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Future Proofing Your Son - The T-Shaped Worker

There’s Nothing Fake About Artificial Intelligence

Human brains have evolved over thousands of years to take short cuts for survival, so when I was first asked about future-proofing our students I jumped straight to technology as my solution. I’m a big proponent of implementing new technology in schools in an attempt to predict and mimic the future world our students will be working in.

Unfortunately, my mind took a shortcut in an effort to provide a ‘good enough’ answer to quickly respond to a stimulus which in pre-historic times would have quite likely had the intention of ending my existence. Instead of relying on my instincts and the first thing that came to my mind, I slowed down, reflected on the question and implemented a systematic, scientific approach to this problem – future-proofing.

I decided to research what the future might look like, with the idea of somehow supporting our boys in their preparation for such a time. What I found surprised me. I had heard about the increasing number of jobs each successive generation is likely to have in their lifetime, and briefly considered the plausible correlation between this and the diminishing attention spans of our children. I had heard about artificial intelligence and how the robots are stealing our jobs with reports that soon over 30% of all American jobs will be lost to automation.

But when I dug deeper, I found that this is nothing new. Before the industrial revolution, agriculture employed more people than any industry worldwide, now less than 2% of Americans are directly employed in the agricultural industry. The recent box office movie Hidden Figures shows the critical importance of humans in calculating flight trajectories to get spaceships into the sky and yet today, we carry around in our pockets enough computing power to easily perform these calculations. A friend of mine once argued that the humble nail gun has cost more jobs than any computer ever has due to increased efficiency in construction.

Technology was once hailed as the saviour of the embattled worker, making all jobs easier, increasing our productivity and reducing the need to work so much. Our hunger for economic progress however, seems to dash any hopes we have of riding an easy wave of technology driven lives of leisure. It seems instead, that while technology has improved productivity, we are now working longer hours than ever before.

This history of the ever-changing global employment sector can help guide us in future-proofing our students.

While many industries do disappear, new industries and jobs emerge, and the overwhelming trend is that the new jobs will be highly technical, skilled jobs – often in STEM fields – which utilise the technology that will replace many of our current jobs. So how do we prepare students for this environment?

At a recent conference for Australian science educators, Alan Finkel – Australia’s Chief Scientist – described what he believes a 21st Century Citizen to be. Finkel referenced what IBM coined as the T-shaped worker – the vertical line of the ‘T’ represents a deep expertise in a specialised field and the horizontal bar represents the flexibility to apply this expertise creatively and collaboratively across a range of different situations and scenarios. While he noted the importance of the horizontal bar, he stressed the critical need for the vertical line, and the value of science education in developing that line.

As teachers and parents, we are the foundations and support structures for our developing T-shaped workers and it’s our responsibility to provide the best environment for them to develop both their horizontal bars and their vertical lines. 21st Century skills are the current buzz words in education and I see our boys’ horizontal bars broadening daily in the classroom, during break times and whilst involved in co-curricular activities. Worryingly, a recent report titled “Preparing for the best and worst of times” released by the NSW government found a general belief that actually knowing things was outdated. The report goes on to explain “Generic skills only have meaning within specific domains of knowledge” – sounds like a T-shape to me.

In science we embrace 21st Century skills; they are one of the three underpinning skill sets in the new senior science syllabuses being implemented across Queensland next year. We, along with other curriculum areas, nurture collaboration and foster creativity and critical thinking – without these dispositions the scientific process breaks down. But while these things underpin our subjects, they don’t provide our students with their vertical lines. Vertical lines are hard to develop. They come through rigorous application and systematic attention to detail. Science is an incredibly broad discipline – it literally encompasses the entire universe – and yet by definition it is the pursuit of a deeply specific understanding that gives it such breadth.

So, while I see our boys developing their 21st Century skills in leaps and bounds, I implore them to knuckle down, sweat the small stuff and build up their vertical lines. Boys often give us the first answer rather than the best answer, much like my brain jumping straight to technology as the easy solution to the future. Google preview, Wikipedia and the many distractions of technology facilitate this habit, falsely implying that answers will always be readily available and that everybody is already an expert in everything. Yet you won’t find astronauts at the international space station googling what to do when something breaks, and we eventually always realise after a few unsuccessful attempts at being a home handyman that it’s better to call in the plumber or electrician.

Just like I didn’t rely on my brain’s ‘good enough’ answer when asked about how to future-proof our students, we need to ensure that they don’t rely on the ‘good enough’ answers so readily available to them. When guiding our boys into the future, keep in mind the T-shaped worker and the importance of expertise, something only developed through hard work and attention to detail.

Ben Rerden
Acting Head of Senior School Science
rerdenb@atc.qld.edu.au