What is Industry 4.0, and what does it mean for education?

The term ‘disruption’ is thrown around a lot, but despite becoming a cliche it’s one of the most important concepts of this century. Our world has changed significantly over the last 50 years, but another wave promises to be the most disruptive yet… Industry 4.0.

What is Industry 4.0?

Put simply, Industry 4.0 is the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and will be in full swing between 2020 and 2030.

The first three industrial revolutions related to the gradually increasing sophistication of physical manufacturing and production equipment. In Industry 4.0, the catalyst for change is the integration of physical and wirelessly connected digital systems.

Image credit: Christoph Roser at  AllAboutLean.com  under  CC BY-SA 4.0

Image credit: Christoph Roser at AllAboutLean.com under CC BY-SA 4.0

As each wave has past through, they have impacted on jobs and industries in different ways. Whilst creating undoubted hardship for those in the affected industries, the changes have also brought with them new types of industries and jobs - and often more than there were before. Industry 4.0 will likely be the most disruptive of all, however, thanks to the extraordinarily rapid advancement of artificial intelligence systems that can progressively improve their performance from inputs they collect.

In combination with advances in robotics,this will result in unprecedented levels of automation and is projected to leave large segments of the population without access to work. Whilst a number of economists argue that Industry 4.0 will be much like the previous disruptions and create new forms of work that we can’t imagine, there are a number of reasons why Industry 4.0 is more likely to be different. The machines of the future will be able to learn and adapt, and do so collectively, rather than one by one like humans do. Every new job we create, will be quickly automated.

Young people entering school today will enter a very different jobs market than we did when we finished our education.

How will industry 4.0 change education?

True artificial intelligence is still a long way off, and some human characteristics will be very hard for computers to mimic. Creativity, entrepreneurship, complex problem solving, and resilience all fall under this category. It is these skills that will be most important for students in the future.

Rather than the old ‘three-R’s’ of education, schools need to support the development of what are known as ‘21st Century Skills’, which will help students adapt to the changing needs of tomorrow. A good summary of 21st Century Skills comes from the National Research Council:

  1. Adaptability: Adapting to changing conditions and needs;

  2. Complex communication skills: interpreting verbal and non-verbal cues and responding appropriately;

  3. Non-routine problem-solving: recognising patterns and reaching solutions by analysing information from a broad range of sources;

  4. Self-management: the ability to work remotely and self-monitor in a virtual team; and

  5. Systems thinking: understanding how entire systems work.

Historically, these soft skills weren’t  taught in school, but developed at university or when they entered the workforce - on the job, so to speak. Unfortunately, entry level jobs in many blue and white collar industries are those that are most easily replaced by the machines, so the traditional learning pathways are narrowing.

This reflects the absolute necessity of giving students these skills before they leave high school, whether they go on to university education or not.

Unfortunately, as it stands we’re doing little more than teaching children how to read and write. Our teaching methods are stuck in a teacher-centered learning model we call Education 1.0, which does little to develop 21st Century Skills and in some ways works against them.

What can we do about it?

It will be far from easy for the education system to address the challenges presented by the 4th Industrial Revolution. Change will be generational - the problem is we don’t have that long. The shortcomings of the teacher-centered methods of Education 1.0 have already been discussed for decades and despite significant attempts at education reform, the system remains largely as it was a century ago. More progressive student-centered methods, what we might call  Education 2.0, have not gained sufficient traction. Authentic problem-based learning that gives students agency and responsibility in real world solutions is what’s needed.

While Education 2.0 has many of the characteristics needed, it remains largely classroom based. The problems remain abstract and often without consequence. Student engagement, while sometimes improved remains relatively low. We would argue that to prepare our young people for the disrupted future they face the system needs to move beyond 2.0 to  Education 3.0. This takes students into the real world to collaborate with real world communities and solving real world problems. They develop their skills and knowledge in context - there is a purpose to learning that goes beyond passing an exam.

Unfortunately, our education system is not built to be flexible. Resistance at every level means most attempts at more progressive teaching are suffocated. It’s more likely change will come from outside, which is what we hope to achieve with the Business Innovation Challenge.

You can learn more about Education 3.0 in Towards Education 3.0 by Robert Kay and Chris Goldspink, available for free here.

Jonathan Englert