By: Dr. Pronita Mehrotra

A recent economic report predicts that by 2030, one in three jobs globally will be lost to automation. Without a change in the way we prepare students for the future, that means a third of today’s second graders, worldwide, will find themselves on the wrong end of the economic curve.

Studies differ on the estimated degree of job loss but agree that the impact of technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) on the workforce will be greater than we’ve previously had to encounter. And it’s not just the jobs lost that should be our focus; in fact, more jobs of new varieties will likely be created.

To understand what the future of work looks like and what it means for education, we need to look at what machines can do and what they can’t; at least, what they can’t do yet.

Understanding Today’s Automation to Predict Tomorrow’s Jobs

There are two types of automation being used today. The first involves using well-defined rules that can be followed to make a decision. These are easy for machines to automate.

The second is tasks in which the rules are not as clearly defined and it takes experience to build judgement. For example, radiologists who detect the presence of cancer from MRI scans build their skills over time and an experienced radiologist is more accurate than an inexperienced one. However, even in these cases algorithms can now learn from all the existing data and become as good or better than humans. Jobs in this bucket will likely be gone by 2030, too.

But what about tasks where there is no existing data? That’s where humans can do better and that’s where creativity comes into play―the ability to come up with ideas that are both novel and useful. If an idea or a product is novel, it means that there are not any prior examples of that concept for an algorithm to learn from.

Creativity is the Global Success Skill of 2030 and Beyond

There will continue to be challenges that require creative problem solving that is open-ended, ambiguous and for which no obvious solutions are evident. People who can find unique solutions are going to thrive in the new economy and companies with more creative employees will have a competitive advantage.

Businesses have already started to recognize the need to shift to a different skill set. In an IBM study of 1500 global CEOs, creativity emerged as the number one skill to tackle modern challenges. More recently, LinkedIn analyzed job posting data to determine the top skills employers are looking for. Of 50,000 professional skills worldwide, creativity topped the soft skills category.

Creativity scores among students have been falling for many years, with the sharpest decline having occurred in the last decade, but the good news is that creativity can be learned, and much like any other skill, it improves with practice. By addressing the different aspects involved in creative thinking―cognitive, application (i.e. problem-solving) and social (teamwork)―we can deliver effective training.

1.   Focus on cognitive creativity.

Cognitive creativity focuses on the mental thought processes that lead to creative and innovative ideas.  STEM fields provide an abundance of opportunities for this kind of creative thinking. Look closely at any innovation and you can trace its roots to some creative thinking technique. For example, instead of following the typical mantra of how things are going to change, Jeff Bezos used reverse thinking when he took into consideration what things will not change. This led him to realize that people will always value price and convenience, which now underlies Amazon’s philosophy.

Teaching students such techniques can boost their ability to solve problems in innovative ways. Here are two classroom strategies that get results:

  • Go beyond divergent thinking. The most common way educators teach creativity is to give divergent thinking problems, which ask students to explore a variety of possible solutions; for example, “how many ways can you use a paperclip?” This is a good introduction but can limit creative outputs. Instead, activities that specifically focus on building underlying cognitive processes like associative thinking or reversing assumptions can help exercise and build students’ creative muscles.
  • Add improv opportunities in class. Improv’s most well-known tenet, “Yes, and” is an exercise in associative thinking that requires combining multiple ideas in a meaningful way. In general, improv games recruit the same mental processes as creativity techniques but do it in a more fun way. It’s the reason why, when researchers pitted an improv comedy group against professional product designers to come up with new product ideas, the improv group performed much better. They came up with a larger number and more original ideas than professional product designers!

2.   Take a minds-on approach to project-based learning.

PBL typically refers to hands-on experiences that offer step-by-step directions for students to build or construct something. But even though such activities give the feel of a project, they can fail to challenge students to develop creative ideas (both novel and useful). However, a minds-on approach to PBL can provide opportunities for students to engage both creatively and critically. Here are three tips for taking a minds-on approach to PBL:

  • Consider if the end product will be the same for all students. If so, the project may not be encouraging students to think for themselves and engage their higher-order thinking skills. Drill down to see what kinds of thought processes were involved in problem-solving to understand what the project accomplishes.
  • Allocate time for thinking into the lesson plan, with opportunities for both individual and group learning. Set clear goals for this time, like “come up with at least three different ideas using associative thinking.”
  • Pick appropriately-sized problems for students to work on. It’s important for students to learn about major challenges (like climate change), but for younger students who don’t yet have the depth of knowledge to address those big problems, they need a more appropriate avenue to apply creative problem-solving.

3.    Foster teamwork that critiques not criticizes. 

Most of the challenges that our students will have to work on are going to be more complex, requiring many different skills and perspectives. Teaching students how to effectively work together in small teams can better prepare them for a more collaborative problem-solving environment.

Some of the most innovative groups are able to achieve what they do because they have figured out how to strike the right balance between accepting and rejecting ideas. To teach students how to be better at group creativity, we have to teach them how to critique an idea instead of criticizing it. Here are a couple of ways to achieve this:

  • Take the ‘plussing’ approach. Students try to combine ideas to make them better, but only as much as makes sense. If something doesn’t fit or might lead to a problem, then instead of rejecting the idea outright, students have to point out what the potential problem might be and how they might be able to modify their plan to make things fit better.
  • Teach group conversational skills using the traffic stoplight rule. The basic premise is that when someone talks, the listener can focus and pay attention for about 20 seconds, after which they start to get impatient. So for the speaker, for the first 20 seconds, the light is green, after which they should start to wrap up their thoughts (yellow). And after another 20 seconds, they should let the other person speak (red).

Addressing the Changing Workforce in Education

Taking into account the recent explosion in technological advances, the future workforce seems more unclear now than ever before. And as technology continues to better automate tasks that are both well-defined and data-informed, today’s workforce must adapt their skill sets in order to develop processes and outputs that are both novel and useful. The more opportunity students get to learn and practice creativity in different forms, the better prepared they will be to take on the challenges of the 21st century.

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Dr. Pronita Mehrotra is the Founder and CEO of MindAntix, a company developing tools and programs to build creative thinking skills in children, and has a background in research and software development. She is currently also serving as Co-President at Gifted Education Advisory Committee, a nonprofit organization supporting parents, students, and educators in the LWSD Highly Capable Community. Follow her on Twitter @pronitam

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