Preparing young learners for life beyond the fourth Industrial Revolution

Every day, we discover bloggers and pundits crying for an end to education, favoring their version of what will prepare children for the fourth industrial revolution. Having been born in the second, fully experiencing the third, still working into the fourth, and planning to be around for the fast-approaching fifth and sixth waves of industrial revolutions, I find this position—thinking one revolution ahead—far too limiting.

The future of education has nothing to do with preparing children for industrial and technological trends. With an estimated 38 percent of U.S. jobs to be automated by the early 2030s, we must prepare children to be uniquely human in an increasingly un-human world. Our economic and social systems might not be prepared for this transformation, but one thing is certain—today’s children must be empowered to grapple with this dilemma as adults.

We don’t need to predict the future; we need to let children create it

Education during the second industrial revolution was essentially the acquisition of content that individuals could leverage to create value for society. Entry into the third industrial revolution, which occurred around 1969, was much heralded as fundamentally changing this landscape of learning. However, the facts remain remarkably disappointing as achievement on the National Assessment of Education Performance (NAEP) has been flat throughout the past 45 years.

The shortsightedness of preparing children for the fourth industrial revolution is akin to teaching them how to make fire in the face of clickable gas lighters. What is needed is to shape children’s experiences such that they focus on how to acquire and apply knowledge, not just possess it. That is, we can give children experiences; they must personally create the knowledge. Similarly, education technology must be utilized to create an experience that enables children to acquire the knowledge, skills, and dispositions for life, not just for the next industrial revolution.

Technology presents a new opportunity to transform education

For current and future generations, education must evolve into a networked, communicative phenomenon, rather than the homogenized, rote experience of the past. Our goal now is to cease the escalating technology consumerism and create a segment of commercial technology that fits a more elegant approach around helping children create the technology. This type of learning is possible today in a reimagined, student-centric model of education. In this brave new world, children are equipped with a love of learning and the tools to make sense of the world through experiences that are collaborative, creative, and richly communicative. The elements of this approach are built around three fundamental ideas:

  • Mindsets. Through the recognition that failure is the best teacher, we must provide a safe environment for children to experiment and fail early and often on the path to success. Only in this manner will they begin to appreciate the truth of Edison’s words, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” This enables students to see that failure is not some value-laden word of despair, derivative of the current test-and-punish culture. Rather, they will see it as an opportunistic stop along the path to success. It is through this process of failure-driven success that children will develop the mindset needed to confidently face the challenges of the future.
  • Toolsets. If we are to fully take on this mindset, children must be given the tools to experience failure and create success through access to a rich and vibrant tapestry of learning assets and choices. Learning must become more personalized, relevant, and contextualized. Children born in the second industrial revolution, as I was, were afforded significantly more access to a rich environment of tools in garages and on farms. These were places where we could create and revel in the joy of newfound abilities using the tools of the day. These garages and farms were the makerspaces of that generation. Schools must become the garages and farms of the future, where access to a wide array of physical and digital tools is the rule rather than the exception.
  • Skill sets. Skill sets are cultivated through practice and the mentoring of adaptive educators. In a facilitative and mentoring role, educators become curators of a child’s interactions with learning from peers, industry, and civil society. They socially embed the child in a relevant and authentic ecosystem of relationships. Education technology becomes an artifact while the community becomes a library of opportunities from which students select experiences that foster the acquisition of skills needed to follow their passions.

The mindset, toolset, and skill set that afforded me through my one-line computer I created for a science fair in the eight grade are in fact attainable today in collaborative, learner-centered, hands-on STEM labs where failure adds as much, if not more, as success does to the young person’s journey.

The role of education successfully evolved from the 18th- and 19th-century mandate of teaching English and basic skills to the 20th-century call to address mass manufacturing and the evolving family. Now, it must evolve to prepare children for the greatest, most challenging adventures of their lives—operating professionally and personally within a society dominated by increasing technological innovations. Because these new norms do not yet exist, we cannot directly prepare younger generations for them. This is why to yield positive outcomes for young people and their collective future, we must prepare them for the unpredictability of a technologically advanced life—not just the fourth industrial revolution.

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