Image Credit: Gulf News

Abu Dhabi: Digitisation and the increasing use of artificial intelligence are bringing about a massive change to places of work, and being employable in these offices of the future requires a different set of skills among today’s students. The pressure is being felt across educational systems and institutions across the UAE, Gulf News has found.

And while employers still cite a lack of skills and adequate preparation as reasons for job vacancies, schools and universities are increasingly adopting pedagogies that stress in-demand skills like critical thinking, problem solving and tech-savviness among their students.

A report released this year (2018) by the British Council, entitled ‘Future Skills Supporting the UAE’s Future Workforce’, highlights six sectors that have the biggest potential for growth. These include manufacturing, trade and logistics, travel and hospitality, financial services, technology and communications, and – despite a decreasing dependence on oil to support the economy – energy and petrochemicals. As traditional as the sectors may sound, a group of UAE business leaders said that the jobs across them are changing rapidly, driven by technology and the need for effective communication.

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This means that graduates in the UAE must possess a strong grasp of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects, along with an effective set of communication, entrepreneurial and problem solving skills, the British Council report advised.

“Given how dynamic both the tech sector and the global economy are as a whole, it is critical that students are exposed to a broad range of subjects in order to ensure that they remain competitive,” Paul Stock, educational consultant at Hale Education Group, told Gulf News. Hale Education is a Dubai-based educational consultancy that specialises in university enrolment.

It is critical that students are exposed to a broad range of subjects to ensure they remain competitive.”

 - Paul Stock | Education Consultant

“Curricula that encourage students to explore both the hard sciences, as well as subjects like English, Art, and History that encourage the development of relevant soft skills like critical thinking and reasoning, tend to produce students who are better prepared for today’s fluid economic and professional environment,” Stock added.

The popularity of curricula like the British systems, the American system and the Indian boards has not dwindled among students in the UAE. But even within these, experts advise that the students pursue a broad range of subjects that equip them with skills that can be transferred from one sector to another.

“Our most successful students blend multiple disciplines. So a future engineer took A-Level Art, a future doctor enrolled in A-Level English, an Ivy League-accepted future businessman wrote A-Level History, Math, Economics and Biology, and completed an extended project within Music Education,” Stock explained.

In fact, the need for a range of skills that are portable was emphasised at a high-level conference held in the capital in 2017 as part of the world’s largest vocational skills competition, World Skills. Experts cited American transportation entrepreneur Robin Chase’s analysis that today’s workers will hold six different jobs during their lives, even though workers only held a single job in previous generations, and that tomorrow’s workforce will have to hold down six jobs at the same time.

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“We need to equip our children with competencies and skills from a young age so that they can change as many jobs as they wish. And because jobs themselves are no longer guaranteed, the youth should be qualified enough to even become job-creating entrepreneurs,” said UAE Minister of Education, Hussain Al Hammadi.

This, however, does not diminish the need for subjects that support the upcoming digitisation and use of artificial intelligence at the workplace.

While schools in the UAE are aware of these future skills, many could still invest in further teacher training.”

 - Hazel Raja | Assistant Dean, New York University Abu Dhabi

“Our understanding is that 50 per cent of tomorrow’s jobs will be replaced by robots, and students would do well to have the ability to build and maintain these robots, whether they are used in industry or even in new fields like museum development and the arts. As always, interpersonal skills will continue to be valuable. In addition, as the population ages globally, job opportunities will also continue to be present in the healthcare sector,” said Hazel Raja, assistant dean for students and director of the career development centre at the New York University Abu Dhabi.

“While schools in the UAE are aware of these future skills, many could still invest in further teacher training. In many cases, teachers are not equipped to adequately teach these skills or incorporate innovation into their lessons, and this needs to change,” Raja said.

What do schools say?

Amir Yazdanpanah, head of technology innovation at Swiss International Scientific School in Dubai

“There is no proven blueprint but many forward-looking frameworks” when it comes to coping with change,” said Yazdanpanah. He pointed out that older schools and institutions find it more challenging to implement change in culture, processes, curriculum, etc.

However, Yazdanpanah added, the recent focus on teaching STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) skills is important for changing requirements of the job market.

He said: “Some curricula still look at these subjects as stand-alone but many schools, like Swiss International Scientific School in Dubai, are adopting a project-based and integrated approach to teaching and incorporating STEM learning in the curriculum.

“It has been widely established that future jobs will require a workforce with the ability to think creatively and know how to effectively execute ideas, projects, products and services. Being skilled in STEM is important for future jobs, but I argue that having the ability to apply these skills through creativity, collaboration and innovation becomes even more critical. AI and Robotics may replace many jobs, but creativity and innovation skills will be extremely difficult to automate and replace with machines.

Sangita Chima, principal and CEO of GEMS New Our Own High School Sharjah

According to Chima, there are skills and experiences that cannot be replaced by technology.

Chima said: “In my opinion, ‘change’ we must, but smart choices of traditional and modern practices will help sustain the ‘learning revolution’. We are a data driven education and decision-making system. Evidence based practises optimise the effect of new technology, assessment tools and learning devices. Reading a good book or working on arithmetic solutions are experiences that you cannot replace completely with new technology. Developing skills in Mathematics is a scholarly exercise in problem solving.”

For students to prosper in such a dynamic world, she added, there needs to be an amalgamation of what was traditionally seen as separate study areas.

“To succeed in an unpredicted future, new direction in pedagogy which elevates non-cognitive skills to enhance student success in the cognitive domains, is the way forward to revolutionise the learning journey for students and educators. Self-regulation, critical thinking and problem solving skills from the non-cognitive domain combines perfectly to create a holistic learning experience. A dynamic, spiral curriculum which integrates subjects, can create that ‘symphony in child’s brain’.”

Morgan Carney, head of the sixth form, Cranleigh Abu Dhabi

The school offers the British curriculum from kindergarten up to Grade 12, has also recently introduced the Harkness methodology to enhance student’s qualifications.

“[This is an] innovative discussion-based teaching and learning method, and we have opened a new building designed specifically to support the approach. Desks do not exist in the new centre; instead all classrooms have a large oval table where pupils are the leaders and teachers act as facilitators. The method places the onus on students to come to class ready to discuss topics in a collaborative, tutorial style that encourages critical thinking, develops collaboration skills and asks pupils to challenge each other,” said Morgan Carney, head of the sixth form (Grades 12 and 13) at the school.

He explained that students are organised into small classes of six to twelve, and share their findings while analysing the work of their peers. The aim is to make students more independent and resilient, and prepared to think and work in a mature, university style.

In addition, the school has made Extended Project Qualifications mandatory for all students in Grades 12 and 13. This carries the same weight as half an A level, and research-based projects, coupled with seminars on critical thinking and tasks that enhance project management and research skills.

“Whilst the outcomes of this Qualification are wonderfully diverse – [taking the form of a dissertation, an investigation, an artefact or a performance] – and of an incredibly high level, what all projects have in common is the process of learning that students go through as they plan, manage and produce their work. It also to exposes students to the pluridisciplinary nature of higher level study,” Carney said.