Technology, The Economy and The Education We Need

That technology is once again altering the economy and world of work is evident. The Economist has written a timely, relevant analysis in its article, “The Onrushing Wave” that further examines this intersection.   The technological transformation has implications for education – in what individuals can do to prosper and what kind of education society needs.  Technology-generated changes to the economy are already capturing the public’s attention, and the primary expression of this attention is concern with growing income equality and lower-than-desired mobility.  Right now discussion appears to make the primary remedies seem political.

Responses to the technological change must be more precisely directed if we are to address the impact of the change.  It is education that will make the difference in which individuals prosper in the transformation.  How educational systems and institutions respond to the transformation will determine whether society’s needs are met.

Once again we face an apparent repetition of the economic disruption that came in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Disruption led to the disappearance of some jobs and the creation of others.  But consumers benefitted substantially.  The Economist concluded,

Everyone should be able to benefit from productivity gains—in that, Keynes was united with his successors. His worry about technological unemployment was mainly a worry about a “temporary phase of maladjustment” as society and the economy adjusted to ever greater levels of productivity. So it could well prove. However, society may find itself sorely tested if, as seems possible, growth and innovation deliver handsome gains to the skilled, while the rest cling to dwindling employment opportunities at stagnant wages.

Which skills will matter and what kind of education is needed?  The economic challenges that come from the on-going disruption point to the value of education – but not to any traditional skills. Rather than traditional skills, the disruption points to the need for adaptability.  What will matter for individuals are the analytical skills associated with dealing with complexity and developing adaptive responses. Education will serve society’s needs if it is focused on the creation of a learning environment that develops critical thinking and entrepreneurial adaptability.

At the K-12 level, this is why implementation of the new common core in the U.S. is so serious.  Critical thinking skills are at the heart of the common core; see the work of Achieve in this area.  At higher education levels, alterations in pedagogy are essential as well.  Digital technology provides for, after capital costs, a cost-effective substitute for lectures.  Coupled with more intensive use of application-driven learning – via digital and in-person media – higher education can support similar needed skill development.  While we will not escape the transformation described in the analysis by The Economist, we can educate to that transformation rather than attempt to forestall it or politically manipulate its impact.

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