The Future of Work = Early Learning Today

By Isabelle Hau, Venture Partner at Omidyar Network

This post was originally published on Medium.

The rapid development of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning is already disrupting our notions of work and education, and as AI grows more powerful it will dramatically change the skills employers seek and employees need.

Much of the discussion on this topic, both academic and public, centers around the need to effect a shift in higher education in order to better match the skills of graduates with the demands of an AI-driven marketplace. While that is certainly important, we rarely focus on an even more vital change we need to make: the critical connection between early childhood education today and the future workplace.

Consider that today’s preschooler will be starting to think about college in 2030. By then, experts forecast AI and machine learning will have extremely profound effects on every aspect of life, including the workplace. We can’t predict what specific skills will be required by employees when that child enters the workforce, but we can be certain that working in 2030 will be a far different experience than it is today.

One other thing is certain: The ability for children to succeed in learning, especially the complex skills they will need in 2030 and beyond, is closely linked to their early learning experience. The only way to ensure our children will be prepared for the world they will enter as adults is to give them a strong start now.

We know that children who are unprepared for kindergarten are likely to fall behind and remain behind their peers. We also know that one of every three children in the US today is not kindergarten-ready. That means millions of children will never develop the knowledge and critical thinking skills they will need to navigate the changing workplace of the future. This lack of preparedness today effectively robs them of their chance to live their adult lives to the fullest.

This has implications even beyond those individuals. Society will pay the price, not just in economic terms, but also because the children who will live in this AI-centric future also will have to design it. If we have given them the opportunity to develop the skills, competencies, and mindsets to apply this emerging technology for good, they can design a future where AI serves humankind by making life safer, healthier, less burdensome, and more fulfilling. The alternative could be a far bleaker future, a world where life is controlled by technology, as described in Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom.

No matter what career they choose, our “designers of the future” will need to be skilled in what researchers Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff have called the “6 Cs” of success — Collaboration, Communication, Content, Creativity, Critical Thinking, and Confidence. Crucially, all of these are shaped in a meaningful way very early in a child’s development during the rapid development of neural connections in the brain.

To ensure children are able to learn these skills, we need new approaches to early childhood education. These approaches should be broad-based, child-centered, and recognize the multiple environments in which learning takes place. There are three keys to making this work:

  • Empowering parents and caregivers to provide high-quality learning opportunities
  • Providing greater access to high-quality early learning centers & preschool programs that are focused on those 6 Cs
  • Supporting pre-K age children in self-development and learning, acknowledging the important role of play in that development

This is an area of significant importance to us at Omidyar Network, and a major sector where we are focusing our education investments. We are working to identify innovative mission-oriented entrepreneurs and organizations that are addressing all three of these key areas with approaches that we believe have the potential to create inclusive impact at scale.

We also recognize that the importance of early childhood education is matched by the scope of the challenge. No single entity will be able to solve this issue in a world of more than 7 billion people. It will take many different organizations, agencies, and individuals working together to achieve this vision. Not only will it require the development of new inclusive educational tools and programs that leverage the power of technology to scale, but also active collaboration with educators, parents, policymakers, and others.

For our part, we are funding a wide range of organizations whose work has a direct impact on children. Among our investees are those delivering early-learning-inclusive edtech — Khan Academy and its subsidiary Duck Duck Moose, and the outdoor play-focused Tinkergarten.

In addition, we are investing to catalyze more inclusive innovation in early learning through supporting programs for educators, including DonorsChoose, which has funded hundreds of technology early learning projects in Head Start and pre-K classrooms led by amazing innovative educators. Our support of NewSchools Venture Fund’s Ignite Challenge supported entrepreneurs focused on early learning, with one of the largest pool of applicants among the range of Ignite Challenges. We are also investing to help bridge the gap between academia and entrepreneurs through our support for Frontiers of Innovation at the Harvard Center on the Developing Child.

We want to spark dialogue around the enormous importance of early learning to the future of work and begin conversations that turn into action. The future is rushing at us, and the pre-K children of today will decide what that future will hold. For their sake, for their ability to meet the challenges of that future, we need to come together now.

For more, see:

By Isabelle Hau is a Venture Partner at Omidyar Network. Connect with her on Twitter: @Volcoucou 

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Alexandria Martinez

It is nice to know that early learning allows for parents and caregivers to provide high-quality opportunities. This is a great way to make sure that everyone is involved in a child's learning process. My brother would like knowing this as he looks into a similar child care facility.

Ellie Davis

Thank you for pointing out why your kids should learn early. I'm wanting to get my daughter into a preschool. I'll have to do some research and find the best one possible.

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