Fears are mounting that the rapid technological advances occurring will automate and displace jobs on a scale never before seen.

In a piece for Quartz this past week, I addressed how moving to a blended learning, competency-based education system in which students advance based on mastery, not time, could address many of the concerns by better preparing citizens for the demands ahead.

The topic is important enough that it’s worth diving deeper. The piece I wrote illustrated the power of personalized learning powered by blended learning, which addresses the call by a group of business and academic leaders in their recent “Open Letter on the Digital Economy” and a corresponding piece that contained a set of public policy recommendations to “redesign how we deliver education at all levels using the power of digital technologies.”

It also addressed a second point that that group made, which is that the jobs that remain in the future will be those that leverage the abilities that make us uniquely human and separate us from machines. Accordingly, the group wrote, “We need to shift away from rote learning and build instead on our uniquely human strengths in areas like creativity and interpersonal interactions.”

There is some truth in that, and my piece talked about how the shift to blended learning would “free up teachers to focus far more on helping students work on meaningful projects, take part in Socratic discussions, engage in the community, and participate in other activities that allow students to discover their passions, create and innovate.”

For example, at Summit Public Schools, a charter school network based in California that uses blended learning, students engage in a total of 16 hours a week of “Personalized Learning Time” online, for which students set learning goals for the week; develop a plan to achieve the goals using Summit’s curated online learning playlists; and work through the plan. Because the learning is individualized for each student’s distinct needs, that’s enough time for students to master the core knowledge and skills of the curriculum. That frees up the rest of a student’s day for project-based learning, sustained reading time, physical education, and time to meet with his or her mentor. In addition, Summit provides its students with eight weeks a year of “Expeditions,” in which students learn largely off-campus in the real world. Students explore their passions in everything from elective courses to real internships to learn about career options.

Critically, stories about good blended learning don’t just show students focusing on developing creativity and interpersonal interactions, but also show students still mastering and developing automaticity in basic knowledge. This is something that will remain not only important for students developing the ability to be creative, but also in the jobs of the future, according to a recent prescient article by Thomas Davenport and Julia Kirby in the Harvard Business Review titled, “Beyond Automation: Strategies for remaining gainfully employed in an era of very smart machines.”

Davenport and Kirby argue that in the adoption of advanced technologies, efficiency-minded enterprises have adopted “automation strategies” where they take a baseline of what people do in a given job and deploy computers to “chip away” at the parts of those tasks that can be codified.

In contrast, they suggest, enterprises and individuals should be approaching the great advances with an “augmentation strategy,” by starting with “what humans do today and figuring out how that work could be deepened rather than diminished by a greater use of machines.”

Incidentally, a core reason I suspect that many employers have ignored the augmentation approach and instead adopted an efficiency mindset and automated is because of the capitalist’s dilemma that Clayton Christensen has illuminated, in which the “orthodoxy of new finance” has caused people to invest in “performance-improving” and “efficiency” innovations rather than “market-creating” innovations.

But the big takeaway for education is that the jobs created through augmentation strategies (termed Step up, Step aside, Step in, Step narrowly, Step forward) that play off humans’ unique strengths, still typically require “T-shaped” individuals—people who can go really deep in their area of expertise but also go broad and see the big picture. The takeaway should not be that knowledge isn’t important, but that it alone is insufficient.

Finally, the open letter with public policy recommendations says, “At least two years of community college rather than a high school degree should be the minimum educational goal.” But as my piece for Quartz makes clear, this is a misplaced goal. Shifting to a competency-based education system should “allow us to shift from focusing on how many years of schooling a student has—faulty measures that focus on time but not learning—to measures that allow us to see what students have mastered in terms of their knowledge, skills, and dispositions.”

As technology transforms society in the years ahead, it’s critical that our education system keeps pace.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.