20th Century Kid/ 21st Century Teacher

20th Century Kid/ 21st Century Teacher


The world of work is changing; are our schools changing enough?

The kid in the photograph? That is me, circa 1983. When that photograph was taken, I thought the microwave oven was the pinnacle of human development. Seriously. I thought that we were pretty much done. There was nowhere else for us to go. “Baked beans in two minutes? Truly, the future has arrived!” (I am aware, by the way, that microwaves existed long before the eighties, but I was in Doncaster; nothing cutting-edge ever arrived there until long after the rest of the world had moved on.) I found this photo again recently and it has really got me pondering how much has changed and how little we actually know about what the future holds. We really have no clue what our students of today will be doing by the time they are forty years old. Neither do they. When I left school in 1989, home computing was still in its infancy. It must have been well into the nineties (possibly this side of the millenium, come to think about it) when I found myself sitting in my local library in Brixton, learning how to use Windows, having finally noticed that the world was very much leaving me behind. There was no social media. There was no Google! This is all before we take into account that the last thing I ever thought I’d be doing was teaching. If anyone had told me that I would be, I’d have assumed they were raving mad, but at least the job existed. How many of us are now doing jobs that didn’t exist when we were children? None of us know how our pupils will earn a living, so let’s start with something easier…

What won’t our students be doing?

In 2013, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A.Osborne attempted to answer what Western pupils will not be doing for a living in the mid-21st Century in their paper,The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation? (http://www.futuretech.ox.ac.uk/sites/futuretech.ox.ac.uk/files/The_Future_of_Employment_OMS_Working_Paper_1.pdf) They estimated that “…about 47% of total US employment is at risk” and it is already apparent that this pattern is, as with so much else, being repeated on this side of the Atlantic. They considered occupations such as:

  • “Transportation and Material Moving” (Driverless vehicles are only an upgrade or two away from ubiquity).
  • “Sales and related” (Automated check-outs and online retailing: Soon supermarkets will be staffed by a couple of people. How they think anybody will be able to buy any of their products is another question, of course.)
  • “Office and Administrative Support” (automated call-centres and clerical services: when was the last time you paid a bill or upgraded your phone by dealing with an actual person?)

All these and more were found by the study to be at “High-risk” of becoming obsolete as human occupations well within the working lives of the children we are now teaching. Will today’s children’s children even write using a pen? Will they need to? Is handwriting an important part of language and brain development, which we would be foolish to abandon without first thinking about what we are giving up, or is it actually a primitive means of communication which we can safely drop? Do they ever use pens and pencils at home for any reason other than doing homework? How much of what we ask children to do is in fact superfluous to what they will need in their future lives?

So what will they do?

Really, as I look around the Northern English town of Halifax, West Yorkshire, where I teach, it would be possible to sink into despair looking at the state of the place and considering the employment prospects for our kids. Boarded-up shops and businesses are everywhere. This all feels horribly familiar. As I left school in 1989, Doncaster was full of boarded-up shops and powerful signals of terminal decline were everywhere. The miners’ strike of the time had left my local area a smoking ruin and there seemed to me to be nothing left for me there. I moved to London and did not return to Yorkshire until 2007. It’s possible I took the coward’s way out, but I could not see any way to have a decent life in the town where I spent most of my school years. So I left, because I could. Everybody can’t just leave, though. Many don’t want to. Moving to London is something that most people would find impossible now, though other cities are apparently benefiting from this, and about time, too. Who’d have thought that generation X could ever be considered the lucky ones?


The Digital Generation: Hooray for the Internet!

The reason I am not despairing is that this generation has something that we never had. They have got the internet. They can work on the internet! They can collaborate with people from all around the world and it doesn’t matter where they live! They can be part of the global economy and a vast community. They can create new ways of living and of earning a living without having to move to an insanely expensive city to do it! Of course, that means that people don’t even have to come to the UK to “steal” your job, but hey, let’s keep positive! Lest you think I am envisioning a future in which our children never set foot out of the house, remember that it is still possible to use the internet to meet up with like-minded individuals who live in the same town, as well as on another continent. They can look at the problems and challenges they face and come up with solutions. Then they can market it to the world. They can bring the world to them, or bring themselves to the world in ways that simply were not available to the generation before. The only problem is that all of this has been sneaking up without any of us really noticing. We thought the internet was just a useful tool to help us to access information more easily. This is what they thought about Guttenberg’s moveable type. It has since been acknowledged that the print revolution changed everything. The culture changed beyond recognition and so did our brains. The internet is doing the same thing, but we are too close-up to see it clearly. We are still infants, or (as Terry Pratchett observes in his collection of non-fiction writing, A Slip of the Keyboard) we are like the apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey: We have had a space ship land among us, but we have no idea what to do with it.


Everything is different.

It is my dream to help bring about a paradigm change in education and employment by bringing together schools and businesses to discuss how to equip the next generation for the future. Schools need to innovate, truly embracing the modern world with all its implications, problems and solutions. How can we harness technology and the latest research in neuroscience and psychology to enhance learning? How can we make sure that young people can go out into the world equipped to give employers what they need and/or able to create their own jobs and enterprises?

A revolution is happening in the worlds of work and of education. The children know something is happening. They can see that their towns are dying and they fear unemployment and that their qualifications will be no use to them, but their schools and teachers are not yet offering any solutions. The times we are living in are scary, for sure, but how thrilling too, to be living through this time, as we acknowledge that the industrial age, and its paradigms of education, are over.

Melinda Bower