Rapid advances in technology have led to persistent prognostications that automation and machine learning will dramatically disrupt the workforce over the coming decade (see here, here, here, and here)
Former Google China President Kai-Fu Lee said in a recent interview that the rise of AI necessarily portends the fall of some types of jobs, particularly those that are routine. This includes white-collar, entry-level, and blue-collar jobs (which are most at risk). Lee said, “As long as a job is routine, can be defined by an objective function and is quantitative in nature, over time, it will eventually get displaced.”
Educational blogger Tim Holt defines these “routine-based” jobs as those that can be systematized readily.
What does that mean exactly, to “systematize” a job? Essentially, any job that currently requires steps, from A to B to C to final product can be systematized. Think of making a car. That is a very systematic process. Part 1 is added to Part 2, to Part 3 and so on until a car is born. An assembly line of almost any kind is ripe for automation. But often, we think of “systematized” jobs as those in big industries like manufacturing. Now, with artificial intelligence, jobs that we once thought could not be systematized are indeed on the verge of being systematized. Everything from CPAs to lawyers, mortgage brokers, even entire fields in medicine like X-ray technician and sonogram reader are on their way to the dustbin of history. Machines have already shown that they can read and identify cancers in mammograms better than humans , can diagnose disease better than humans, and can even tell strikes and balls better than human umpires.
Given these potential changes for the modern workforce, what competencies and skills do people need to succeed in the 21st century? How can we prepare children today for professional productivity in an uncertain future? How can we reskill and upskill adults who are currently working but lack the education to adapt easily and quickly?
These questions have prompted a growing number of organizations to create frameworks for the 21st-century competencies and skills people need to succeed professionally. Examples include the World Economic Forum, the National Research Council, P21, ATC21, and the National School Boards Association. In the U.S., these 21st-century frameworks can be stacked on top of the influential guidelines coming from the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving the Necessary Skills (SCANS), appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Labor in 1991 to determine the skills young people need to succeed in the world of work.
Here is a high-level view of how each of these frameworks attempts to organize the competencies and skills needed for professional and personal success.
The challenge in designing such frameworks is three-fold: (1) the framework must define tangible, concrete competencies and skills that align with 21st-century requirements, (2) the framework must map well to existing educational curricula, (3) framework competencies and skills must be assessable in a way that shows demonstrable mastery.
The ability to map and assess competencies and skills is particularly important as we design education that addresses the requirements of an evolving workplace. However, mapping and assessing competencies and skills can also be incredibly difficult as we look across diverse curricula that address the spectrum of traditional high school, college, and workforce training.
How can we design a competencies and skills framework that works well across secondary and postsecondary education and one that applies to un(der)-educated and educated populations alike?
This is the question and challenge we have been working on at TEL in recent months. From the beginning, we have emphasized learning outcomes and demonstrable mastery as key tenets of our general education curriculum. But how do we ensure that courses in History, English, and Science are also helping prepare students for the 21st-century workforce?
The question becomes more nuanced as we build out a new curriculum for Workforce Training (Basic Workforce Readiness and Career Foundations). This curriculum is designed to give students demonstrable competencies that lead to employment and successful careers. At the same time, we want it to serve as a bridge to additional postsecondary education and possible college degrees.
How do we create a single framework for these purposes, one that can be aligned with our curricula and that can be assessed in meaningful ways?
Our first step in this process has been the creation of the TEL Mastery Standards. We have divided these standards into three competency categories: (1) Essential Competencies, (2) Thinking Competencies, and (3) Professional Competencies.
While there is certainly overlap between the three categories, there is an intentional progression as we move from left to right on the chart. Essential Competencies represent those foundational skills that are critical for acquiring more knowledge and developing higher-order thinking abilities. Thinking Competencies represent those higher-order thinking skills, which are often associated with traditional higher education. Finally, Professional Competencies represent the skills attained through the application of Essential and Thinking Competencies to professional contexts.
In my next post, I will dive deeper into the standards and specific outcomes for each, as well as how we envision assessing these in our different curricula.
Rob Reynolds, Ph.D.
Executive Director, TEL Library