Future Frontiers Analytical Report: Preparing for the best and worst of times

Authors of the Report
Professor John Buchanan, Dr Rose Ryan, Professor  Michael Anderson, Professor Rafael Calvo, Professor Nick Glozier, Dr Sandra Peter
University of Sydney

Led by Professor John Buchanan, Head of Business Analytics at the University of Sydney Business School, and the Sydney Policy Lab, an inter-faculty team of professors, researchers and senior academics consider the question of what today’s six years olds will need to thrive, and not just survive, when they finish school given the extent of predicted technological and global change.

Some 20 professors and senior academics were brought together in workshops and interviews to discuss their insights into the future needs of citizens in a world disrupted by AI and technology, and what this might mean for education.

Students need to develop more than just ‘soft’ or ‘general employability’ skills

  • If we want young people to thrive as citizens and not just be highly flexible labour, they need nurturing in many aspects of life and development, not just those related to employability.
  • Students need to develop fundamental dispositions for learning and adaptability in the broadest sense, such as concentration, resilience, curiosity.
  • In an AI-rich world, students will need to understand how algorithms and AI-based technology works, how it can impact on their world and the importance of ethical design.

21st century skills are best acquired through domain-specific knowledge

  • Once the early learning foundations have been built, the mastery of these ‘soft’ skills are best developed in the context of deep domain specific knowledge and specialist expertise.
  • Skills and expertise in problem-solving, critical thinking and communication may also be subject and job-specific, and not necessarily transferrable.

The historical divide between the vocational and academic within schools should be narrowed

  • Mainstream, academically-focused curricula has been criticised historically as too abstract and students can struggle to understand the importance of what they are learning, which can lead to disengagement. Rather, students need more opportunities to engage with practical, current and applied implications of learning, including how complex problems are approached in real-world contexts.
  • Conversely, some vocational subjects are at risk of having been ‘dumbed down’ or made too specific to meet current vocational requirements, which may reduce students’ capacity to build deeper engagement and a drive for life-long learning. Rather, VET should provide learners with deep content knowledge and help to engage less academically inclined students to build their learning capacity longer term.

Education systems and society more broadly needs to consider what change is required to help meet these future challenges

  • The authors argue that it may be time for a new educational settlement with greater partnership between schools and select employers; however, teachers will need to remain the custodians of quality education.
  • It is important for individuals, governments and organisations to understand that they have agency over technology and AI, and can determine how it is best applied in the future.
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