Learn, unlearn, relearn

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  • Education
  • Adult education
  • Skills
  • Vocational education
  • Future of Work
  • Employment

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

The American businessman and futurist Alvin Toffler made this prediction more than 50 years ago. What he predicted in his 1970 book, Future Shock, was that the challenges ahead could not be met by a linear approach to learning and skills. To meet the radical changes of the future, our own learning must be ready to respond and adapt as our economies, industries and societies face disruption.

Since joining the RSA’s Cities of Learning programme I have been invited on several occasions to think, talk and write about the ‘future of skills’. As economic, climate and societal challenges loom large on our horizon, there is a growing and legitimate interest in what skills the UK economy and society might need in the coming decades. Unfortunately, I have found more interest in identifying what these skills are than in meeting the challenge of how we teach them, both to young people entering the workforce and to older people who need retraining. Only on vanishingly rare occasions is the question asked of how to conduct this skilling, reskilling or upskilling without further entrenching structural inequalities.

The problem with this approach is that the future of skills is a moving target. One that our systems, even operating at their peak, are too slow to hit. We cannot even keep up with the skills needs of the present.

According to research from the UK Tech Cluster, there are more than 100,000 tech jobs advertised every month and a World Skills/Learning and Work Institute report suggests we are heading for a “digital skills shortage disaster”. This is not a future skills problem.

We actually have no idea what the future of digital skills looks like. We do not know if coding, as we see it now, will still be needed in 10 years time as low code and no code solutions flood the marketplace.

We do not know if the metaverse will take off like the appstore did and whether we need to develop 3D skills and entirely new user interfaces. We do not know if data harvesting, extractive business models that fund the industry at scale, will survive. What we do know is that, whatever the next big shift in the means of digital production turns out to be, another one will be coming just five years behind.

Shorter skills lifecycles and longer lives

Our learning systems are built on a model that expects most people to conclude their formal education by the age of 21. But the notion of a ‘complete’ education is a fallacy left over from an era when one person could learn a skill and have one job for life. This is no longer sustainable for at least three reasons.

First, the skills we need are changing more rapidly. We know the automation revolution is coming and that others will follow. As we enter what the analyst entrepreneur (and RSA Fellow) Azeem Azhar calls the exponential age, radical disruptions in technology and society will come faster and faster.

Second, the time we spend in single jobs is falling. A job for life is a thing of the past. The average person will have at least 12 jobs in their lifetime with an average of three years per job. It is harder to rely on union-provided or on-the-job training for skills development in a role when that job changes so regularly. In some working patterns – for example, gig working – there is no training and development at all.

Third, the duration of our working life is increasing. Retirement age will increase to 68 in 2046. A longer working life will mean even more jobs, even more change, making the idea that an education completed in childhood or early adulthood will sustain a life’s work seem even more outlandish.

What this means is that our learning systems should be planning not just for lifelong access to courses, but for a lifetime of learning and learning and learning again. Unfortunately, we have spent 20 years going in the wrong direction. Adult learning has suffered from two decades of degradation. Public spending on adult learning was cut by 50% between 2010 and 2020; during the same period, participation fell to its lowest level in two decades.

A regenerative approach to skills is not possible without high participation in learning. The danger is that, as skills lifecycles shorten, those who are not learning will be left behind and the disadvantage gap will widen. This is already happening. Fewer than half of adults in lower socio-economic groups have engaged in any learning in the last three years. Adults who left school at 16 or younger are less than half as likely to engage in learning as those who left education at 21.

The people most likely to participate in adult learning already have degrees. Participants without degrees mostly have full-time jobs. This reflects two truths. One, that if you have successfully learned something difficult before, that confidence helps immeasurably with learning again. Two, that learning requires time, structure and support; for many people, this is found in a work environment.

The question that keeps me up at night is not how we retrain graduates and those employed full time; almost by definition, the education system already works for them. The types of challenges that bother me are how we convince a person who has not thrived at school, and who associates learning with failure and pain, to risk learning something new, or what kind of help is needed by the single mother with a part-time job to find reliable, affordable childcare that allows her the time and space to learn new skills (and not feel guilty while doing so). 

If there is any hope for a levelling up agenda and developing industries to benefit the people who have not already thrived in school and the workplace, then we must urgently act to understand the needs of these people and design policies that are not only inclusive, but inviting. That means putting their needs first.

Rebalancing skills policy

The research on successful adult learning strategies is consistent. It requires visibility, access and recognition. People must be able to see the opportunities for learning and how that relates to their circumstances. They must be able to access learning opportunities close to home and be able to receive meaningful recognition for their efforts in a format that values learning wherever it happens.

Lifelong learning strategies in Korea and Singapore use flexible, government-recognised, skills accreditations to recognise and champion even the smallest increments of learning. Credentials can be earned in work and non-formal contexts, including formal recognition of ‘intangible cultural properties’ (a knowledge or skill considered part of a place’s cultural heritage including crafts and performing arts). 

The danger is that, as skills lifecycles shorten, those who are not learning will be left behind and the disadvantage gap will widen. This is already happening

Skills, learning and employability policymakers often talk about being driven by ‘demand side’ needs. The demand they are talking about is the demand for skills from employers. Supply comes from learning providers and institutions. Demand from learners is not a consideration. I have never been asked to convene a group of local people to discuss what they would most like to learn, what skills they feel they lack and how they would like to apply those in a local context.

The government’s recent Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, which developed out of the Skills for Jobs white paper, makes this ‘demand side’ approach explicit. The bill promises “landmark reforms that will realign the post-16 education system around the needs of employers so that people are trained for the skills gaps that exist now, and in the future.”

The bill is welcome. Lifelong learning needs investment, and this is the first it has seen in a very long time. There is much to applaud, from an increased focus on localised learning strategies to a recognition that higher-level qualifications can be built from modular courses. But the bill only promises funding equivalent to one-third of the amount cut from lifelong learning in the previous decade. It entrenches the idea that there is a linear model of skills progression that will meet the needs of industry. It perpetuates the myth of worthy learning (for example, formal STEM-based skills) and wasteful learning (for example, the arts, humanities and languages) while ignoring the need for foundational skills and literacies to access the courses it promotes.

This is what happens when you design learning provision to support business but ignore the needs of learners. For example, the lifetime skills guarantee does not guarantee lifetime access to skills training, but free access to 400 government-approved Level 3 courses. Only learners who do not already have a Level 3 (A-level or equivalent) qualification can access the funded courses. Those people who struggle with literacy, numeracy or digital access cannot access the training they would need to access the Level 3 qualifications. This is not a ‘lifetime skills guarantee’ but a one-time skills top-up.

My hope is that as the new education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, settles into his role, he will draw from his experience rolling out the vaccine programme and understand that ensuring supply (whether of learning opportunities or vaccines) is very different from ensuring take-up. That said, some of the things that helped widespread take-up of the vaccine programme succeed could also be applied to learning: clear, consistent messaging about the value of participation; hyper-local access built on existing infrastructure; strong ‘social proof’ for participation; and visibility, access and recognition. 

Towards a regenerative learning cycle

Taking a regenerative approach to skills means accepting that our learning is never complete, but is part of a cycle. Over a lifetime we will work to develop skills, many of which will become obsolete over time, and then we must begin the process again. But every time we learn something new, our ability to learn more, to regenerate, is strengthened.

The first step on this cycle is simply learning, which we must embed a culture of throughout life. According to the 2014 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development brief Education Indicators in Focus, “learning begets learning”; the more engaged people are, the more they identify as being capable of learning, the more likely they are to continue to seek out and participate in learning opportunities. This means that we must nurture learning wherever we find it and seed it wherever we do not. There is no benefit in differentiating between the kinds of learning we support. Learning itself is a public good.

We cannot afford people leaving school thinking they have failed at learning. If a student has not gained five ‘good’ GCSEs after 11 years of direct classroom instruction, how do we support their learning differently? Is it a question of pedagogy or passion? How do we ensure that the foundational skills of modern learning – literacy, numeracy and digital literacy – are seen as rights for all?

Unlearning and relearning

Unlearning is harder to pin down. A short lifecycle of skills for many people might mean not just learning new skills, but letting go of obsolete ones. Learning is the literal process of changing our minds, of developing new behaviours, habits, heuristics and biases based on new information.

This is difficult, often emotional work. A day-long course or a series of online modules might be enough to impart the information needed to develop new skills but is not enough to change the behaviours of a lifetime. As a society we are currently trying to unlearn a two-century reliance on fossil fuels; this means letting go of things we value and identify with.

As we plan to support workers who have spent a lifetime in an industry facing disruption to change their job (within which their way of life and self-identity might be entangled), we must recognise that their needs will be different from young people entering an industry. The same courseware will not meet all needs and these workers will face an ‘unlearning’ overhead that takes time, support and empathy to overcome.

Relearning is the acceptance that education is never complete. Skills degrade in relevance, interests and circumstances shift. If we accept that skills lifecycles are shortening, then learning provision must be able to keep up with the changing needs of both people and industry. Changing formal learning provision can be a slow process and developing new qualifications and curricula takes a lot of time. It is turning round a battleship.

The government’s Local Skills Improvement Plan is a pillar of the skills bill. It decrees that local employer representative groups and chambers of commerce should work with further education colleges to make sure that training provides the skills needed by local employers. One of the difficulties of implementing this is a lack of flexibility in qualifications. How can a college demonstrate any skills it is teaching to its students if a relevant qualification is not available? Do we wait two years for one to be designed and hope that the local skills needs haven’t changed?

One approach that we have championed through the RSA’s Cities of Learning programme is the use of digital badges to capture and recognise different skills that meet employer needs. Colleges can implement their own badges to make visible the aspects of a course, extracurricular activity or other additionality that meets the needs of local employers. Digital badges offer a flexible means for capturing learning or relearning as it happens, offering a shared language for people to articulate their new skills in a way that is meaningful to employers. Badges suit a modular approach to learning and capture what people can do, rather than the level of progress they have made through a course.

How can the RSA contribute?

As we develop our flagship Cities of Learning programme with new partners and in new places, our ambition is to start from where the learners are, both in terms of place and circumstance. We have built a strong practice of convening local stakeholders (local government, employers, employability providers, cultural institutions, formal and informal learning providers) but we need to get better at bringing participants’ voices into our approach.

Working with the Ufi VocTech Trust we have commissioned a research report looking at learner confidence, motivations and barriers. As we analyse these findings, we will build them into our ongoing programme and continue working closely with people taking part to make sure their needs are met by the programme.

We are also developing new pilots to promote digitally inclusive learning in the places where we work. In order to deliver on the promise of regenerative learning at scale, digital approaches must be part of the equation. Access and accessibility become key. In co-designing approaches with the communities we hope to support, we aim to learn how best to ensure digital infrastructure supports learning outcomes for everybody. A significant amount of online learning material is based on video lectures or tutorials. If digital learning content looks and feels like classroom instruction, does this still benefit those who have not thrived in classroom environments? We want to understand what level of human support people need to benefit from online resources, and how best to design online learning to enable engagement.

Evaluation is part of our own learning lifecycle and we are building a stronger practice of impact evaluation into all of our work. We are committed to sharing the lessons we learn with RSA Fellows and the wider fields of adult and place-based learning, and this way, if our practice does not have the impact we hope for, or has surprising unintended impacts, we can unlearn, relearn and begin the cycle again.

I began this piece decrying the myth of the future of skills. The truth is that we can point to sectors that are growing and sectors that are shrinking. In the coming years we will hear increasingly urgent calls for digital, green and care skills, among others. My colleagues in the Future Work Centre are doing excellent work to understand the needs and challenges in our planet, society and economy from rapidly changing industries and working patterns.

My contention is not that we ignore the trajectory of our future needs, but that the needs of a low-carbon, highly automated, rapidly ageing future cannot be met with a linear programme of short courses that only a few will access.

Until we can upload new knowledge, competencies and behaviours, Matrix-like, into our brains, we need an approach that invites every person to spend time developing the one skill we can be confident any change will require: the ability to respond and adapt. The ability to learn.

Tom Kenyon is the RSA’s City of Learning programme lead.

This article first appeared in the RSA Journal Issue 1 2022.

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  • I love the article about the question asked of how to conduct this skilling, reskilling or upskilling without further entrenching structural inequalities.

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