How we can best prepare our students for an uncertain future

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How we can best prepare our students for an uncertain future

A student of Middlesex University Dubai. (Reuters)

It may come as a surprise but, for most of human history, the future didn’t produce any anxiety in us. That is because human life changed so little from generation to generation that one could easily imagine and even “foretell” the future: The same as the present. And, indeed, as James Gleick explained in his 2016 book “Time Travel: A history,” it is only when technology changed life fast enough to make the present significantly different from the past, and the future from the present, that the idea of time travel appeared — less than two centuries ago.
Not only did we become curious about what the future would look like, we started to become anxious, because change was accelerating and bringing unpredictable features. Indeed, not even Albert Einstein could have predicted the internet, for example. In fact, he didn’t even live to witness the launch of satellites, let alone see them play such crucial roles in our lives.
With fast, accelerating progress come risks that we worry about.

For instance, genetic engineering (modifications of crops, animals, and even humans), computers and algorithms that we can no longer do without, robots that gradually replace humans in many places (including homes and hospitals), and the climate increasingly becoming erratic due to our profligate production of greenhouse gases.
This anxiety about the future, the accelerated pace of change and the great concerns we have about developments around the corner was captured by Time magazine last week, with a seven-page section titled “The Future is Now.” In it, the magazine asked 10 leaders and opinion-makers (Christine Lagarde, Justin Trudeau, Melinda Gates, Jane Goodall and others) to pick one issue that we need to earnestly work on for a better future. Each leader wrote a short piece on topics such as: The rise of drug-resistant bacteria, climate change, clean economies, digital currencies, artificial intelligence (AI) and big data.

Indeed, only the ability to critically assess information and dynamically changing situations and environments will allow tomorrow’s leaders to steer society and the economy in the right direction. 

Nidhal Guessoum

Even more interesting was the release, two months ago, of the 2018 “Future of Knowledge” foresight report by the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Knowledge Foundation, in collaboration with the UN Development Programme. The report first highlighted the fields of knowledge that will drive tomorrow’s Fourth Industrial Revolution and then assessed the state of development of 134 countries in seven dimensions that together make up the Global Knowledge Index.
No one will be surprised to find Switzerland, Finland and Sweden occupying the top three places of this list, ahead of the US, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Singapore, the UK, and Japan. It is also not surprising to find Yemen at the very bottom, and Syria just four places higher.

However, it may come as a nice surprise to find the UAE in 19th place, just ahead of Israel, Malaysia at 33, China at 39, and Saudi Arabia at 66. 
The seven dimensions of the Global Knowledge Index were: Pre-university education; technical and vocational education and training; higher education; research, development and innovation; information and communications technology (ICT); economy; and general enabling environment.

A ranking was established for each of these fields, before being combined into the global index.
Governments and observers can glean interesting insights from these rankings. For example, one finds that the UAE is doing very well (ranked 12th) in pre-university education, whereas Saudi Arabia is not (74th). The Kingdom also needs to improve its technical and vocational education and training, in which it ranks 117th. The UAE is also doing well in ICT (16th), where the Kingdom is also good (48th). Finally, there is room for improvement in the general enabling environment, with the UAE 41st and Saudi Arabia 87th. 
The report stresses the importance, fast development and growing roles of ICT, AI, data analytics, the “internet of things,” cybersecurity and blockchain, as well biotechnology and “future skills.” Interestingly, most of these are “key enabling technologies,” and the report devotes several pages to explaining the importance of each.
I was glad to see a full discussion of future skills, especially as, the report notes, “research shows that current college students do not feel like they will be prepared for the workplace after their education.” However, the report stresses the need to develop “soft skills,” which it defines as proficiency “in communication, teamwork, collaboration and networking, as well as cultural understanding… in a globalized world.” Additionally, the report hails cognitive skills such as originality, creativity and active learning.
These are all great recommendations, but I would have liked to see at least a mention, if not a central place, given to “critical thinking” among the skills that will be crucial in the future. Indeed, only the ability to critically assess information and dynamically changing situations and environments will allow tomorrow’s leaders to steer society and the economy in the right direction. 
The best thing we can teach today’s students is the ability to think correctly, adaptively and creatively. These skills will always be needed and useful, and all future knowledge will be determined by it.

  • Nidhal Guessoum is a professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum
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