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How to prepare students for the unknowable

For students to be successful now and in the future, we must empower them to direct their own learning, think creatively and critically, and use technology to solve problems

The workforce is on the cusp of a major evolution. But will Gen Z—those born after 1996 and just beginning to think about their careers—be prepared with the essential skills to succeed? Now more than ever before, educators have the opportunity and the imperative to engage students in learning tasks that ask them to think critically and problem-solve.

According to an Institute for the Future report, “The Next Era of Human-Machine Partnerships,” emerging technologies like augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR), artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI), big data, cloud computing, and the Internet of Things (IoT) are going to completely transform the workplace by 2030. This change is coming so fast that an estimated 85 percent of the jobs that will make up the future workforce have not yet been invented. At the same time, a survey of business leaders shows than eight in 10 (82 percent) expect that humans and machines will work as integrated teams within their organization inside of five years, and 84 percent expect that all of their workers will be digital experts by the year 2030.

It’s clear that the way we engage students in the learning process needs to change. But how do we transform the educational system to adequately prepare students for an unknowable future?

Understanding the drivers of transformation
As automation continues to take over many of the routine tasks we manage today, humans will become increasingly free to focus on more big-picture, creative tasks. This is not to say machines will completely take over human work; rather, we’ll see the rise of augmented work, in which humans and machines work together to learn and perform tasks more efficiently and comprehensively than either could do alone.

Machines will augment and extend our own abilities, providing us with the advanced knowledge we need to make real-time, data-driven decisions, perform tasks more successfully, and get our jobs done more effectively and efficiently. Consider how the internet has reshaped the workplace by providing us access to faster communication and more in-depth knowledge. AR and VR make our connection to those resources more immediate, natural, and comprehensive, while AI helps us glean more insights from data and make informed decisions.

Only a year ago, a person needed hundreds of hours of specialized training to make critical repairs on autos or aircrafts. But today, AR technology makes it possible for lesser-trained mechanics to be successful, with virtual guides overlaying vehicles, providing step-by-step instructions every step of the way.

In our lifetime, we’ll also experience advanced technology’s impact on soft sciences like philosophy, fine arts, language arts, and business as machines allow us to offload mundane tasks and create more immersive experiences. We will have the power to analyze massive amounts of data instantaneously to solve a specific problem, or sift through centuries of ideas and information to reach better conclusions, faster.

Teachers as collaborative mentors
During my professional career, I’ve watched employers shift their focus to place a higher value on workers who can think critically and learn in-the-moment to execute a variety of tasks, rather than those who perform specialized skills. For students to be successful now and in the future, we must empower them to direct their own learning, think creatively and critically, and use technology to solve problems. To facilitate students down this path, educators must be empowered to serve as collaborative mentors, providing students with the definition of what they must learn, but giving them flexibility in how they learn.

In the ideal classroom of the future, students will have the opportunity to complete project-based work, while learning anywhere and anytime with a variety of resources. They will engage in an AR/VR experience, leverage a tactile model or conduct hands-on lab exercises that reflect real-world experiences. Rather than memorizing facts and methods, students will master the variety of ways they can use technology to accomplish a task or search for answers.

We must allow students to be responsible for driving their own success, with educators providing them with tools and techniques that support personalized learning and help develop students’ passions. This shift in teacher-student relationship is critical, as it mirrors the relationships students will have with their future employers.

Rethinking assessment
To ensure that educators are truly given the power to enable students to be successful in the workforce of the future, we must also rethink the way our students and teachers are assessed. One-size-fits-all examinations focus too much on students giving the “right” answer, and too little on how they get to that answer. Instead, we need performance-based assessment measures that provide feedback during the learning process in order to meet students where they are and provide support for individual mastery.

Today we have the ability to assess students in a variety of ways. For example, we can use portfolios that allow students to show growth over time and encourage reflection with teachers, parents, and peers. In the future, digital applications may use AI to recognize how each student learns best and combine that with choice of content to support the learning progression and demonstrate mastery of essential knowledge, skills, and dispositions.

We must provide students with an environment where they’re encouraged to become proficient in learning new things, in new ways. We must encourage them to “fail forward” by helping them to learn through iteration, tinkering, and exploration. More value should be placed on the process, not just outcomes, because we know this is how students learn best.

Masters of their success
We don’t know what the job titles of 2030 will entail, and we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the opportunities that will spring from the human-machine partnership. By helping students see issues from multiple vantage points and to think critically about how to reach a solution, we can help them become masters of their own success. That way, whatever the future brings, they’ll be ready to meet the challenges rationally, systematically, and with full mastery of the incredible technology and tools at their disposal.

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