How schools can best prepare Australia’s future workforce - Education Matters Magazine
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How schools can best prepare Australia’s future workforce

Future generations will need to be able to think creatively, problem solve and adapt themselves in new ways to address the jobs of tomorrow, writes Byron Scaf, CEO at Stile Education.

When asking ourselves what skills schools need to be teaching to prepare students for the modern workforce, we must first ask, “what does the modern workforce look like?” We know that 75 per cent of the fastest growing careers will require Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) skills, however STEM performance in Australian schools has stalled and even declined over the past 20 years.

Studies have estimated that Australians will make 17 changes in employers across five different careers. Regardless of the career paths students pursue, success in the modern workforce demands critical thinkers and confident problem solvers. While we can’t know what technologies today’s young people are going to utilise in their future roles, we do know that strong critical thinkers are going to be best placed to adapt to this fast-changing environment. In addition to being directly relevant to the jobs they’ll be going into, a strong STEM education builds these very skills.

The current state of play

In 2015, the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) undertook a report called The New Work Order, which analysed how ways of working have changed for young people, largely as a result of the unique amalgamations of automation, globalisation and collaboration.

The first report found that as young Australians transition from school to work, there’s a noticeable gap between the enterprising skills they need and the level of skills they possess. For example, around 35 per cent of Australian 15-year-olds showed low proficiency in problem solving – an essential skill for the professional workforce they’re entering.

In a more recent report, The New Basics, FYA analysed 4.2 million job ads between 2012 and 2015 to show that the predicted changes
in skills required by young Australians in order to succeed in the workforce have already begun to be realised. In the past 25 years, Australia’s workforce has lost one million jobs in manufacturing and labouring, but gained more than one million jobs in the knowledge and service industries. Specifically, demand for digital skills increased 212 per cent over three years, while the need for critical thinking increased 158 per cent, and creativity by 65 per cent.

The evidence is clear: more employers are demanding enterprising skills from their young employees. These are exactly the types of skills that a well-rounded STEM education is designed to foster.

Solving tomorrow’s problems

Significant and frequent developments in technology are having a huge impact on the way we work and do business. It’s likely that many of the most important issues of the future haven’t been realised yet. While there’s no doubt that climate change, artificial intelligence, automation, technologies and the need to accommodate an ever-expanding global population will remain key issues, it’s hard to foresee what else we’ll be dealing with by the time today’s school age students enter the workforce. The World Economic Forum notes that, “In many industries and countries, the most in-demand occupations or specialties did not exist 10 years ago.”

For future generations to be appropriately equipped to solve the most pressing issues of tomorrow, they’ll need to be able to think creatively, problem solve, and adapt themselves in new ways, addressing problems we haven’t considered. By prioritising a strong STEM education today, schools can not only equip students with the subject matter knowledge they’ll need, but also foster the critical thinking
and enterprise skills that will set young people up with the best chance of success after graduation.

The importance of STEM – a warning

While developing strong critical thinkers across the board is important, nowhere is the impact more pertinent than for STEM careers. Today, the foundation of this knowledge is most commonly taught separately, in traditional science, technology, engineering and mathematics classes – subjects that will mould tomorrow’s inventors and innovators.

One of the biggest issues that we see, is that despite significant new funding and a focus on STEM as an integrated approach, there is still a lack of consensus on what this actually means for teachers in terms of its practical implementation within the framework of the curriculum.

We must teach to the curriculum, but we know that we should be teaching to build these critical skills.

The challenge at hand isn’t that we’re slipping in global rankings (though we are), it’s that Australia’s education system is producing young people who have a limited interest and understanding in how the world around them works. This will have the inevitable result of stifling innovation and our ability to nd domestic talent to ll crucial roles that will require STEM skills in future.

How do we develop critical thinkers?

This takes us back to the ndings of the 2015 Program For International Student Assessment report, which found a strong and positive relationship between performance in science and mathematics, and a student’s ability to problem solve. It makes sense really – those with a solid foundation knowledge are well-equipped to come up with unique solutions to unforeseen challenges.

The answer lies in tying these disciplines – Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology – together in a meaningful way for students and showing the interplay between them, as well as how they apply to real life problems that they can relate to and are going to need to solve.

It’s unrealistic to think that teaching via rote learning will ever be phased out completely, but it’s important that schools teach students to recognise the critical difference between memory and intelligence. As the OECD noted, “modern economies reward individuals not for what they know, but for what they can do with what they know.”

What next?

We need to provide schools and teachers with frameworks for thinking about and tools for implementing an integrated approach to STEM.

We need to experiment and push the boundaries of conventional thinking about how we approach these subjects and their delivery in the classroom environment.

Surely, technology is going to play a greater role in the classroom as we integrate STEM into a more uni ed curriculum, but what this actually looks like is going to be defined largely by the innovations of today’s critical thinkers. If we get this right, tomorrow’s workforce will be even better equipped to innovate and drive change in education and beyond.

The writing is on the wall, industries everywhere are demanding young people with the confidence to ask the hard questions, take risks, learn through experimentation and learn from their mistakes. Regardless of year level, schools should be prioritising tools and technology that enable students to think critically – a skill that is inevitably developed when students are provided with a well-rounded STEM education. This approach will develop well-equipped individuals who are poised to become the next generation of problem solvers in the modern workforce.

Byron Scaf is the CEO of Stile, an Australian education start-up that creates STEM curriculum resources used by over 100,000 school students. Born and educated in Melbourne, Byron studied neuroscience and engineering at Melbourne University before joining Better Place, an electric car infrastructure start-up, where he built and oversaw the Australian technical operation. Byron then transitioned from a focus on renewable energy to one of education. In 2012, he developed a learning platform for the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering’s STELR program, an online STEM resource for Australian schools. Shortly thereafter, Byron was brought on to lead Stile where he continues to head a team of passionate teachers and engineers.
Byron’s vision for Stile is to a create a thought-leading education organisation that works collaboratively with teachers, students and school leadership to create resources, professional development opportunities and industry partnerships to best prepare students for the future.


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