The future of education, according to experts at Davos

Fabiola Gianotti Director of CERN attends the session "Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World" during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland January 23, 2018  REUTERS/Denis Balibouse - RC1641F166D0

Pause for thought: Fabiola Gianotti,Director-General of CERN, at Davos Image: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

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The future of work is going to look very different, as automation and Artificial Intelligence make many manual, repetitive jobs obsolete.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, robots could replace 800 million jobs by 2030, while the World Economic Forum suggests a “skills revolution” could open up a raft of new opportunities.

“If we do not change the way we teach, 30 years from now, we’re going to be in trouble,” said Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba Group, China’s e-commerce giant.

The knowledge-based approach of “200 years ago”, would "fail our kids", who would never be able to compete with machines. Children should be taught “soft skills” like independent thinking, values and team-work, he said.

“Anything that is routine or repetitive will be automated,” said Minouche Shafik, Director of the London School of Economics, in a session on Saving Economic Globalization from Itself. She also spoke of the importance of “the soft skills, creative skills. Research skills, the ability to find information, synthesise it, make something of it.”

Overhauling our education system will be essential to fixing the fractures in our societies and avoiding a tilt towards populism, she said.

“It’s no accident that the people who voted for populist parties around the world are people with by-and-large low levels of education. It’s not because they’re stupid, it’s because they’re smart. They’ve figured out this system will not be in their favour.”

If you’ve read about the rising importance of STEM skills - that’s Science, Technology, Education and Mathematics - ad infinitum, here’s a refreshing view from Fabiola Gianotti, a particle physicist and the Director General of CERN. She’s the woman in charge of the Large Hadron Collider as well as other Big Science projects, but she says music is as important as maths.

“We need to break the cultural silos. Too often people put science and the humanities, or science and the arts, in different silos. They are the highest expression of the curiosity and creativity of humanity,” she said in a session on education.

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“For me, I was a very curious child, I wanted to answer the big questions of how the universe works. My humanities and my music studies have contributed to what I am today as a scientist as much as my physics studies.”

Science studies got a nod from Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who spoke of the importance of education in equipping his country for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

“I don’t do a lot of coding as Prime Minister, but understanding how algorithms work, understanding the science is so important,” he said.

Stepping back, education has a much bigger role to play than equipping people for the jobs of the future.

“Education is what breaks down cycles of poverty and oppression,” said Sinead Burke, an Irish small person and activist who was speaking at a session on Fostering Inclusivity.

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If there’s anyone who embodies this idea, it’s Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist and founder of the Malala Fund.

“I’m giving up my days of school because I want to highlight that the education of girls and women is so important.” She described meeting a Syrian refugee girl, and asking her what she wanted to be.

“She said, I want to be an architect, because on the day that she left Syria, she saw her country destroyed and devastated. She wants to be an architect to rebuild her country.”

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