Learning for a complex world
© Getty
December 2020

Learning for a complex world

An innovation-driven world changes all of our lives, which results in many opportunities and few risks. Here are five areas education and training should focus on to prepare people for the new digital knowledge society.

What does it mean to be an educated person today? “We live in a world where the kinds of things that are easy to teach and test have also become easy to digitize and automate,” writes Professor Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in the OECD Learning Compass 2030. In the digital knowledge society, computers, programs and algorithms help us manage, outsource, interlink and apply knowledge.

This is nothing short of a revolution, because it means that the human being is assuming a new role: the one of a responsible decision maker and impetus provider using computers as powerful tools or even working on a par with artificial intelligence. This new role also changes the concept of education. Success in education, today, not only means language, mathematics or history, but also identity, ability to act and sense of purpose, according to Schleicher. The future, he says, is about pairing the artificial intelligence of computers with the values and skills that are uniquely human. In this way, human skills complement those of computers rather than compete with them, and people are prepared for jobs, applications and things of everyday life that don’t even exist yet today.

Especially the following five skills, some of which build upon and complement each other, should be cultivated in order to prepare people, from cradle to grave, for the new digital knowledge society:

1. Self-reflected learning

We’re able to access the entire knowledge of the world on the internet using smartphones. We’re able to use computers for learning even seemingly boring things in the form of exciting experiences – while determining the pace ourselves. Digitization, if you will, provides us with enormous freedom, also in the context of learning. Yet enormous freedom can also become a problem. For those who digress, for those who don’t know which way they’re headed and how to get there, the threat of drowning in the sea of possibilities looms. “That’s why self-reflected learning is one of the keys to education today,” says Professor Christian Stamov Roßnagel, a learning researcher at Jacobs University Bremen.

Self-reflected learning, above all, encompasses two things. First: jotting down two or three specific items describing what you’d like to be able to do by means of what you’ve learned – such action-oriented learning often has a more lasting effect than knowledge-oriented learning. Second: checking yourself during your learning journey and once you’ve achieved your learning goal to see whether you’re actually able to “work” with what you’ve learned. “That’s far less to be taken for granted than it sounds,” says Roßnagel. He works with large corporations and keeps seeing that people of all ages have problems with this. “In that case, we try to assist them in the context of learning and development.” A viable self-test may be to ask: Can I summarize this lesson in three sentences? And put the main, often highly condensed points of the subject matter into concrete terms? Here’s an example of a main point: “Belt drives withstand very high loads.” Appropriate self-test questions, depending on the learning goal, might be: In what operating ranges do such loads occur? How do I measure the level of the load? “Ideally, though, the foundation for reflected learning is laid as early as in classroom instruction in school,” says Roßnagel.

Learning for a complex world© Getty
2. Empathy

In a structurally unbalanced world, diversity always also entails differences that have a separating effect. Digitization may exacerbate this effect: “Algorithms behind social media are sorting us into groups of like-minded individuals. They create virtual filter bubbles that amplify our views and leave us insulated from divergent perspectives; they homogenize opinions while polarizing our societies,” writes OECD expert Schleicher. Empathy, in other words, the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, is a key skill for preventing this.

Empathy, though, is more than a builder of social bridges. Be it on the job, at home or within our communities, be it as a scientist, banker, worker or artist: We need this understanding of others in order to be able to act and cooperate in situationally appropriate ways. Especially since we, as human beings, will be more empathetic than machines for an indefinite period of time going forward, skills in this area are becoming increasingly important in the job market. However, empathy is not just an educational goal, but also a key skill for the explainer, because the ability to adopt perspectives is an essential and basic prerequisite of being able to explain things to others and of providing them with guidance.

3. Learning to think in integrative ways

Equality or freedom? Independence or solidarity? Efficiency or democratic processes? Innovation or consistency? The significance of such conflicting concepts keeps growing in a heavily connected world. Increasing complexity also leads to increasing dilemmas. Consequently, the ability to think in integrative ways and to find ways of replacing the “or” in pairs of opposites by an “and” is all the more important.

The way to impart this skill from the teaching side and to acquire it on the learning side lies in consciously dealing with complexity and ambiguity and the ways in which they have an impact. Using this approach, holistic systems can be actively elaborated as early as in school, for instance, the linking of water, energy and food supply. When students search for diverse opportunities for change and discuss and think through the related effects, they “develop their ability to recognize multiple solutions and work successfully with ambiguity,” it says in the OECD learning compass 2030.

4. Ability to act

Understanding things is the first key step, influencing and changing them is the second one. That students do this or at least try to cannot be taken for granted. This requires a relevant skill. In the OECD Learning Compass 2030, this skill is called “student agency:” “It is about acting rather than being acted upon; shaping rather than being shaped; and making responsible decisions and choices rather than accepting those determined by others,” it says in the Learning Compass.

This learning journey begins in early childhood: When a child experiences that its actions matter to its surroundings, that it can make an impact, the child will develop a sense of self-efficacy, which lays the foundation for student agency later in life. During the years in school this can be developed further by independent elaboration and establishing areas of emphasis. Co-determination and democratic processes in school can promote this as well: students that help shape a schoolyard practice learning by doing that will subsequently benefit them in their professional careers and in everyday life.

Learning researcher Stamov Roßnagel from Jacobs University Bremen views self-management skills as a primary educational goal, too – across all age groups. In teaching his students, he primarily promotes the skills of making evidence-based choices and developing new approaches – skills that will subsequently be in demand in their careers, irrespective of their roles or sectors of the economy. The best was to do this, says the professor, is by actively involving students from their first semester on in research and research-based consulting.

Examples of new and emerging jobs and matching educational areas of emphasis

Learning for a complex world
Source: OECD Learning Compass 2030
5. Ethics as a compass for choices

Those who make choices, those who are able to take action can make an impact – in various directions. That’s why taking action always implies an assumption of responsibility. Assuming responsibility for one’s own actions should always directly be part of taking action. The OECD Learning Compass 2030 says: “Students who have the capacity to take responsibility for their actions have a strong moral compass that allows for considered reflection, working with others and respecting the planet.”

To achieve this, we have to ask ourselves some critical questions – before and after taking action – from which we learn for the future: What should I do? Was that the right thing to do? Where are the limits? When considering the consequences in retrospect, should I have acted exactly in this or a different way? All the players in the educational system should try to impart and promote such practice: parents as well as educators, teachers as well as lecturers.

Three questions for …

… Paul Seren, Training Manager, Schaeffler Germany

Learning for a complex world© privat

Industry 4.0, digitization, the world of work is changing faster and faster. Companies are required to adjust their training. What is important in this context?
Industry 4.0 means that everything is interlinked with everything else – not only the machines, but the workers in particular. That’s why the ability – and more importantly, the willingness – to think out of the box is expected of new employees. Schaeffler therefore encourages apprentices and students to be flexible in their reasoning. They should have the capacity for managing change in order to upset the apple cart of things they’ve been trained in today and to learn something totally new. This, by the way, also applies to the trainers, who continually have to be sensitized regarding their personal readiness for change through respective training activities.

Under these prerequisites, how is Schaeffler adapting its training content in order to keep pace with technological progress?
For the past four years, all apprentices in Germany, irrespective of being trained in an industrial/technical or a commercial vocation, have been able to build a functional 3D printer – with everything that this entails – during their apprenticeships. Networking is important in this context. An aspiring mechatronics specialist communicates with an industrial business management assistant, a software developer with an industrial mechanic. Aside from fostering teamwork as part of an apprenticeship, this reveals further hidden potential. This form of training at Schaeffler has been successfully rolled out in the United States and Europe as well and is also planned to be exported to China in the near future.

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality will become central training tools

Paul Seren

What other innovations is Schaeffler planning to use in making apprentices fit for the future?
Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality will become central training tools. Virtual welding simulators have been used for quite some time, but this entire area holds additional potential – especially in manufacturing. For instance, handling, loading and repairing machines can be virtually trained in this way. This is an important innovation also in view of the fact that we’ll probably have to continue observing distancing rules for a longer period of time.

Christian Heinrich
Author Christian Heinrich
Christian Heinrich has been covering educational topics for the German weekly newspaper DIE ZEIT for more than a decade. Since 2014, education has been of highly personal relevance to him: it was the year in which his twins were born. The most recent choice he had to make in this context was just a few months ago: pre-school or another year at the childcare center? He opted for pre-school.