Research Digest

Will U.S. Workers Triumph Over R2D2?

The annual gathering of the World Economic Forum, aka Davos, seems far-removed from the average American classroom. It’s not.

The elite at Davos embrace the global change driven by rapid, unparalleled technological advancements. Although most advocate for globalization,[1]  another related, but less visible, struggle will shape the fate of American workers.  Humans – in the US or China – will compete with machines for paychecks.[2]  Humans can win if they can: 1) hone the essential skills robots lack[3]  and 2) adapt rapidly to fill evolving gaps created by automation.[4]

US educators have taken on the challenge of preparing their students to win.  Workforce readiness, 21st Century Skills, and the 4Cs have joined the 3Rs as the buzzwords of the day. Mastering the 4Cs – Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity – is essential.[5]  As the global elite meet in Davos to strategize for the future, a survey of students across the nation provides a snapshot of reality.[6]

By traditional standards, most students have a foundation to be workforce-ready.   [graph 1]

  • Seven in ten high school freshmen have begun to consider their career pathway (70%)
  • More than 4 in 5 high school seniors have begun to consider their career pathway (81%).

Yet traditional standards may not apply. Career aspirations are merely an indication of potential. Many aspire to jobs that will become obsolete,[7]  many will work in jobs that do not yet exist,[8] and human workers will have to demonstrate their value over machines.[9]  Mastering the 4Cs will be critical.[10]

By the standards of Davos futurists, even many “A” students appear unprepared to compete successfully against robots in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. By 2020, creativity, critical thinking, and complex problem solving will be the top skills workers will need.[11]

  • Creativity is the 4C least consistently experienced in their classes [Graph 2] – but one critical quality that makes humans more valuable than robots.[12]
  • Developing creativity among top students demands concerted efforts.
    • “A” students rate Creativity the least important of the 4Cs for their future career [graph 3]
    • Teachers rate Creativity the least important of the 4Cs for student’s future success [graph 4]

What can inspire greater creativity so our best and brightest academically can compete (and win) against robots?

Warning signs among “A” students intensify among “C” students. Effective interventions are needed to avoid massive displacement of these workers by robots who can perform routinized activities[13] – even before these young people land their first job.

  • “C” students are substantially less likely to report experiencing the four C’s in classes. [Graph 5]
  • Acquiring these outside the classroom will require encouragement for these students rate the 4Cs as unimportant for their future – in absolute terms and relative to “A” students. [graph 6]

Conclusion. “America First” may provide a sense of reprieve from the global competition that has dramatically altered the lives of many middle and working-class Americans. Automation will be exceeding difficult to stop at our borders. If the 4Cs are key to students thriving in this new era of competition, can our schools cultivate critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity at the same time teachers are judged by students’ abilities to fill in bubbles on a standardized test?[14] [11]

[2]; also see
[3] For thoughts on this see
[4] See for example: Also see:
[6] This snapshot is based on responses of 70,836 high school students surveyed between August and December 2016. Paper surveys were administered in-class.
[9]; also see
[13] See for example: and
[14] Some answer “no,” leaving the teaching profession. See Others suggest alternative ways to assess progress and nurture creativity: