In education, much of what passes for disruption is simply hyped innovation — better ways of doing the same thing. The notion of disrupting the classroom is often more about giving a teacher better tools than about dispensing with the classroom (or the teacher) altogether. Handing out tablets loaded with text rather than paper-based books, is a common digital initiative which makes schools feel like they are innovating, without actually changing anything. The substitution-augmentation-modification-redefinition (SAMR) model of digital transformation is much loved, because it makes techno-shifts seem incremental, linear and manageable. Even though most digital initiatives have stalled at augmentation, the model gives the illusion that you are on a path to progress.
An extreme example is a project by China’s Kai-Fu Lee, head of Sinovation Ventures. He’s backing a system which will allow one teacher to handle a class of one thousand. It will use streamed video of the best available teachers, supported in the classroom by teacher-assistants. It is powered by AI and facial scanning, which can read the attentiveness and comprehension levels of each learner and prompt remedial action. While ambitious (and a little Orwellian), this approach still venerates teacher-delivered lessons in a classroom setting. The inherent nature of the education process is not being disrupted. In education, if you want to be taken seriously it is strategically important not to directly threaten the status quo.
Taboos and technology
There are deeply entrenched social and political taboos against messing with educational processes which have stood largely unchallenged for centuries. There is also an understandable fear that experimenting with the way you educate puts the future of individual learners and their generation at risk. But without experimentation there is no progress, or, at best, progress is infinitesimally slow. In any other field, as we approach the third decade of the 21st century, slowness to adapt is existentially hazardous. In education, it’s disastrous.
Here is why: Technological competencies change exponentially while human competencies change logarithmically. (In case you are not mathematically inclined, this means that over time the tech curve becomes increasingly steep till it is almost vertical, while the human curve becomes increasingly flat till it is almost horizontal). The gap between what tech can do for us and what we are able to do ourselves gets wider and wider at an accelerating rate, until it is infinitely big. Human behavior being what it is, we always opt for the enhanced performance or amplified experience which tech facilitates. People get swept up in the fevered pace of change in society, culture and commerce. We become increasingly dependent on technology, and increasingly eager for its next evolution. (The physiological reason for this is found in brain chemistry, which dictates that we derive more pleasure from anticipation than from satisfaction).
Tomorrow is today
The environment in which a learner learns — and the future environment into which the learner will emerge from school seeking a meaningful way to make a living — has started to change faster than we are able to plan for or manage. School is in some ways a shelter from the storm. In school we learn how to do the things which in life machines already do for us. But unplugging teens from technology does not make the problem go away. There is an unrelenting explosion of knowledge in every field, and a mushrooming of entirely new fields of knowledge that were not there last time the curriculum was updated. Nobody can master all the new things we have discovered or created in the past five years, let alone what will emerge in the next five. Perhaps we don’t have to, because machines will do that for us. But where does that leave human education? What should today’s teens be learning, and how?
AI, automation and robotics endanger cornerstone professions on which parents used to build their dreams. People seeking a career in law, medicine or finance spent years ingesting and interpreting massive amounts of data, which today can be assimilated by AI in minutes. Mechanical tasks are by definition better suited to machines. Analytic and diagnostic processes which require years of experience in humans can be done faster and more accurately by AI after only a few hours of training. Compared with robots, our bodies cannot compete in manual tasks, and our minds are inadequate at mental tasks.
The Past is the Problem
Learners today need to be able to thrive in the entropic world that will be waiting for them when they leave school. Preparing the youth for a future that is unpredictable is not something that government education departments, parents or schools are particularly good at. We don’t try to forecast the future and work backwards to define what should be taught; we tend to look at what was taught in the past and merely update it, leaving growing gaps in future-relevant knowledge and skills. We cram more and more knowledge into a fixed number of school days. We focus on getting the class through the final exams, and we try to use technology to make the class experience more effective.
Education as it exists today has real problems. In most countries, away from elite schools, classrooms are increasingly crowded and scarce, teachers are decreasingly qualified, textbooks and learning aids are unattainably expensive, and political pressure to lower standards and avoid evaluating teacher performance grows daily. According to a report by the Education Commission, by 2030, in low-income countries, only one out of 10 teens will be on track to gain basic secondary-level skills. These scenarios do not take into account the hundreds of millions of people who are forecast to be displaced by climate-shift impacts over coming decades. How do you use fixed real-estate structures to educate people in a state of perpetual mobility?
Given the accelerating growth of knowledge in every field, the explosion of new career options (however ephemeral) and the imminent implosion of many old ones, it is imperative that we rethink what we teach and how we teach it — if, in fact, we ‘teach’ it at all.
Learning to be human
Whether our future environment is AI-powered utopian or anarchic dystopian, to thrive we have to be able to think analytically and creatively. What are the skills and knowledge we will need? The optimistic view emphasizes creativity, leadership, critical thinking, networked collaboration, agility, initiative, information discernment, and curiosity. The arguments for these so-called 21st century skills are usually predicated on the assumption that computers will never be able to do these things better than people can, which in turn is predicated on a desire to believe that tech evolves logarithmically, not exponentially. However, just because machine creativity (for example) is limited today does not mean it won’t significantly outstrip human creativity ten or twenty years hence. Just because humans struggle to understand or define creativity, and are often in awe of it, doesn’t mean computers will be stumped by it. Their ability in other fields to discover patterns which the human mind cannot is already impressive. Over the next two decades computers will do things we simply do not want to imagine.
In the movie industry, for example, entire movies may be machine-scripted to appeal to specific human triggers, then produced using CGI, avatars and machine voices indistinguishable from reality, edited and distributed digitally from within a single computer, without any human input at all — causing directors, writers, actors, cinematographers and scores of studio personnel to look for new jobs. That’s if we are still watching “movies” a decade hence.
Your brain on math
It is impossible to overstate how important mathematics is in forging a mind which can think creatively and analytically — a core foundation for all of the 21st century skills. Math taught by rote does not achieve this. Training the mind to remember and regurgitate rather than to reason or intuit is mentally damaging, handicapping our ability to thrive in a fast-changing world. The way teens learn math has to be experiential and contextual, and it has to be relevant to the instantaneous mental reward mechanisms that motivate, minute to minute.
The most inspiring learning spaces are reality and fantasy. Classrooms are neither. Classrooms have been protective laboratories for so long they have become time capsules. After a decade or more, stepping out into the real world is scary and dissonant, like arriving in the future. Kids deserve better preparation for the rapidly changing world in which they will have to thrive.
If they are to compete or co-exist with exponentially evolving machines, today’s teens must learn how to think, to learn, and to unlearn. Self-paced, motivating personal learning experiences, facilitated through the learner’s own mobile device, can help craft the independent creative critical thinking of teens, in a way classrooms cannot.
Nostalgia: more dangerous than technology
Idealists who cling nostalgically to the school experience of the 1960s are adamant that kids need less screen time, not more. They cannot accept that every aspect of the world is changing and will not change back. Today virtualness is the norm in communication, and has been for at least two decades. Every process in everybody’s life, from researching to purchasing, dating to movie viewing, driving to DIY, creating to financing, and even learning, is digitally enhanced and mobile — and we are just at the Model-T Ford stage of all of it. We have seen the resistance before, of course. Last year, mobile phones were banned in French schools. In the 1990s, instead of embracing the internet, companies banned workers in offices from accessing it. In the 1970s, instead of teaching pupils how to use a pocket calculator, the technology was banned in schools. The education establishment has always viewed personal-empowerment technologies as dangerous.
If the primary role of education is to prepare the youth to thrive in their future, educational dogma should not strive too hard to preserve the past. Educators point to learned studies which demonstrate why established methodologies are the best. But so did companies and entire industries, before suddenly disappearing, made irrelevant by technological advances and consumer adoption of them. Consumers have used the technology in their pockets to take back the power previously wielded by corporations. Learners will do the same to educators, unless institutions and policy makers let go of their vision of a largely unchanged future, and actively forge a new model for the massive disruptions ahead.
Originally published in Medium