Teaching Digital Subjects Alone Won’t Close The Skills Gap

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A British MP talked about something other than Brexit the other week.
Conservative MP Robert Halfon was speaking up for children’s education and how he wanted to smash up the current exam system to give young people better skills for their future working lives.
The targets for Halfon’s sledgehammer are the GCSE and A-levels that 16-18-year olds must take before going into work or further education. In his view, GCSEs are “pointless”, and A-levels need to be swept aside and replaced by a blend of academic and vocational topics.
You have to admire Halfon’s chutzpah, given his party is in government and has only recently done an overhaul of the system. So, it is unsurprising, that the UK Department of Education defends the current system as offering a gold standard of education.

But somehow, I feel change must happen. Notably, the response of teachers to Halfon’s speech was more supportive. Halfon also is an influential politician as he chairs a parliamentary committee on education. He was speaking at an event by the Edge Foundation which promotes more vocational teaching,  and was  saying  a great deal that’s also said in Seth Godin’s education manifesto “Stop Stealing the Dreams.”
I mentioned Seth’s writings in my previous blog and do think what he and Halfon have to say is so important. Our education system needs to be changed, even revolutionized, to enable our young people to enter the world of work, which also is changing.

Seth’s thesis is that we have an education system designed for the industrial revolution, when today’s world of work is post-industrial.  Or, as he says: “Every year, we churn out millions of workers who are trained to do 1925-style labor.” This means an education system that pumps out workers who are compliant and productive to work within a mass-production industrialized economy.
The reality is these old kinds of jobs are vanishing fast. Godin quotes Nobel prize-winning economist Michael Spence who divides up jobs between those that are tradeable and could be done somewhere else such as manufacturing a car; and those that are non-tradeable like frying fish and chips. Spence’s killer finding, says Godin, is that in the USA alone only 600,000 new tradeable jobs were added between 1990 and 2008.
Godin takes a much more radical approach to what needs to be done than Haflon. His manifesto is about radical rethinking of what schools are for: “When we let our kids dream, encourage them to contribute, and push them to do work that matters, we open doors for them that will lead to places that are difficult for us to imagine. When we turn school into more than just a finishing school for a factory job, we enable a new generation to achieve things that we were ill-prepared for.”
In the British exam system, Haflon has a smaller target for radical change but I do believe that it is as profound. He calls out how the system is over-focused on delivering exam grades rather than developing creative, critical thinking and problem-solving powers that employers really need.
The CBI’s own education and skills study reveals that more than half of UK businesses (60 percent) value listening and problem-solving as one of their three most important considerations when recruiting school and college leavers. However, substantial numbers of employers fear they will not be able to fill future job roles because of skill shortages, for example over half of businesses (52 percent) are not confident about accessing enough intermediate skilled talent in future. Two-thirds (66 percent) are not sure they will be able to fill higher skilled jobs.
So, we are widening, rather than closing, the skills gap. For me, this disconnection between what we teach and what we need in the workplace extends to how we are trying to fill the digital skills gaps by teaching digital subjects.
While computer coding is a great skill to have, a computer coder occupies one of those tradable jobs that Spence spotlights. Technical skills like programming are vital but we need our children to be able to apply these creatively and this goes back to the soft skills that are so important for work: namely, as Haflon says, “how to interpret, manipulate and communicate knowledge.” These skills do not necessarily come from teaching computer science but from teaching fine art, creative writing, and law.
This is where the low code movement has a role to play, too. If we focus education on training our children to come into the workforce as problem-solvers and creators, we must offer them the tools that are intuitive and can amplify their skills. Low code development tools aren’t just designed to let people who can’t code code but to allow any of us to create the applications they and their organizations need to succeed.
For years, we seem to have been debating how to best prepare our children for work. As work becomes so radically changed by digitization, automation and artificial intelligence, education must change too. There is a real worry for me that our younger millennials may not have the skills we need despite being born and brought up in a digital age.
In some respects, this isn’t about junking the old “three R” skills that schools traditionally taught, but how we can enable our young people to have the ability and confidence to apply reading, writing and arithmetic to real-life situations that still remain fundamental to future work.
So, I take real hope from how last week’s news cycle began with a debate about education. Perhaps Haflon in the UK and Seth Godin in the USA will no longer be lonely voices calling for real change.
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