In the words of the great Tess McGill, ‘I read a lot of things. You never know where the big ideas could come from.’ (Working Girl, 1988).
The University of Cambridge publishes a research magazine ‘Research Horizons‘ containing all sorts of articles about the impact of research from the university. A recent edition focusing on the East of England featured an article about digital manufacturing and agricultural technology (which I now know to just call ‘agri-tech’) that discussed how businesses decide when to adopt new technology and how they need to find the best upskill strategies to do it properly.
The article describes how agricultural businesses have no way of predicting the skills they’ll need because even where technology is emerging it’s often a leap of faith to invest, so they need flexible workers who have a grounding in their industry with the willingness and ability to develop. It strikes me that what every industry really needs, including education, is an upskillable workforce.
The past few weeks have seen educators across the globe rapidly get to grips with new skills. From converting a file to pdf, learning how to use the staple feature on the photocopier, or figuring out Google Classroom, it’s all happened in order to continue providing for students. Of course it’s not just been teachers that have had to do this – isolated families are now Zooming and Facetiming where they had never considered it before and as everyone has adapted, a tremendous amount of learning has taken place.
One of the problems with preparing for things that haven’t happened yet is not knowing what needs preparing for. For our pupils, the argument for a broad curriculum is well worn and the world of agri-tech is a brilliant, concrete example of why it’s important to offer as many opportunities and pathways as we can. Whether that’s adapting to technological advances or those jobs that haven’t been invented yet, offering a broad base of knowledge that ensures people can apply themselves to a whole host of possibilities, and be whatever they want to be, is a pretty good idea. As pupils become more expert they can be encouraged to make comparisons and connections between ideas because even if we knew their destiny – even if we know they come from a generation of farmers and that them and their children and their children’s children will do the same, we don’t know what the future holds for technology or climate or crop choices but we can prepare them to cope with leaps of faith and adapt to the new when needed.
Throughout their lives pupils will need to adjust to different working practices and innovations and, as in the world of agri-tech, one of the most important issues facing workplaces is ‘how do we know what skills are needed by who and how [do] they get them’. In the same way we can’t predict a specific innovation that will take off, we can’t plan which skills will need to be upped; it’s no use trying guess what we need to teach and narrow our curriculum in order to meet these specific unknown needs but what we can do is open as many doors as possible and promote lifelong learning, best practice in professional development and ensure that our own professional development and training needs are identified well and that the process is effective.
The rapid upskilling we’ve seen over the past few weeks gives us clues as to what is important for the workforce and one area where education has a head start over some other sectors is professional development. Rather than worrying about changing our curriculums to include new and potentially fleeting fads, schools should focus on upskilling teachers to understand and include new ideas in order to deepen and enrich their existing knowledge, and where important, be informed to make decisions about when to introduce new innovations and integrate them expertly in their existing systems.
We often ignore the need to share with pupils and parents what we do for professional development but one consequence of the recent changes has been the visibility of adult learning and this is a crucial part of making continuous, life-long learning the norm. We need to continue to make our learning visible to pupils; share what we’re doing, enthuse about it with pupils and help them understand that they will always need to learn. We can be guilty of drilling into pupils their learning deadlines – leaving school, staying in education ’til your 18, but it’s worth pausing to think about this message because if we’re truly preparing them for the 21st Century workplace and world of the future what we actually need to be doing is teaching them that to be successful they’ll never stop learning.
As leaders’ minds turn to their next steps, it’s worth considering what we can learn from the upskilling of a whole population at the moment. There’s a need for a clear process of delivering professional development that promotes enrichment of subject specific knowledge, increasing awareness of changes in individual fields which will broaden and deepen the knowledge of our students. Whether that’s about keeping up to date and adding some information about recent innovations to a topic, introducing new technologies such as 3D printers, or adding in entirely new schemes; rather than replacing what’s already there, schools need to provide the time, space and resources for teachers to upskill.
Sometimes people are reluctant to change and there are many valid reasons why this happens. We have recently experienced the forced upskilling of entire generations and witnessed that they have been able to succeed in this. As we lay the ground work to enable our pupils to upskill in the future and promote a culture of upskilling our staff, what we can’t afford to do is forget that this is not only possible, but crucial and more importantly, for everyone.