Future-proofing: Preparing ourselves for jobs that don’t exist yet

I remember spending an entire lunch hour with my team, fiddling with the “Will Robots Take My Job” website to see which professions will most likely be automated in the future. While most of the education-related jobs are relatively safe, our accountant and bookkeeper were not too pleased to find out that they had a 98% chance of being replaced, complete with a “YOU ARE  DOOMED” message boldly plastered on the screen. 

They are not alone. According to the oft cited Oxford study by Osborne and Frey, 47% of current U.S. jobs will be rendered obsolete by Artificial Intelligence or AI. While there is a counter-argument that the loss of jobs could be off set by the creation of new roles, the bigger question is whether people could retool their skills to keep up with the changes happening at an accelerated pace. Tony Wagner of the Harvard University Innovation lab, identified seven crucial skills for survival in the 21st century: critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration and leading by influence, curiosity and imagination, initiative and entrepreneurship, agility and adaptability, accessing and analyzing information, and effective communication skills.

At Mano Amiga Philippines, the nonprofit school I head which caters to low-income families, we realized we needed to upgrade our school model and work culture if we wanted to be effective in ‘future-proofing’ our students. Gone are the days when a controlled environment that places emphasis on grades and knowledge could guarantee a person’s success. We needed to make day-to-day learning as close as possible to real world scenarios, and the uncertainties that come with them.

We shifted to Project-based learning (PBL) - where in students work in groups to investigate real world problems, and apply what they learned across various disciplines in developing their own solutions. It follows a trial and error method, allowing students to revise their strategy and approach, based on feedback from their teacher, fellow students, and invited experts. Since introducing PBL, our students have come up with projects that target issues related to environmental degradation, high utility costs, hygiene and sanitation, and cultural heritage. They have made their own solar panels, published their own books, and have put up their own food businesses. Students are excited to go to school because they are challenged while having fun. They see the relevance of what they are learning to their daily lives.

Seeing the impact of PBL emboldened us to explore other creative and cost-efficient tweaks to effectively prepare not just our students, but also ourselves, in order to adapt rapidly to the demands of an ambiguous future. 

Here are some of the principles that make up our 21st century blueprint:

  1. See opportunities where others have stopped looking. One of the things we realized after introducing PBL is that being a low-cost organization inadvertently trained our team and our students to be resourceful. From seeing limited resources as a disadvantage, we have reframed the challenge as an opportunity to hone our imagination and problem solving skills. As we head towards an increasingly globalized world, the ability to abandon traditional angles of thinking, to create new opportunities where there were none, and to develop better alternatives, gives anyone a much desired competitive edge.

  2. When you love to learn, you can constantly learn, relearn and unlearn anything. In John Goodlad’s A Place Called School, he asked, "Boredom is a disease of epidemic proportions. …Why are our schools not places of joy?” Sometimes educators get so caught up in standardized tests and subject technicalities that we forget to deliver them in a way that resonates with the child. As adults, we are often limited by the ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ belief. We present learning to our students as a form of adventure, emphasizing a culture of play and exploration in the school. Our team starts every meeting with a best practice moment, where in we dissect a Ted Talk or a podcast and analyze how it applies to our work. The power of a lifelong learner lies in his/her curiosity when faced with a new concept, and the perseverance to master it. In a world where information is readily available, a person who finds intrinsic joy in learning will not find it difficult to upgrade their skills and constantly evolve with the times.

  3. Nurture a growth mindset. Advances in neuroscience have shown us that our brains are malleable, and that we could grow its capacity to learn, through practice and experience. Carol Dweck of Stanford University found that when students believe they could develop their abilities through effort and perseverance, it makes them more open to feedback, gives them confidence and grit to take on difficult tasks, and builds their resilience to failure. Introducing a growth mindset program helped create a positive atmosphere and a culture of excellence in our school. Since challenges are seen as opportunities to grow, both students and faculty became more open to pursuits outside their comfort zone. Since failures are viewed as temporary instead of something that defines a person, it is easier for us to approach errors with inquisitive eyes so we could understand where we went wrong and how we should readjust our strategy. And since no one could have growth mindset 100% of the time, having a year-round program helps ensure that we could constantly nurture it together.

  4. Everyone needs a coach, and everyone could be a coach. A coach helps you to set a goal, to identify the roadblocks that are stopping you, and to come up with concrete steps in order to achieve that goal. Instead of restricting the responsibility to develop talent to the leadership team, we implemented a peer coaching framework. Peer coaching among our faculty and staff, not only led to significant growth among our people, it built trust and solidified working relationships. Developing our students as peer coaches honed their ability to critically probe a situation, and to articulate their thoughts better. We are partners in each other’s success, and we find fulfillment in supporting each other grow.

  5. Embrace diversity. In Mano Amiga, one of our students’ favorite annual activity is the Around the World event, where in we design the school into different countries. Armed with a paper passport, they go from classroom to classroom where in volunteers give them an experiential and sensory tour of the food, customs, history of that particular country. There is much we don't know that exists outside of our current knowledge and direct experience. This compels us to seek out the perspectives of people and cultures who view situations from a very different context. This not only broadens a person’s understanding of the world, it also builds empathy, enabling one to interact and collaborate with others in a spirit of open-mindedness and mutual respect.

It is difficult to have definitive answers about what the future brings, but it is clear that the new era brings great obstacles for those unsure and unwilling to adapt, and boundless opportunities for those well-prepared to seize them. By investing in building our capacity to understand and adapt to these changes, we can all view the uncertain future, accountants and bookkeepers included, with excited and hopeful eyes.