Owning the future of skills: how to teach innovation

View all tags
Students in lecture theatre image by Mikael Kristenson

Innovation is among the skills needed in the economy of 2030. But do HE teaching practices produce innovative students? Lucy Gower explores educating for the future of skills.

My learning experience

When I was eight years old I knew all the flags of the world. When I was 16 I knew about Pythagoras’ theorem and when I was 21 I knew how Nylon was made.

While flags, Pythagoras and Nylon are all interesting to a degree, I’m not sure how genuinely useful any of those topics have really been in my career.

I learned about them to pass exams. I crammed the information in order to regurgitate it and get as many questions right as I could. Then I forgot it all.

What makes a great corporate strategist?
Privacy and cookies
By watching, you agree Pearson can share your viewership data for marketing and analytics for one year, revocable by deleting your cookies.

My schools and universities could tick a box though. If enough of us remembered enough facts it meant they got better ratings, which meant more students and more money in subsequent years.

Throughout my education, I remember being rewarded for getting things right. And I learned this young. At an early age, I figured out that asking challenging questions, thinking differently or being a maverick didn’t make me popular with teachers so, over time, I stopped.

Then, when we start work, we are given key performance indicators and objectives. As adults working for an organisation we are measured and judged on how we conform to a set of pre-defined objectives. These are just the grown-up versions of getting rewarded for getting things right, passing tests and ticking boxes.

Effects in the workplace

It’s no wonder that so many organisations struggle to be successful at innovation. Learning to pass exams rather than learning to think for ourselves discourages innovation from an early age. Let's not underestimate the impact that our childhood experiences have on our adult behaviour.

Innovation isn’t about conforming to a set of rules or learning about how things have always been done. It’s about thinking differently to solve problems and having the courage to push new boundaries to make change happen. I’m not saying that it’s unimportant to learn from history and the great discoveries that have gone before us, but if we are not mindful, we may end up focusing on the events of the past and miss the real lessons of the innovators experiences, such as questioning the status quo, learning from trial and error and not giving up when others said it was impossible.

Effects on the future

Real life lessons that we experience are really important in a world that is changing faster than ever before and will never move so slowly again. It’s unlikely that anyone entering the workforce today will have the same job in 10 years’ time. One estimate suggests that 65% of children starting primary school today will end up working in jobs that currently don’t even exist.

In January 2016, a McKinsey & Company study found that about 30% of tasks in 60% of occupations could be computerised. If that wasn’t bad enough, last year, the Bank of England’s chief economist said that 15 million UK jobs might be taken over by robots!

Owning the future of skills

Ford, the futurist, offers some optimism with predictions of three job areas that are most likely to survive the robot invasion:

  • Jobs that involve ‘genuine creativity’, such as being an artist, a scientist, or developing a new business strategy
  • Occupations that involve complex relationships with people, for example, nurses, or a role that requires close relationships with clients
  • Roles that are highly unpredictable, like a plumber who is called out to emergencies in different locations.

All these jobs involve thinking for ourselves to solve problems. For higher education to stay relevant, it must skill people up with the tools and confidence to think for themselves, to solve problems, to understand data and draw conclusions, to challenge convention, to learn from failure and build personal resilience to get back up again and have another go.

This is how we ensure that the students of today are equipped to flourish and thrive in the workforce of tomorrow.


Guardian US article: What jobs will still be around in 20 years? Read this to prepare your future

World Economic Forum article: 10 jobs that didn’t exist 10 years ago

About the author 

Lucy Gower is director and founder at Lucidity. She is a trainer, coach, consultant and author of the Innovation Workout. She specialises in developing creative, collaborative, high performing and innovative teams.

Since leaving the NSPCC in 2012 Lucy has worked with over 50 organisations to help individuals and teams to work better together to develop ideas and make change happen. Clients include Alzheimer’s Society, Amnesty International, The British Lung Foundation, The Children’s Society, Claire House Children’s Hospice, Cystic Fibrosis Trust, Nesta, The Royal British Legion and Oxfam.

Lucy is passionate about how the approach to the people part of innovation can transform individual, team and organisational performance and give people the confidence and support to make good ideas happen.