SHAPE Live: What should we be asking instead of ‘What do you want to be when you grow up’?

by Dan Hutchinson, 15 October 2021

As part of our SHAPE Education initiative, we’re hosting monthly debates with experts on the future of education. This month we discussed how, as educators and an education system, we can prepare students to thrive in the future world. Dan Hutchinson, Proposition Director, Higher Education & Adult at Cambridge University Press ELT reflects on the recent event.

Do you remember being asked what you wanted to be when you grew up? In a relatively static and stable jobs market, it was a relevant and probably easy question to answer. For me, it was stuntman! However, in a world where technological developments mean that tomorrow’s jobs are not yet known, how pertinent is it for today’s learners?

This was the focus of the recent SHAPE Live event, which made for an engaging and thought-provoking discussion hosted by Mark Andrews from Adobe. The diverse panel comprising Letitia Segla, Build Scale Grow; Katuta Lumpa, Airbus; and Jose F. Otero, New York University, started by talking about their respective lockdown experiences and challenges including which changes to work-life they’d like to see continue. The majority had worked remotely pre-pandemic and hoped that the opportunities presented to parents with children or marginalised groups who felt more comfortable working from home would become a more permanent fixture.

Key issues facing education today

The conversation then turned to some key issues facing education today, such as how to best prepare future learners, access and infrastructure, and digital inequality. A large part focused on the way education systems need to change, and at this point the term ‘reality check’ popped into my head. All panellists highlighted the need to increase the connections between education and real life, with Katuta and Letitia talking about their work to bring industry closer to education. While these programmes clearly add value and drive change, both speakers commented on one crucial truth: that they are largely extra-curricular activities rather than core elements of the curriculum. Letitia also discussed the need for disruption in education: moving away from a mandated curriculum of individual subjects and towards an interdisciplinary approach. She argued that combining subjects would help learners better connect their study to the real world.

The challenges of implementation

Next came the challenges and often stark realities of implementation within education. Jose talked about the lack of basic infrastructure, a lack of access to devices, software and training, and a lack of representation across ethnicities and gender. Developments in this area tend to centre around the large cities in a country because they have the best infrastructure, and money and resources are concentrated. Consequently, those outside these cities who continue to struggle for basic access are ignored. One phrase stood out for me, one I have heard countless times during the pandemic: ‘the new normal’. Jose explained that this so-called new normal of online and remote learning through digital devices is not the reality for most people because they don’t have access. The lack of infrastructure in many contexts means a WhatsApp message from their teacher to which they reply is the new normal.

Uruguay was cited by Jose as one of the better examples of a country that had managed to shift to online learning during the pandemic. This was partly because of the devices provided to learners, but even more crucial was the applicable software and training offered to teachers. Continuing the theme of reality check, it strikes me that we often return to this point in many discussions about education: that equipping our teachers with the tools and training they need is one of the most positive steps we could take to improve the learning experience. This is something which is emphasised throughout Cambridge University Press & Assessment’s 12 outline principles for the future of education.

New ways to engage learners in thinking about their futures

In concluding the event, Mark posed the key question: what would the panellists ask children instead of what they wanted to be when they grew up? Each speaker had a slightly different take. How would you like to serve your local community? What problems do you want to solve? Where do you see yourself in the future? However, all these alternatives offer a new way to engage learners in thinking about their futures. Rather than focusing on the end goal of a job that might not even exist when they are old enough to do it, perhaps it’s more helpful to open their horizons to think about where they want to be and how they might get there.

Watch this SHAPE Live event which took place on Monday, 4 October 2021 on the Cambridge University Press & Assessment YouTube channel. You can also find out more about the SHAPE Education initiative and watch previous live events.

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