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Just Because a Statistic Seems “Real” Doesn’t Mean it is True

August 3, 2018

Late last month Forbes education writer Derek Newton posted an essay titled “What Mark Twain Didn’t Really Tell Us About Technology Disruption, Jobs And Education“. The essay could just have easily drawn it’s title from a recent talk I heard given by Tara Brach whose overarching theme was “just because something is real doesn’t mean it’s true”… a phrase that resonated with me having read endless articles about “failing public education” based on statistics drawn from norm referenced tests that necessarily result in 50% of students scoring below average. Mr. Newton cited three “facts” that “everyone” accepts as reality that are not true:

A fairly loud chorus knows for sure that three things are true – that technology is going to deeply and massively change the nature of work, that our schools, and colleges and universities in particular, aren’t preparing future workers for those future jobs and that a failure to quickly adopt massive changes in the way we teach will result in certain doom for future workers, businesses and the global economy.

He debunks the first premise by examining the ultimate source of an oft cited statistic (most recently cited in an ad by IBM) that “…sixty-five percent of children now in primary school will work in job types that don’t exist today.” When he examined the source of that “fact” here’s what Mr. Newton found:

Not only is this 65% statistic something we know for sure that just ain’t so, the stat itself is fake – simply, it appears, made up.

The footnote in the IBM report leads to this 2016 article in Fortune Magazine by John Chambers who was then the executive chairman of Cisco. In it, Chambers wrote, “ … it is estimated that 65% of children entering primary school today will work in job types that don’t even exist yet.”

It is estimated. That’s it. No footnote. No source.

A similar stat appears in a report by the World Economic Forum called “The Future of Jobs and Skills,” also in 2016. It says, “65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist.” And that statement footnotes to “McLeod, Scott and Karl Fisch, “Shift Happens.””

ShiftHappens is a series of viral YouTube videos from 2007. The videos are great but so dated at this point that it seems other-worldly to see references to the growth in MySpace as evidence of our technology future. But the problem isn’t the date, it’s the fundamental accuracy.

Scott McLeod, J.D., Ph.D. and associate professor, Educational Leadership, University of Colorado Denver, one of the creators of the videos, told me that the 65% stat, “ … indeed, is not a statistic we ever used! .. Not sure where it came from.”

McLeod isn’t the first or only person to have expressed bewilderment with this statistic. In 2017, the BBC did an entire segment debunking the “65% of primary school” idea. Also in 2017, Benjamin Doxtdator did some great research on the stat and found, “ …  the claim is not true.” According to Doxtdator, “ … versions of it date from at least to 1957.”

A meme repeated is a meme remembered and, eventually, it is a meme unquestioned. Like the meme that started in 1983 when A Nation at Risk declared that America’s public schools were failing.

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