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The NSW Department of Education challenged a consortium of University of Sydney academics to consider the important question of what today’s kindergarteners will need to thrive and not just survive in the 21st century. The Department is particularly interested in the predicted changes that Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other developing technologies could bring to Australia’s economy, workplace and community. This report, which integrates insights from scholars in faculties as diverse as engineering and medicine, business and education, is not a definitive analysis of all potentially relevant issues; rather, it explores some of the challenges and opportunities around these emerging technologies and what this might mean for education, particularly school education.

Section 1 outlines the methodology for this interdisciplinary approach and how this report was prepared.

Section 2 considers the three dimensions of impact associated with artificial intelligence. Its most overt impact is on job numbers and content. Its covert impact is on means of decision-making and social connection. Its impact as an amplifier of other changes is significant, especially given its capacity to intensify dynamics associated with labour market fragmentation, globalisation, inequality and climate change. The central challenge is not to predict the future but to prepare for uncertainty. This is best achieved by developing in individuals the capacity to adapt successfully to changing situations.

Section 3 considers how education might best nurture this capacity. The relationship between education and the labour market is not as obvious as commonly thought. Moreover, recent literature on improving people’s employability reveals formal education is only one (and not necessarily the most important) factor determining labour market success. That said, appropriate education is a vital ingredient. Arguably the most prevalent current narrative concerns the need for educators to focus on ‘soft’, ‘generic employability’ or so-called ‘21st century skills’. Typically, these are defined as ‘literacy and numeracy’ and capabilities concerning ‘problem solving’, ‘creativity’, ‘communication’ and ‘collaboration’. This narrative, while superficially attractive, is ultimately not sufficient for guiding education policy and practice in an AI era.

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