On a recent trip to the US, as I drove my rental car through various cities and suburbs, it occurred to me that all of the conventional assumptions we make about our future and that of our children are up for grabs: three-bedroom homes with two-car garages; steady employment with regular promotions; kindergarten plus twelve years of primary and secondary school, followed by university for our children.

Indeed while owning a car may remain a staple of everyday life, driving it may soon be obsolete. Artificial Intelligence will change the nature of many tasks and jobs. Developments in neuroscience and genetic engineering have the potential to change how we think about diseases and their consequences. Virtual reality will transform healthcare and travel. Climate change, food production, and water scarcity know no national boundaries. As if this were not enough, consider the changing nature of relationships (how we make friends, keep friends and stay in touch with friends), religious strife and challenging economic conditions. At best, the future represents a veritable petri dish of uncertainty affecting every aspect of life.

No wonder we speak so casually about “disruption” when discussing the future of almost every industry. Rarely, however, do we stop to think deeply about the implications for today’s educators of tomorrow’s disruptions.

Innovation - or tradition?

This is not to say that the subject has gone altogether unnoticed. Schools at all levels and in all places around the globe are regularly criticized for failing to prepare their students for the modern workplace. But it is the future workplace as much as the modern one that demands our attention. Recognizing the extraordinary uncertainty the future holds, critics suggest that educators should focus on improving student "innovation".

Improving "innovation" has ranged from efforts to educate students to be innovative, to introducing educational innovations to improve student learning.

However wide-ranging and different these efforts may be, in my mind they are all grounded in the educator’s traditional responsibility: teaching our students to analyze, reason, and express themselves clearly; in short, critical thinking combined with the emotional intelligence and mindset to live and thrive with uncertainty.

Educating our students for jobs that don't exist

In order to educate our students for jobs that most likely do not exist yet we must equip them with the skills to ask the right questions, to analyze the answers received by identifying and questioning assumptions, and formulating counter-arguments. We hope to help them to cultivating an open mind, a sense of curiosity and intellectual agility. Armed with these tools, I am confident the students we educate will innovate in a myriad of ways - many of which we cannot even imagine - as they move forward with their lives.

At ShanghaiTech, one of the ways we do this is by teaching a course called “Design Thinking: Applied Innovation” to all of our freshman. Design thinking is a concept that was coined in the field of architecture, and now commonly used to describe the application of design processes to non-design problems. For our students, we've narrowed it down to four steps, taking it back to the roots of critical thinking.

Four steps for critical thinking

First, identify an issue or a problem that needs solving. Second, do a lot of research and exploration and gather as much data as possible, through interviews, observations, and experiments. We teach students to do so in a way that is completely open-minded, so they can hear things without imposing their own assumptions on what the other person is saying. This mindset of withholding judgment is critical.

Through this process, students should glean a new insight leading to the third step: re-framing the issue. The students figure out the core problem differs from the problem as they originally perceived it. And that in itself is a big lesson for all students, but for many Chinese students in particular. Raised in a system with questions, we don’t provide the students with enough opportunity to explore and pose the questions themselves.

The Chinese-born artist Yang Liu, who moved to Germany at the age of 14, visualises German (left) and Chinese (right) approaches to problem solving

Finally, we ask the students to generate as many plausible solutions as possible to the “reframed problem” as a means of introducing the idea that in many cases there are many ways ‘to skin the cat.’ Though I am disinclined to offer up broad cultural generalizations, my experience has been that the education Chinese students have historically been given has been divided into areas in which there are ‘right answers’(e.g. the deductive mathematical sciences), others in which there are ‘right procedures’ to follow that guarantee that the solutions reached are the right ones (e.g. the experimental sciences), and those in which the right answers are matters of cultural, political or moral authority. It is not surprising, then, the process of questioning assumptions and formulating an argument, can be so foreign for them; nor should it be surprising that so many in Chinese education and government have called for a new emphasis on developing ‘creativity’ and innovative entrepreneurship.

With technology posing both challenges and solutions to our lives, my students’ technical prowess gives them a tremendous foundation from which to work. But technology is not meant to be a substitute for the human experience - that's super important to remember. Technology is only as powerful as we human beings make it, as a complement and an addition to the human experience. Technology is not useful without insight into the human condition. Many of our students have spent their lives focused on studying for tests with very little awareness of the human experience. By asking them to solve real-life problems, we hope to begin filling this lacuna.

The author would like to acknowledge Dr. Jules Coleman’s guidance and contribution on this blog entry.