Education and Skills

Forget coding, we need to teach our kids how to dream

Children leap into a tidal pool as temperatures soar at Camps Bay beach in Cape Town, South Africa, December 11, 2016.   REUTERS/Mike Hutchings     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTX2UK5K

The future is less about what to remove, but rather what to refocus on. Image: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

Tom Goodwin
Head of Futures and Insight, Publicis Groupe
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Life is becoming increasingly less predictable. From the political volatility of Donald Trump and Brexit to the vast societal changes of globalisation, drastic, seismic change is in the air.

While unpredictability is already problematic for many, for future generations there are no signs of things calming. If we accept that the role of education is to furnish our children with the best understanding, skills and values for a prosperous and happy life, then how do we arm them for a future that we can’t imagine? Do we even need knowledge in a world of Alexa and Siri? Is the skill of agility now more valuable than the gaining of knowledge?

We’ve prioritised the acquisition of knowledge around what we assume society would deem most “worthy”. For much of history, knowledge was rooted in theology: it was about explaining the world in a supernatural way, seeing goodness as a tenet. The industrial revolution saw a vast shift away from this to a way of maximising return on investment in a production-centric environment. In recent years, we have considered maths, reading, and writing as the basic building blocks for survival; the best levers for our labour to produce value.

This value has, however, eroded over the years. Businesses have complained about the poor skills of school-leavers, and we’ve assumed the way forward is to ensure that more people study for longer. I think that the changing world means that we need to prepare kids in a totally different way. A 5-year-old today will enter a working world in 2030 that is so incomprehensible that we need an existential re-imagination of the very foundation of education. It’s the cliched hope of the paranoid parent that teaching Chinese will best prepare kids for a future of different power structures in geopolitics, but is that essential in a world of Google translate? Many thinking teaching kids to code is the solution, but won’t soon software be written by software? Our vision for the future needs to include more imagination. It’s staggering to me as to how much the world has changed, and how little education has. The digital age means a different world.

Think of people’s mental faculties as a set of concentric circles. At the core is the very essence of who we are: our values, how we think, what’s important to us, our personality and our behaviours. Over this layer, our skills are formed. Are we adaptable? Can we build relationships? Are we fast learning, good at music, great at languages, can we see things from different points of view? Around this we form technical abilities: the gathering of facts, vocabulary, and the processes of life.

Current schooling seems outward-in. We prioritise knowledge above all else. It is tested in exams. The best in school are those who can most easily recall information. Which was pretty helpful until like now, where information is immediate, everywhere and abundant. In a world of Fake news, being able to form opinions, criticise, evaluate, and see both sides of the story are far more vital than merely knowing things, absorbing stuff and parlaying it back robotically.

For kids growing up today, let alone tomorrow, we’re living in a world where we outsource knowledge and skills to the Internet. I’m not saying that it’s a waste of time to have good handwriting when we’re more likely to be interacting with voices and keyboards, but I’m not sure that it’s a priority to be perfect at it.

Kids will struggle to communicate if they can’t spell at all, but when spell-checkers auto translate and software handles voice-to-text, maybe it’s not something to take up much time. Maths and the logic from it is essential, but perhaps we need to think of it more philosophically.

These are things to question, rather than easy changes to make. The future is less about what to remove, but rather what to refocus on. I believe that there are five key attributes to develop, these are values at the core of who we are. This is an inside out approach to developing robust, happy, balanced people fit to embrace the modern age.


The reality of the modern working world will, for many, exist not as an employee, but as a creator of value through relationships. I don’t need to know how to code or shoot in 360 degrees or big rights to music, but I do need to know the very best people who can. Education for the future needs to focus on ways to ensure people can build lasting, trusted, human relationships. The current environment where text messaging replaces phone calls, where emails replace meetings, where a generation stare nonchalantly and lonelily into phones needs to be curtailed by a focus on relationships. We need to learn how to listen, how to converse again.


When smartphones access everything, what limits our knowledge and depth of thought is curiousity. It fuels our interest and forms the need for relationships with experts. If there is one attribute that we are born with and yet dies as we mature, then it’s our innate human thirst to know more. We must embrace this.


We can’t begin to imagine a career in 2020, let alone 2030. We’ve no idea what skills will be needed, what jobs will exist, it’s a bold person who thinks that life will be slower. We’re all going to have to get better at being more malleable and adept at change. It’s not beyond the realms of imagination that even a 25 year old today may have 30 different jobs in several different careers in their life. They may earn money from 10 companies at the same time. We need to get better at this flexibility.


Each and every one of us is born curious and creative. Schooling, friends, and “proper jobs” somewhat dilutes that. We can make anything, but it’s imagination that drives everything. The greatest lever of value that we’ve ever known is the power of an idea. We need to give paramount importance to creativity and ideas in the future.


We need to know what it’s like to be different, how to relate to each other, and how to exceed the expectations, hopes and ambitions of others. In a world more divided and polarised than ever, we need to build bridges and commonalities. Empathy is our tool to do so.

If we foster creativity, fuel curiosity and help people relate via relationships and empathy, then we empower kids to be totally self-reliant. They will be agile: adaptable to change in a world that we can’t yet foresee.

The reality of the modern age is that I learned more in one year of a well-curated Twitter feed than in my entire masters degree. I have better relationships from LinkedIn than from university.

We don’t need to change everything now, but we do need to start forgetting the assumptions that we have made. The future is more uncertain than ever, but we need to make our kids as balanced, agile, and as self-reliant as ever in order to thrive in it.

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