The World Economic Forum (WEF) created a much-thumbed document when it published its perspectives on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4iR) in 2015. Its ascendancy to religious text status cannot be understated.
The 4iR is characterised by Klaus Schwab, founder of the WEF, as “a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to another […] In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.” Schwab provides the reader with context, should it be needed: “The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanise production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production. Now a Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third, the digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century. It is characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.”
Like many, I find the 4iR concept fascinating; it pushes me to contemplate how education (let alone ‘society’) might adapt. In my darker moments, I envision education being squashed by the 4iR because we are rarely timely in our response to such transformations (with some notable exceptions). In my more optimistic moments, which is where my mental musings tend to live, I question whether the entire thing is a load of rubbish. In other words, have we overestimated the impact and utility of those technological elements (AI is a great example) that represent the 4iR? Have we reduced ourselves to a world of algorithms to the extent that we are willing to let the algorithms programme our lives, effectively leading to a conformist society…a sort of monoculture? Will we simply abandon our own future to that of the algorithm, as a form of technological determinism (thanks, Graham Brown-Martin, for that wording) — is it a kind of ‘falling into line’ with ‘the inevitable’ (see Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable, 2017)?
Whatever the questions that we ponder (and I hope that you are pondering these, among others), I find myself contemplating deeply how the 4iR will play out in schools. I see several strata of schools, in terms of their engagement with the 4iR. One stratum is the ‘Monoculture Schools,’ those schools that consider themselves at the cutting edge of everything — the early adopters, the innovators, the forward-thinking-why-doesn’t-everyone-do-school-like-us schools. By ‘monoculture,’ I am not being pejorative, nor am I being condescending or suggesting that these schools don’t have diversity, brilliant multicultural models, and the like. What I do mean is that, insofar as a mental model of ‘how school should be’ is concerned, is that they occupy a rather privileged place. They are the 10% — they are not the norm. Another stratum would be what I call the ‘Mega Middle.’ This stratum represents the norm, meaning those schools that are doing solid, noble work in terms of educating young people, and they might struggle with keeping up with the latest pedagogical advancements, cutting-edge technology, and they may even be largely paper-based (textbooks, etc.). We rejoice in their victories, most of which are hard-fought and hard-won; they exhibit the characteristics of Duckworth’s “grit.” The third stratum is ‘The Others,’ those schools that may defy comprehension, for all kinds of reasons — it could be a local proprietary school that places profit above all else because it can (meaning: the ‘provision’ of education is such that it is understood to be algorithmic, thanks to curricula and exams that can be reduced to/replicated by algorithms), or it could be a government school in the poorest of neighbourhoods. The point here is that there are multiple strata of schools (the three here certainly do not constitute an exhaustive list), all of which need to be considering how they are responding/will respond to the 4iR.
What preoccupies me is that the Mega Middle and The Others represent the kinds of schools that are (possibly) somehow sandwiched between/among the Second, Third, and Fourth Industrial Revolutions, for a variety of reasons. The Guardian (UK newspaper) published an article somewhat recently on Amazon workers and the robotisation of their jobs. I can’t help but wonder if the Mega Middle and The Others occupy an analogous space in the education world? How might these schools prepare for the 4iR, and who might help them to prepare? Will they get left behind in such a way that the gap between the Monoculture Schools and all other schools grows, mirroring something like the income inequality that features prominently in the news? How might we make all ships rise?
I also struggle, if I’m being honest, with Schwab’s notion that “we need to shape a future that works for all of us by putting people first and empowering them,” and that the 4iR is best thought of as “a complement to the best parts of human nature — creativity, empathy, stewardship.” Why do I struggle with these seemingly enlightened statements? As much as I am drawn toward them for myriad reasons, I struggle with whether these statements are symptomatic of a perspective of privilege in our world. Will 4iR work for everyone, for all kinds of schools? The verdict is out. At the very least, however, there is no clear answer, and that should give us pause. And we should pay attention to it.
So, the next time a board member parades down the corridor with a copy of the 4iR in hand, asking “How are we dealing with this, strategically?,” my advice would be as follows: be aware of possible myopia connected with the 4iR. Will you embrace it in such a way as to become more monocultural, or will you embrace it in ways that will make all ships rise? Will you believe it without serious thought, or are you healthfully skeptical about its tenets?