The future is now

First we had industrialization. Then this was followed by electrification, which in turn preceded the age of digitalization. And now, apparently, we are accelerating at what seems like breakneck speed towards what the International Bar Association calls the ‘Industrial Revolution 4.0’.

This fourth industrial revolution is being, and will be, marked by dramatic changes in the way people live, socialize and work. The driving forces behind this massive shift are the rapid developments in robotics and ‘deep thinking’ software.

As a result of these developments, a January 2017 report from the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that roughly half of today’s work activities could be automated by 2055, give or take 20 years.

In a way this is nothing new. Technology has been replacing human labor since the invention of the wheel. Typically, though, machines have stepped in to perform relatively low-skill, low-wage, highly repetitive work like assembly line production. The least digitizable jobs, and therefore the jobs least under threat, have belonged to recreational therapists, members of the medical profession, social workers, teachers, and managers. The reason: computers are not yet as good as humans at things like personal interaction and off-the-cuff decision making. But that’s changing. Thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, natural language processing, and inexpensive computing power, jobs that once weren’t considered good candidates for automation suddenly are.

This is a world in which maybe a third of graduate level jobs will be undertaken by either robots or software. A world in which professions such as accountants and journalists may disappear completely, and where some of the duties of doctors’ and teachers’ may be under threat from the march of robotics and artificial intelligence. McKinsey estimates that 60% of today’s occupations will have at least some portion that can be automated.

The tasks least likely to be replaced by a computer, according to a widely cited 2013 Oxford Study on job digitization, are those requiring the highest degrees of social and creative intelligence. The most employable people will be those that have good communication skills, can empathize and interact with others, who can think outside the box and think critically.

If this is indeed the case, then shouldn’t we, as educators, be helping learners to develop these ‘life skills’ alongside the bread and butter of syntax, lexis and the four skills?

How we set about doing this is open to discussion. However, as a start, I would suggest that setting problem solving tasks may be just one approach to help bridge the gap between language learning and developing skills such as critical thinking. I also believe we might need to rethink our approach to developing communication skills  so that we address the whole range of what it means to be a ‘good’ communicator, including being specific, seeking clarification and active listening.

By doing so, we can take that first step on preparing young people in the skills they will require in the future.

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Dominic Walters

I am CELTA and DELTA qualified and have an MA in Educational Psychology. I have been teaching English since 1991, working in Brazil, Republic of Ireland, Spain, Portugual, Egypt and the UK. I am a DELTA, ICELT, CELTA, FTBE assessor and tutor as well as a CELTA online course tutor. I am also an examiner for the Cambridge, IELTS, Trinity exams.

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