Schools in the Second Machine Age

Adopted from a talk at the Annual Patron’s Breakfast in February 2018.
The Grace class of 2032 will start Junior Kindergarten this fall and will graduate college in 2036. Five of them are children of people I have already taught, so what will be different this time? There is a big thing coming that will be important to them artificial intelligence. What does A.I. mean for them, and what they need to learn in school over the next 14 years?
The answer is a lot. Not that A.I. is going to replace schools or do to teachers what the Easy Pass did to toll takers, but it is important because, as the emerging technology of the time, it will have a profound impact on the future work lives of today’s students.
I am not an alarmist who believes we will have a social crisis with huge job loss and economic dislocation. I believe this will be similar to what we see today with people’s professional lives-- a serious disrupter for those in the last decade of their working lives, and long-term hardship for some. For others, new jobs will be created as jobs are lost, and productivity increases will fund the transition. The issue for us is that our clientele, the classes of 2018-2032 at Grace, should be prepared for the world of work they will be entering. A.I. will have a huge impact; they need to be ready.
It is important to understand what A.I. is and what it is not. A.I. is the logical progression of Moore’s law. It is about calculation speed; it is a series of high-speed digital transactions with yes/no answers. The calculations are based on information provided by ever more effective sensors. It is objective and nuanced. IBM's Watson (just down the street from Grace) is not the Hal 9000 from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” There is no higher reasoning power, just high speed calculation augmented by stored information and freed from the subjective bias that is central to human processing.
The conventional wisdom is that about half of all current jobs will be negatively affected by A.I. and that roughly a third of jobs will be enhanced and expanded by A.I. The good news is, at least for those of us at Grace, the growth part will be jobs that are focused on human interaction and will require strong subjective/qualitative reasoning. The machines will take over such things as following patterns and executing routine work, including very sophisticated analysis of huge amounts of data, which is currently done by highly educated and well-compensated humans. The creative and interpersonal professions will see the dramatic increase in number and value. There is a great book about this called, "The Second Machine Age" by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of M.I.T.
While machines will do much more, humans will be making the qualitative judgments supported by those machines. In the creative and interpersonal realm, it is a subjective element that is crucial and ever-changing. How many times have we said there is no accounting for taste, fashion and style? Look no further than the disco-themed posters for the Scholarship Benefit Auction this year for evidence of how tastes change with time.
Healthcare is a great example of an industry that will not see a reduction in employment, but will see an increase in effectiveness with A.I. and, if people live longer, more jobs. Education is similar. Even though online learning enhances the overall product, the most effective teaching will still require human interaction. The legal profession fits the same pattern. Low-level research skills and drafting will go away, but increasing complexity requires more people. Management, creativity, design, engineering and science all should grow.
In my admissions sessions, I tell prospective parents that the economy for which we are preparing incoming students requires that they have a salient amount of information and be able to work collaboratively to generate new products, new concepts and new ideas. What does that mean in terms of what we should be teaching students to be able to do? In the very short version, students will be able to identify and use the objective, quantitative data produced by machines because they are well-educated subjective, qualitative thinkers who are relationship builders with their own strong ethical bias.
Our task therefore changes in a subtle way. First the focus becomes how we develop the brain, not what we put in it. That requires that we turn some conventional wisdom on its head.
Let us start with teaching French. It is not unusual for people to ask that with all the C3PO like translators which are about to come our way, why spend a decade learning a foreign language, especially one spoken by only 150 million people worldwide? Maybe we could spend that time learning to code instead.
Actually, the opposite is true. If anything, there is a greater imperative now to learn a second language and it does not matter which or when: French, Turkish or Portuguese are just fine, and at any stage of life. The process of learning a language opens up and extends different regions of the brain, and that is the crucial element, not the target language itself. For example, one thing that is tied to language learning is enhanced inferencing. Machines can create largely two-dimensional nuance, but the inferencing gained from the study of language is multi-dimensional. It is humor and cadence, timbre and tone, idiom and dialect. The benefits abound, especially because of the interactive nature of the exercise. While the brain is not a muscle, it is plastic, and what we have seen is that what is not exercised will not develop. You can use the translator on your phone for whatever language you do not speak, but you need to speak at least two so you can sufficiently develop your brain.
The machines will be able to do algorithms better than any human and it is tempting and easy to let them do the work too. Scheduling software made it even easier to let machines do the work, but you lost control of the ability to fix problems because you no longer knew what the machines had done. So we still need to teach the algorithms. And even though calculators have replaced arithmetic for adults already --who does long division on paper anymore?-- you still need to learn arithmetic because without it, your brain will not be ready to understand each successive layer of math reasoning, and everyone needs to learn calculus because you need to be able to envision the dynamism of change.
We already use lots of machines beyond the calculator to teach math and science. That does not change the fact that there will always be things you need to know, including knowing how to do what machines can do. But now, teaching the algorithm we need will be the by-product of teaching students how to solve a problem or discover something new.
The key upside-down moment in schools will be when there are no more right answers in math class. The right answer in sixth grade math will not be the calculation but the student-initiated design project: their own video game; a map of the unexplored universe; or the ultimate student desk. We used to do design projects as a way to get some of the students to learn how to calculate. Now we want to create divergent thinkers who know how to use calculators and can understand how they work. So we do design projects with the goal of teaching students to discover their creative power and support that with calculation.
The advanced topics in biology using CRISPR technology featured in the last issue of Grace News is a classic example of that shift. It used to be that you took advanced biology to learn the skills to use CRISPR. This course uses CRISPR to teach them advanced biology. The project drives the students to generate process learning. They expand the creative-generative elements of their brains. They enhance their executive function because they have to collaborate to succeed. They learn skills and information as a means of solving the problem.
Another counterintuitive academic focus is writing. We hear so much about the death of the written word. 140 characters is all you need. Visual images will dominate. For most of human history the visual has been the normal, and the written and spoken word has been the exception. The new machine age will be no different. Those who control the written word will have communication power, design power and brain power. Writing needs to be a part of the curriculum across disciplines, including math problems and science questions. Brain power is about integrating different regions of the brain and enhancing the meta cognitive strength of the individual. Writing is one of the most complex cognitive tasks. That is why it is a crucial skill for the class of 2032.
We used to say knowledge is power. In the information age, information is ubiquitous, so knowledge is no longer power. Emotional intelligence is the source of power, which is why a focus on empathy, E.Q. , and strong relationships matters. People who can put themselves in other people’s shoes will be able to leverage the strengths of others for the common good. It comes from literature like the famous line from "To Kill a Mocking Bird" where Atticus Finch says to Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” We have built a series of programs that are designed to help our students develop a positive self-concept. They take time and add value greater than some of the time spent in more traditional disciplines.
We are well aware that there are more unknown unknowns than knowns. We have started to build our program in small ways. We are adding facilities like the design lab. There is a design learning committee comprised of faculty and administrators who are producing ideas for bringing design thinking and project-based learning into more classrooms.
Whatever we do as adults, how the students respond is what is important The key to success, I believe, will be intrinsic motivation. People need to be ahead of the machines, not waiting for the machines. Daniel Pink in his great work on motivation, "Drive," set out the goal that each person attain autonomy, mastery and purpose. The experience of school will continue to evolve in that direction for our students.
The Class of 2032 will need to graduate with a set of skills that are both familiar and at the same time in a different order: the problem will be more important than the solution. The process will be the key to learning and the success of the group will be more important than the success of the individual.