By 2020, around 65 per cent of university graduates will work in jobs that don’t yet exist. Automation, driven by rapid advances in artificial intelligence, is also destroying repetitive, low-skill jobs, and changing the nature of most others.
Yet, as with all “creative destruction”, for every 20 jobs that will be lost from 2018-27, about 13 will be created, according to a 2016 research paper by Wilcocks and Laity. In India, the promised rich economic dividend that the country is demographically poised to reap depends deeply upon the quality of the future workforce. Therefore, the task of future-proofing the skills of our workforce assumes that much more import.
In addition to equipping students to become specialists in their respective fields, teachers must empower them to become independent, lifelong learners, for no skill-set is likely to suffice unaltered. In other words, the ability to up-skill and re-skill effectively and independently will be a “keystone skill”, necessary for the survival of a change-prone economic ecosystem.
For higher education institutions to foster independent learning, one may refer to an important taxonomy proposed by Benjamin Bloom to classify educational objectives, which places Remember and Understand at the bottom of the learning hierarchy, followed by Apply, Analyse, Evaluate and Create.
The latter set of four objectives is crucial to producing independent learning. These institutions must emphasise an inquiry-based mindset, the ability to apply one’s learnings in new contexts, critical and analytical thinking and creativity which is underpinned by team-working ability, leadership and digital skills.
- An inquiry-based mindset: A spirit of inquiry is necessary for developing most other higher-order learning skills, and certainly for becoming an independent learner. Whether in classroom or in workplace, after a lecture or a briefing by one’s teacher or boss, different individuals may have different levels of clarity about the lesson or task at hand. In both these situations, it becomes imperative for the individual to ask questions to close the gaps in her/his level of understanding, without which they risk becoming progressively less productive, and more likely to fail at the task or learning objective.
Teachers therefore must create a learning environment where students feel confident in addressing what is unclear by asking questions. In designing lesson plans, the aim should be to create a physical and intellectual environment which promotes all forms of inquiry. This will help nurture the students when the need for independent learning arises later in their lives.
- Applying learning in new contexts: Students must be trained to apply their learning to events happening around them, and to discuss and explore case studies. All too often, this is thought of as an automatic by-product of conceptual clarity, but in fact, it is a carefully cultivated skill, and one that does not come easily or naturally to most learners.
To incentivise teachers and students to focus on developing this ability, it is imperative to build real-world, case-based and policy problems into examination questions, in lieu of those that merely test the ability to remember knowledge, for the difficulty level of the examination inevitably becomes the minimum depth of teaching for any course. Students too care deeply about the “signal” of examination results at this crucial stage of life, so altering the examination approach could help them hone this skill.
- Critical and analytical thinking, evaluating and creating: It is also vital that our future workforce is analytical and can exercise sound judgment, backed up by evidence. To nurture this ability, institutions must give students ample opportunity to engage in reflection, discussion and debate, whether in class or on online worldwide forums, and to challenge the arguments of their peers, teachers and even their textbooks.
The process of learning, unlearning and relearning through discussion and debate creates a strong cognizance of what one knows and what one doesn’t, which helps with assessing one’s skill set on an ongoing basis, identifying skill gaps and learning independently to suture them. These exercises also train students to manage inter-personal conflict, evaluate alternate answers to problems and arrive at sound, sustainable and creative solutions.
Another aspect of critical reasoning is the ability to make balanced judgements about any information students may find and use at workplace in future. In the digital era, this must extend to information students access online, where traditional stamps of authenticity are harder to find or verify.
As teachers, we need to equip our students to interrogate and manage information so they can distinguish the credible and useful source from the fake news, and then use and share information in an ethical and appropriate manner.
For equipping students to evaluate and create, a useful pedagogical tool is that of multi-disciplinary training. This attempt to explicitly bring the knowledge imparted in silos across different subjects to bear on a policy or business issue.
Institutions worldwide are also running elective learning programmes to enable students to develop skills which can supplement subject knowledge in the digital era, like data analysis skills, coding, using statistical software and also research and writing skills.
Cultivating all these high-order skills requires a learner-centric, constructive and formative environment in higher educational institutions. It must be a safe place for students to make mistakes, and to master these vital skills which can stand them in excellent lifelong stead.
As we prepare our students to chart the job markets of 2020 and beyond, Indian institutes must take several leaves out of the book of pedagogical best-practices at top global institutions and create a generation of independent learners, who are eminently employable, and capable of delivering the demographic dividend.
The writers are professor, political theory, London School of Economics and Political Science, and dean, academics, Indian School of Business & Finance respectively.