Our children’s world in 2050
What will our children’s lives be like in 30 years? What skills will the members of the next generation need so that they can help shape the future, and thrive in that new world? We spoke about “future skills” with Prof. Martin Hafen of Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts. He wrote a white paper on this topic on behalf of the Jacobs Foundation.
What future are we preparing our children for?
A look at the formal education system suggests that we are preparing children for a future that will be more or less identical to the present, a future in which education is primarily a tool for transferring knowledge as a way of preparing students for the workplace. Yet this will not adequately prepare them for any of the possible futures described in the study, since those futures all have one thing in common: increasingly rapid change. Simply conveying information will not enable students to adapt to these changes without making themselves sick.
Which of the skills described in the study are most important for young children to learn?
Evolution has equipped young children with all the qualities they need to do well in life, no matter what the future looks like. They are creative, adept at problem-solving, enthusiastic, socially oriented, cooperative and empathetic. We need to create the necessary conditions so that they can build on those qualities and gain self-efficacy. This is important not only in early childhood, but also during the school years and later in life.
In your opinion, what is the greatest deficit in early childhood education with respect to the skills described in the study?
In Switzerland, the problem is that we fail to give families with young children enough support in creating favorable conditions for their children. This particularly affects socially disadvantaged families. But the goal should not be to make early learning more like school – on the contrary. We need to eliminate chronic stress and make sure that parents have the time they need to develop supportive relationships with their children. We are one of the few OECD countries that provide no paid parental leave, or even paternity leave. Also important are stimulating environments, at home and outdoors, where children can engage in free play and interact with their peers.
What trends are you seeing in childrearing?
There is an increasing focus on performance, influenced by modern humanism and capitalism, during the first years of a child’s life. This puts unnecessary pressure on families and child care providers. Instead of being present in the moment, people are spending more and more time thinking about the future. And in most cases they are thinking not about what a successful life, in a broader sense, might look like, but instead about success in school and in the workplace. This places too much emphasis on some skills, while others – such as creativity, social competence and enthusiasm – are considered less important because they are not relevant for selection into a more advanced academic track or a more prestigious career. The result is that many talents every child has remain undeveloped. Society cannot afford to let this happen, if it is to meet the challenges of the future – whatever that future may ultimately look like.
“We are preparing children for a future that will be more or less identical to the present.”
What does all of this mean for schools?
It’s not that schools are not changing; indeed, in many respects they are changing for the better. However, they need to focus more attention on the principles of early learning, since those are the principles that lead to genuine learning. In concrete terms, this means giving children more choice in what they want to learn and setting aside more time for experiential learning; it also means more cooperative learning, more movement-based learning and more opportunities for children to form their own opinions. In addition, we should follow the example of school systems in Scandinavia and wait until the end of the period of compulsory education before separating children into different academic tracks. Selection pressure interferes with the development of life skills and exacerbates inequality based on children’s backgrounds. This is surely not the objective of a humanistic education system.
Not all parents are equally capable of teaching these skills to their children. How can we support parents in that effort?
A crucial place to start is by reducing social inequality. Precarious working and living conditions make it much more difficult for parents to provide the conditions their children need for healthy development. We also know that the supply of non-family child care in Switzerland is inadequate, in terms of both quantity and quality, and that child care is much too expensive for families. The government should invest just as much in early childhood as it does in the formal education system, since early childhood is a crucial period for future-oriented education and the development of life skills. Economizing in this area increases the risk of future social and health-related problems – leading to suffering and additional costs. This is not the way to meet the challenges society will face in the future.
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Prof. Martin Hafen is a social worker and sociologist who teaches and directs a project at Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts (HSLU). His doctoral dissertation proposed a cross-curricular theory of prevention based on sociology’s systems theory. For the past 10 years, his research and publications have focused increasing attention on early childhood education, which – based on scientific evidence – he identifies as the most important area for prevention.