Future thinking: how to think, adapt, develop and succeed

Posted on 15th Jun 2018 in School News, Which London School?

As artificial intelligence begins to exert its influence on every career, Andrew Johnson, Headmaster of St Benedict’s, outlines how we can prepare young people to thrive in a time of rapid change...

It’s sometimes said that education is what is left when you have forgotten what you were taught. Einstein himself used this quote to make the point that the core value of education is not in the subjects studied, but in the acquisition of mental skills – the ability to think well.

Beyond educating and preparing pupils to achieve the best academic results they are capable of, schools need to teach them how to analyse information in an information age; to distinguish between fact and fiction – the true and the fake; to arrive at reasoned judgements and to articulate their own arguments when evaluating complex issues such as war, euthanasia, nuclear arms, or the environment.

At every stage, education needs to challenge children; to encourage them to think; to learn and research independently; to be curious, ask questions and go beyond the syllabus.

At St Benedict’s, students in all years, including in the Junior School, are given the opportunity to follow their curiosity and explore whatever interests them. They follow up independent research on their chosen topics with presentations, given to an invited audience of peers and parents. In Year 7, pupils explore the apparently simple question ‘Who am I?’, guided by subject teachers and using a wide range of interdisciplinary sources: some take a historical perspective and delve into their family tree, others take a scientific approach, looking at genes; a few even choose to focus on the philosophical nature of self, or include self-portraits and creative writing. At this important junction in their senior school careers, they enjoy having the opportunity to explore their identity, and having a free rein in deciding how to approach it.

In the Sixth Form, an open forum for debate and discussion helps students to explore difficult concepts, share ideas and hone their arguments. The emphasis is on thinking outside the box, intellectual creativity and fun. Students also engage in short, group research projects, such as reviewing books or podcasts. The forum is a valuable space for exploring ideas, and challenging each other’s thinking.

The future of work is arguably more uncertain now than it’s ever been. Our children will be employed in jobs that haven’t even evolved yet, and it’s unlikely that they’ll stay within one area of work, or one career. Artificial intelligence is increasing exponentially, and many jobs which are familiar to us now, in virtually every sphere, will soon be performed by computers. Schools therefore need to equip pupils to take their place in the world, and to find the kind of employment that best suits their talents.

Careers Departments have had to evolve dramatically since the days of handing out booklets or showing the occasional video. At St Benedict’s, pupils benefit from our active partnership with alumni and parents, who regularly visit to talk about their work and provide work experience. Our Careers Fair is a professional, live-streamed conference attended by hundreds of organisations and representatives from careers covering every profession, STEM, service, third economy and active work. There is also information on apprenticeships and sponsored degrees, which are increasingly popular alternatives to traditional university degrees.

Perhaps most valuable of all, however, beyond this first-hand, specific and practical advice, a keynote speaker concludes the Careers Fair by talking about their personal experience en route to success. The same powerful message invariably comes through: that future success is unpredictable, often defies a plan, requires tenacity and depends upon an individual’s growth mindset: not on initially being the ‘best’, but on constantly learning, growing and being a person that people want to work with.

As technology improves, and occupies an ever increasing part of our lives, it is human qualities which will matter more and more. Imagination, empathy, reliability, compassion, perseverance – these are the qualities that will hopefully remain when students have forgotten what they’ve learned for those exams.

So it is vital that, as well as teaching the curriculum, we help our children to develop these qualities in the first place; to be self-starters – independent learners, creative thinkers, team-workers and effective communicators. As they exchange the orderly, structured familiar environment of school for a highly competitive, uncertain world, young people will need to be versatile and adaptable. Good study skills and the acquisition of knowledge certainly have their place, but they are really only the beginning. It is determination which will see them through when they face enormous challenges, or when things don’t go to plan.

Co-curricular opportunities have an enormous part to play in arming pupils with this resilience, and their place in education is essential, not subsidiary. It takes self-discipline and independence to practise a musical instrument, or to learn the lines of a play. Performing in a concert or play develops confidence and self-belief.

In sport, when you’re 4-0 down with 10 minutes to go, it takes gritty determination to keep going to the end; and if you can encourage your team-mates along the way, so much the better.

Outward bound activities take children out of their comfort zones, teaching them map reading, survival skills and team work. My own sons still talk about their Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Gold expedition as one of the best things they ever did when they were at school: four days of navigating their way around the mountains of North Wales in horizontal rain and icy gales taught them a great deal about perseverance and pulling together.

Stellar exam results alone are really only just the beginning. We also need to develop to the full all that makes us human and unique.

Andrew Johnson has been Headmaster of St Benedict’s School, Ealing, since 2016.