Schools will need to open their doors to stronger relationships with employers and workplaces if students are to thrive in a future world rich with artificial intelligence and disruptive technologies.
The finding is contained in a report, 'Preparing for the best and worst of times', commissioned by the NSW Department of Education to examine the skills Australia’s children will need as AI and other technologies “transform Australia’s economy, the workplace and the community”.
“This report reflects the NSW Department of Education’s commitment to supporting informed contributions to the national conversation about how education can better prepare young people for the challenges of life and work post-school,” Department of Education Secretary Mark Scott said.
“We know that a child starting kindergarten last year will spend much of their working lives in the second half of the 21st century.
“In a world rich with artificial intelligence this report helps us answer the question of how schools can help these students to not just survive – but to thrive in this rapidly changing environment.”
The study, led by Professor John Buchanan, of the University of Sydney’s Business School, brought together experts from a range of faculties including business, engineering, health and humanities.
Professor Buchanan said while AI had already been used as an excuse to cut jobs and had accentuated some forms of inequality, “technological change was usually for the good, depending on how it was handled”.
“There is no need to panic about artificial intelligence, we have survived big changes in the past and we can survive them again but we do need think carefully about the implications of AI and be thoughtful and disciplined about how we respond,” Professor Buchanan said.
One of the report’s key findings is that the academic and vocational arms of education need to work closer together and that employers need to be “part of the deal”.
Professor Buchanan said while teachers will remain the “anchor of coherence in the system”, workplaces could be powerful sites for learning.
“We should see the role of employers in education as a public good. We need new education settlements where employers are part of the deal,” he said.
The report points out that greater employer engagement with schools would provide students with a “better understanding of how their knowledge can be applied to solving real-world problems”.
For example biology students in schools could be linked to research institutions, while economic students might develop relationships with public policy units.
Similarly vocational subjects should not be “dumbed down” but instead students in these areas needed deeper expert and underpinning knowledge from more relevant subjects and employers.
“When you get to high school there is a need to really think through the curriculum,” Professor Buchanan said. “We note that on the academic side, there has been too much of a preoccupation with ATAR and what we call the competitive academic curriculum and on the vocational education side there has been too much of a willingness to go down market. To provide short run skills relevant to employers in the district.”
The report says the current focus on students acquiring the generic so-called 21st century skills in isolation from discipline knowledge is “unhelpful”.
“In our view, if you want to solve problems, you become skilled in a specific area of interest and then learn to solve problems in your area,” Professor Buchanan said.
“Someone with really good problem-solving skills who works in a childcare centre is going to be no good on an oil rig when a fire breaks out. Equally, a mining engineer who can handle a fire on an oil rig would have a nightmare trying to manage a child care centre.
“We have got to have a dynamic relationship between the specific and the general. In Switzerland and Germany, they are still training clockmakers and watchmakers and they gain transferable analytical and dextrous capacities they can take into medical device or tool making.”
While counselling against generic skills training, the report strongly recommends that students, particularly those in primary education, be given a strong desire to learn.
“We must nurture curiosity, give people the capacity to concentrate and the ability to follow an idea through over time,” Professor Buchanan said.