. Too many aren’t aware of the scope and scale of the changes which are already upon us, and too many organisations are standing flat-footed, unaware, unable or unwilling to change.
I would welcome the opportunity to help start the conversation in your organisation, about the likely changes your industry will see, the timeframes we have to prepare and to adapt, the way we can work past the challenges, and the opportunities we can take.
This is an exciting time. The game is changing, the rules will be rewritten, and the future is ours to shape and create.
Over to you – please comment and let me know your thoughts:
What is the #1 most important thing for you to learn about to continue to be successful in the future?