How should schools best prepare kids to live and work in the second half of the 21st century?
In previous eras, the job of school was simple: Teach them math and reading skills. Have them learn some basic facts about the world.
Today the challenge is a lot different. Most people all over the world, even in the poorest countries, have much easier access to a calculator, a dictionary and great swaths of knowledge in their pockets.
And technology isn't just expanding access to knowledge. It's also redefining opportunity. To put it bluntly, more and more people — in all kinds of jobs from truck driver to travel agent to lawyer — are in danger of being replaced by software on the job.
A 2013 study from Oxford University famously estimated that 47 percent of all jobs are in danger of automation. And earlier this year, the World Economic Forum said 5 million jobs might be gone in just the next four years.
These changes create a huge challenge for schools and teachers. But there are also some intriguing indicators of the way forward.
There are at least three big skill sets that human intelligence copes well with. Skills that technology — like artificial intelligence — is currently struggling with and may always struggle with.
Over the years — as a memory aid, and drawing on the Oxford study and many others — I've started referring to them in this way:
Giving a hug. Solving a mystery. Telling a story.
Giving a hug. By that I mean empathy, collaboration, communication and leadership skills.
Solving a mystery. A computer program can investigate any question. But you need a person to actually generate a question. Curiosity, the starting point for innovation. Sometimes scientists call this "problem finding."
Telling a story. Finding what's relevant in a sea of data. Applying values, ethics or morals to a situation. And the creative application of aesthetic principles.
(A fourth item belongs on this list: "Making a sandwich" or "Folding laundry," which stands for embodied intelligence: the ability to coordinate actions in space. But for whatever reason, those jobs, in our economy, don't tend to pay as well).
Rebecca Winthrop directs the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. Over the past four years she convened a global task force with representatives of 100 countries to think through the question: "What are the skills every kid in the world needs?"
Earlier this year they released a report titled Skills For A Changing World.
It notes that researchers like David Autor at MIT have documented a pattern in countries around the world. Jobs that require routine interactions — processing a mortgage application, say — are being automated. Jobs that require nonroutine interpersonal and analytical interactions — producing a personalized financial plan for a client, say — are on the rise.
The focus, therefore, should be on a "breadth of skills." Academics are necessary, but not sufficient. The list includes such things as teamwork, critical thinking, communication, persistence and creativity.
"Kids need to be adaptable, work with others, and have a thirst for learning if they're going to be lifelong learners," says Winthrop. Adaptability is required to keep up with the increasing pace of change. Ease in working with others is important in a world that's increasingly interconnected, and where diverse skill sets are required for all sorts of tasks, from launching a business to cleaning up a river.
And lifelong learning is necessary to thrive in a new economy with demands that change all the time.
In the Andes Mountains in South America, NPR Ed visited one of the models considered most promising for this kind of teaching. For the past 40 years, Escuela Nueva schools have been spreading a democratic, progressive method of education in rural Colombia.
The program is infused with the arts and social responsibility and designed to cultivate convivencia, translated as "the art of living together."
We talked with Vicky Colbert, Escuela Nueva's founder. "It's like the story of Cinderella," she told us. "You start with the poorest of the poor, and then at the end you say, 'Oh, my God, this is cutting-edge pedagogy!' Everybody is talking about it!"
Rebecca Winthrop points out that, in her years of working on these issues, it has been leaders in the developing world who are most adamant that every child needs access to this sophisticated breadth of learning opportunities.
"The people who said, 'No way, we have way more ambitions for our kids than just learning how to read,' were the people from South Asia and Africa and Latin America," she says. "They said, in the 21st century we want our kids to be able to do it all and it's only fair. We don't want to be behind forever."