Upgrading education for the future
Education and lifelong learning will be a necessary shift in the future of work. How do we ensure we’re equipping workers with the tools they need to adapt?
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In the future of work, learning itself is likely to become a vital skill for workers in the job market. But traditional education has long been narrow in the subjects it teaches and often ends at graduation from high school or university. In most countries, students graduate from high school with a variety of subjects taken to age 18. However, in the UK, the majority of students at school beyond 16 specialize in only three to four subjects. And, of course, many drop any science or math altogether. Although uptake of math is on the rise, still only 20% of UK university students have taken a qualification in math after the age of 16.
Fast forward to university, and we find that in most national systems, students who specialize in subjects like English literature, history or cultural studies will never open a spreadsheet or do a calculation during the tenure of their studies. Conversely, students engaged in STEM subjects often find it difficult to think beyond the narrow problem-solving techniques associated with one academic subject and see the wider implications of the science they are studying or empathize with different points of view – skills that come more from studying the humanities.
By the time our students finally enter the workforce, little has been done to teach our young people how to approach real-world problems, having often already had to make a choice between either the sciences or the arts and humanities.
However, in the future, most jobs in the corporate world are increasingly expected to benefit from an understanding of data or science – and something to do with the humanities, like reading, writing, and communicating.
Transferring learning to the changing world of work
Even today, many employers struggle to find candidates who meet all of the necessary business needs. In Europe, a pre-COVID-19 survey found that 61% of employers were not confident they could find enough applicants with the required skills to meet business needs.
The traditional way of educating is a denial of reality – and it does not prepare our students to become well-rounded contributors to the workforce.
So it begs the question: how do we educate in a way that is holistic and encourages students to think across disciplines to dissect and address real world problems? How do we teach so our young people can become employees who are well-equipped to come up with creative solutions and contribute in a meaningful way?
Pioneering interdisciplinary higher education through LIS
I’ve been thinking about these challenges since at least 2010, when I led the design and launch of the Arts and Sciences BASc degree at University College London. Now I’ve joined the London Interdisciplinary School (LIS), the first UK higher education institution aimed at teaching in just this way, as a founding member. Launching this September, we are employing a radical curriculum centered on real world problems. Instead of academic subjects explicitly taught individually, each subject is taught in the context of a complex real world problem. For instance, we might learn aspects of philosophy, economics or network science while addressing the question: "how could we reduce inequality in a certain circumstance?" Or, we might use the disciplines of sociology, data science and psychology to tackle the problem, “how can we mitigate bias in technology?”
By structuring our curriculum this way, we’re teaching our students to think critically about what skills are needed to create solutions for the world we live in. We introduce students to a wide variety of methods for tackling problems and anticipate students will be surprised by the power of an interdisciplinary approach.
We’re also challenging some existing admissions practices by admitting a wider range of students than other institutions. In addition to the expected candidates at the top of their class, LIS is looking for students who may have struggled at school or may have had to drop out to start working. In this regard, we have a much more diverse cohort, both in terms of educational background, ethnicity, and financial background than I’ve previously seen, giving access to a fully enriching and truly practical education to more people.
With an interdisciplinary education, we’re opening up a new world of employment possibilities for students who come from underserved communities, or who simply didn’t thrive in the traditional school environment. Indeed, many workers on both sides of the Atlantic are held back from finding good quality jobs due to lack of access to traditional credentials – in the U.S., workers without college degrees have access to only 26% of all new jobs created.
From the employers’ perspective, this is the type of education and training that can reinvigorate the applicant pool. It will create well-rounded people who are capable of thinking critically, applying skills from both the arts and sciences to tackle complex problems. They will already possess many of the skills required to meet business needs. And as industries and landscapes evolve, this type of schooling provides a strong foundation for learning emerging concepts and additional skills.
Shaping a Positive Work Future for All
Over the last six months, I’ve joined a diverse set of thought leaders and practitioners from across Europe and the United States to understand which barriers might stand in the way of achieving a positive work future – a project led by Verizon and Xynteo. As part of a working group on Education and Lifelong Learning, we’re looking at how to better prepare people of all ages for current and future labor markets.
There’s a clear tension between the new opportunities for learning opened up through the internet and the more traditional ways of evaluating and tracking education by both institutions and employers. Together with other participants in the project, my hope is that we can uncover some of the barriers to transforming education and learning, and formulate actionable recommendations for business leaders and policymakers to accelerate a positive future of work.
We can truly reform education to meet the needs not only of employers, but of workers too. But we need corporations to advocate for interdisciplinary learning. As companies require a broad range of skills in their entry level employees, universities will adapt to maintain the status quo of their employment success rates. Furthermore, Human Resources departments know that having the right skills is more important than the institution from which an applicant graduates. It’s in the organization’s best interest to have the right employee – not the most prestigious employee.
There are signs the shift is taking place – LinkedIn has reported a 21% increase in job advertisements featuring skills and responsibilities over qualifications. And it is not just entry-level employees that need more interdisciplinary knowledge and skills. Indeed, there is a substantial body of research that shows that interdisciplinary thinking and methodologies is of value to leaders and more senior employees as they increasingly navigate complex and fast-changing environments. By embracing an interdisciplinary approach to education, we can radically change what our future of work looks like.
This is part one of a five part series on the Future of Work initiative
Learn more about the Future of Work initiative and the London Interdisciplinary School: