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MSPnet Blog: “Anxiety-based education policy: trying to future-proof the kids”

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posted August 22, 2018 – by Brian Drayton

Much education policy, and much education merchandise, is ‘pitched” as a solution or response the dire warnings that our kids will face a job market dramatically different from today’s.  “Sixty-five percent of the jobs these kids will  have don’t even exist yet.  Our education system is not designed to prepare them for those jobs, this is bad!  You should take our advice/implement our policy/buy our stuff (or all 3).  Disruption is the way of the future!”

Dewey, that old disruptor,  long ago argued against the “education as preparation for real life,” or “education as training” models of schooling, but in an era when being a successful business leader, or media personality, or digital entrepreneur makes you an expert in education, the framing of schooling as job training is perhaps inevitably the dominant one.

Is it futile to point out that much of the rhetoric of this kind is just that– rhetoric, artful persuasion, often masquerading as expertise?

In the past week, I have come across several blog posts that explore this important “65%” meme, and show that [1] it has been circulating for decades, [2] once embedded in a message of faith in and empowerment of our children’s futures, it has become an alarm or a sales pitch, and [3] it is not based in any discernible factual evidence.

Derek Newton’s guest post on Larry Cuban’s blog tipped me off to this chain of essays.  He sets the context concisely:

A fairly loud chorus knows for sure that three things are true – that technology is going to deeply and massively change the nature of work, that our schools, and colleges and universities in particular, aren’t preparing future workers for those future jobs and that a failure to quickly adopt massive changes in the way we teach will result in certain doom for future workers, businesses and the global economy.

Newton had noticed that in May, IBM, that noted educational expert had

released [a] report called, “The six new competencies Industrial companies need on their path to digitization.” The first statistic in that report is, “ … sixty-five percent of children now in primary school will work in job types that don’t exist today.” IBM highlights the figure and used it in social media ads to promote the report.

A chain of links showed how people have passed the meme along without ever asking themselves about its validity:

The footnote in the IBM report leads to this 2016 article in Fortune Magazine…The World Economic Forum.. says, “65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist.” And that statement footnotes to “McLeod, Scott and Karl Fisch, “Shift Happens.””  ShiftHappens is a series of viral YouTube videos from 2007….Scott McLeod, J.D., Ph.D. and associate professor, Educational Leadership, University of Colorado Denver, one of the creators of the videos, told me that the 65% stat, “ … indeed, is not a statistic we ever used! .. Not sure where it came from.”

Ben Doxtdater, in his excellent blog “A long view of education,”  takes up the search for the original source of the mysterious 65%.

It takes some work to find out that the claim is not true. When I tried to find an original source for the claim, I was surprised to find out that versions of it date from at least to 1957…While the claim is often presented as a new and alarming fact or prediction about the future, Devereux C. Josephs said much the same in 1957 during a Conference on the American High School at the University of Chicago on October 28, less than a month after the Soviets launched Sputnik.

The second half of his blog summarizes a BBC story from 2017 that debunks the 65%, and includes some commentary from Cathy Davidson of CUNY (who reflects on the story, and on the message in additional depth here).

There have been many discussions of the factuality of claims like this one, whether they include the 65% or not– basically arguing for this or that innovation or disruption — here’s one by a British blogger (the “future jobs” meme is an international one in our “flat world”).  Others more US focused are not far to seek. Doxtdater comments:

we actually have good statistical projections about the future of jobs, and it’s bleak… The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ projections for numeric job growth from 2014-2024 indicate that four out of the top five growing jobs pay salaries that are less than $21,400 per annum. With the exception of Registered Nurses (#2), who on average earn $66,640 and require a Bachelor Degree, the other top five growing jobs require no formal credentials

I’d like, though, to lift up another and perhaps deeper point that Doxtdater made me think about: the line of thinking that is called “future-proofing,” the notion that we can control our future or that of our children.  As he writes, the reports and sales campaigns that take this tack assert that

education has failed to keep pace with, and prepare our children for, an ever changing world of work. In the face of this known unknown, the only answer is to instill flexibility and adaptability along with ‘skills’ like creativity.

Keri Facer gives us a helpful term for this narrative: the ‘future proofing’ narrative “suggests that there is only one question about socio-technical change that the ‘future-proof’ school needs to address: namely, how successfully will the school equip young people to compete in the global economy of tomorrow?”

Doxtdater notes that Josephs’s emphasis, in 1957, was on what the rising generation would do to create the future — or rather, its present:

Our young people will fill many jobs that do not now exist. They will invent products that will need new skills. Old-fashioned mercantilism and the nineteenth-century theory in which one man’s gain was another man’s loss, are being replaced by a dynamism in which the new ideas of a lot of people become the gains for many, many more.

This optimistic view of our children’s potential and power has largely been replaced by the  “prepare our children now for the scary future (that we are creating for them)” meme.  This is not new, and it has often been seen in synch with a rise in economic anxiety, and the recurring belief that education should better serve the economy.

Doxtdater points out that

A century ago, the logic of future proofing went under the name ‘social efficiency’…Now, social efficiency in the language of ‘future proofing’ is embedded in the neoliberal ideology that equates freedom with free markets, and makes the individual solely responsible for her own fate. As much as the claim is an indictment of schools, it also serves as a warning to individuals. Be a ‘lifelong learner’ or else. When Andreas Schleicher of the OECD repeats the claim (with no source), he makes clear that only our imaginations and not material circumstances might hold us back in life

We are once again, however, at bottom, confronted with the question, What are the aims of education?  or rather, “What aims shall we accept for education?”  Rhetoric is a powerful and valuable art, but persuasiveness is not the same as wisdom;  and we should resist the constant temptation to treat children and their teachers as instrumental factors, rather than active, purposeful beings, whose learning and growth is the way they find out (or even create) the future that starts right now.

I conclude with this from Doxtdater’s piece:

John Dewey …said that as a matter of politics, the “education in which I am interested is not one which will ‘adapt’ workers to the existing industrial regime; I am not sufficiently in love with the regime for that.”

NOTE:  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author alone, and not necessarily those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation