Nicole Krueger
Preparing students for jobs that don't exist

Imagine a world where parents can genetically design and modify their own children.

Think it’s far-fetched? The cost of sequencing our personal genome is dropping, and genome editing technologies are growing more accessible. It could become a reality within the next decade or so.

“Do we want our kids to have blue eyes? Do we want our kids to be taller? Do we want to try and help our kids be stronger or faster or smarter? Do we want to try and eliminate certain risks of birth defects?” asks education leader Scott McLeod. “Families are going to have this choice they can theoretically possibly make in the next decade or so about whether we should really be designing our own children.”

Enter the genetic counselor. It’s a career you won’t see named in college admissions essays just yet, but it’s one we’re going to need — and sooner than you might think. To help families navigate the ethical and psychological minefield around genetically modifying embryos, these professionals will need a deep knowledge of biology and genetics as well as ethics, sociology and psychology.

“That’s definitely a cross-disciplinary job,” McLeod. says. “But nobody’s preparing those people. Whoever takes those jobs are going to have to sort of make their way through and self-design their own thing.”

When you hear the statistic that 65 percent of children entering grade school today will end up working in jobs that don’t even exist yet, this is the type of career they’re talking about. And it’s just one example of the many future jobs that will pop up at the intersections between often wildly divergent disciplines and subject areas.

Will students be ready for them?

When worlds (and fields) collide

The massive shifts technology and globalization are expected to wreak on the workplace have already begun. In many industries and countries, some of the most in-demand jobs didn’t even exist five or 10 years ago — and the pace of change will only accelerate.

“As whole industries adjust and new ones are born, many occupations will undergo a fundamental transformation,” says the World Economic Forum in its 2016 report, The Future of Jobs. “Together, technological, socioeconomic, geopolitical and demographic developments and the interactions between them will generate new categories of jobs and occupations while partly or wholly displacing others.”

By 2020, more than a third of the core skill sets required for most jobs will include skills that aren’t considered crucial today. Nearly nine in 10 workers anticipate having to develop new skills all throughout their lives to keep up with the changes. And the most crucial skills they’ll need, according to many experts, are cross-disciplinary ones.

“Technological trends such as the Fourth Industrial Revolution will create many new cross-functional roles for which employees will need both technical and social and analytical skills,” says the World Economic Forum report. As previously disparate fields collide, new types of human resources professionals, engineers, biochemists, robotics experts, regulatory specialists, geospacial information systems experts and other cross-disciplinary specialists will be needed.

Yet the training most students receive is anything but cross-disciplinary.

“I think we need to do a better job of teaching kids to live at intersections,” McLeod. says. “In schools we usually silo our content. You take courses that are within particular disciplinary areas, and they’re very confined to just that one subject. We rarely give students the opportunity to live in interdisciplinary spaces and to live in cross-thinking areas where they can see the connections across disciplines.”

It’s no wonder, then, that a 2016 Pew survey of scholars and education leaders found that 30 percent are pessimistic about the education system’s ability to teach new skills “at the scale that is necessary to help workers keep abreast of the tech changes that will upend millions of jobs.”

Blowing off STEAM

The debate over STEM vs. STEAM perfectly sums up the dilemma educators face. Proponents of integrating the arts and sciences often face stiff opposition from within a deeply siloed education system, even as employers clamor for workers who can think and work across multiple disciplines.

But such discourse “only marks the beginning of what needs to happen in education,” says John M. Eger, director of the Creative Economy Initiative at San Diego State University. The STEM and STEAM acronyms, he adds, are merely placeholders for the need to eliminate silos in education and focus on interdisciplinary learning.

“Eventually,” he says, “all subjects need to be integrated.”

McLeod. agrees. “We’ve been talking about interdisciplinary teaching decade after decade — for at least half a century, if not more. Yet we certify teachers by siloed subject areas, and we set up students’ schedules by siloed subject areas. It’s inertia at this point.”

It’s getting harder to justify maintaining these silos. Interdisciplinary learning, according to researchers, not only prevents the dissociation of knowledge, but it creates “higher-order thinkers” who can bring a holistic and analytical approach to complex problems. It also brings a host of beneficial side effects, including:

  • Helping students examine their biases
  • Advancing critical thinking and cognitive development
  • Helping students embrace ambiguity
  • Fostering an appreciation for ethical concerns

 The bottom line is that there’s no way to prepare students for specific careers when we can’t even fathom what those might be. Even now, nearly half of what students learn in their first year of technical school is outdated by the time they graduate. Instead, the key to molding job-ready graduates is to teach students how to live — and learn — at the intersections.

“The most important skill is a meta-skill: the ability to adapt to changes,” says Calton Pu, professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “As the rate of technological innovation intensifies, the workforce of the future will need to adapt to new technology and new markets. The people who can adapt the best (and fastest) will win.”

This means students will need to become lifelong learners, and it’s up to educators to ignite their curiosity while teaching them to explore the crossroads between different subjects and disciplines.

“I think we have to be very conscientious about what seem to be the emerging intersections for which we’re going to need people,” McLeod. says. Genetic counselors, it seems, are just the beginning.

Scott McLeod is ISTE’s 2017 Outstanding Leader.

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