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Don’t Count on Education – Future-Proof Yourself

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

This post needs a disclaimer: There is no fool-proof or future-proof plan for educating people. Human nature and the future are far too uncertain to make any guarantees about what specific skills and knowledge will be valuable in the distant future. Given the rapid pace of technological change, knowing what will be valuable in the very near future is even a challenge. I found this comprehensive, future-proof list of skills in a blog about teaching college math by Maria H. Andersen.

While it is a good list and very thorough, I find that it is like most lists – too long and complicated to be of much practical use. You read it once, say to yourself, “that was interesting,” and forget about it because it contained too much information to act on. My goal then is to provide a much shorter and more manageable list of what you as a student can do to make your education future-proof.

Race Against the Machine

I’m listening to NPR while I write this and there is a fascinating discussion on “On Point’ with the authors of the book Race Against the Machine, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. The crux of the conversation this morning is that we are currently in a time of societal change and strife as our old manufacturing economy withers and is replaced by a new information-based one. What is relevant to my post, however, is the debate about what human existence will look like and what people will do for work once (not if, but when) computers and robots take over a majority of the menial labor in our society. 

We are being educated in an industrial model which prepares students for jobs that will cease to exist (or cease to hire humans) in our lifetime. When manufacturing and service jobs vanish, the only thing left will be to become a creative producer of something that machines cannot do. In preparation for this change, educators need to focus on providing students with the ability to be innovative and creative thinkers, and students need to be active participants in their education in order to make sure that they acquire these skills. Learning to be innovative and creative thus comprises the entirety of my list of things you can do to future-proof your education. 

Rediscovering Your Inner Innovator

Learning to be an innovator is not something that you can do strictly within a (current) educational institution. To make sure that you have the ability to adapt to the changes in the world, both foreseen and unforeseen, you will have to take charge of your own learning when it comes to innovative thinking. Some of the world’s greatest innovators, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, dropped out of the educational system for good reason. This is not saying that you shouldn’t pursue a formal education, you should, but you must also actively seek out interests beyond the curriculum and ways of incorporating those personal interests into your education.

Finding the connections between subjects is the best way to begin retraining yourself to be an innovative thinker. Learning in schools often happens within disciplinary silos. Learning in the real world does not. Fortunately, the Internet is a giant tool for making these connections. Doing the following will help put you on the path to becoming an innovative thinker:

  • Find a community of thinkers
  • Explore new concepts
  • Share your ideas

Developing a Broader Perspective

Finding a community of thinkers first entails knowing what your interests are. Once you determine them, you can actively search for online discussion boards or micro communities which share your interest (start with Quora.com as a good place to post questions). Get involved with groups you find or start a group of your own on Facebook or another social network like Academia.edu. Follow discussions and share your ideas. Collaboration and community involvement will lead to further connections. You can accelerate this process by signing up for Twitter. Post your thoughts on the issues you are interested in, seek out others to follow who share your interest and follow those who follow you.

Use the power of the Web to explore new interests and the ways in which they connect to your existing interests and your education. Starting with some simple Google searches will reveal thousands of direct and tangential connections to what you are interested in. Drill down deep and actually read the information you find online. You will find that there are connections far beyond what you have been considering. Data journalist David McCandless discusses the power of connecting different types of information in this TED talk:

Finally, in order to truly become an innovative thinker you will need to take some risks and put your ideas out there for others to see, critique, and build upon. This will not only allow your creativity to grow and inspire others, but has the potential to help you develop a wide array of skills and knowledge that will grow with you. Creating a blog, website, videos, online presentation, or writing a Wiki about your ideas helps to develop real technology skills that serve as a basis for future learning about innovative advances in communication. At the same time you will also become more adept at clearly conveying your meaning through technology and in general.

Bringing It Back to the Classroom

Use your classroom experiences to inform and refine your extracurricular innovative thinking. Relate your new learning to concepts in the courses you are taking and bounce ideas off of professors and classmates. As valuable as our own ideas and creativity may be, it can increase exponentially when combined with that of others. People in your immediate environment are every bit as valuable as any resources you will encounter online. You will enrich the classroom discussion for everyone and reinforce your own communication skills and thought process.

Ultimately, examples like Gates and Jobs demonstrate that you don’t need formal education in order to be successful. However, they are a vast minority, and one thing that they both made good use of was networking with individuals who they did meet through educational channels. You should not undervalue the personal connections that you will make in an academic setting. You never know who you might be sitting next to.