If Robots Will Run the World, What Should Students Learn?

| April 12, 2013 | 23 Comments
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Education reformers have been calling for a different type of education, one that nurtures creative and innovative thinkers. But for many, that future is hard to see and even harder to influence.

Science fiction writers and blockbuster movies have been predicting a world run by robots for decades, and for most of us, the fantasy has stayed in the realm of fiction. But artificial intelligence has made rapid progress and robots are becoming more a part of everyday life than many people realize. Those who study robots and their impact on life foresee a day not too far off when many jobs now held by people will be automated.

“If you can detect a pattern, you can automate it,” said Charles Fadel, founder of the Center for Curriculum Redesign and a visiting practitioner at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, who spoke at the recent Learning and the Brain Conference. Fadel sees signs that robots are already becoming a part of everyday life. Google has a self-driving car. Japan recently put on a concert, attended by thousands of people, featuring a hologram popstar with a synthesized voice. Virtual models are gradually being put to work displaying the newest styles, and Watson the supercomputer whooped-on the best Jeopardy players. Signs of robotic intelligence are everywhere and educators need to be preparing students to enter a dramatically different world, Fadel said.

“The role of the educator is to channel and guide what is fundamentally an improvisational process.”

As artificial intelligence improves and slowly takes over aspects of daily life, the only way for people to continue to be useful is to “up-skill” — and that takes creativity. “Incremental creativity is just improving on something, but radical creativity is thinking something up,” Fadel said. He believes that, in time, computers will be capable of incremental creativity, slowly improving a process and building on its success. What they will never be able to do is generate a radically new idea.

“We’re being pushed upwards in abstraction, in some senses,” Fadel said. Recognizing how sophisticated computers already are, and how much better the algorithms are getting will be important as the education system evolves. Implicit in Fadel’s stark view of how artificial intelligence fits into human kind’s future is a question about the value of education. Why teach content when everything is searchable? Why teach specific skills when computers will one day be able to do that work, he asks.

[RELATED READING: How Can Teachers Prepare Kids for a Connected World?]

Education has to focus on learning how to learn – metacognition. School will still be important, but not to impart what happened during the Revolutionary War or to teach the quadratic formula. School, he said, should focus on teaching young people the intangibles, the things that make humans unique: relationships, flexibility, humanity, how to make discriminating decisions, resilience, innovation, adaptability, wisdom, ethics, curiosity, how to ask good questions, synthesizing and integrating information, and of course, creating.

In the future, computers and humans will be working together to create the next big invention and when that happens, people can distinguish themselves by controlling the process and the strategy. Humans will define the goals and will think creatively about solutions.

But to get to that place, the education system needs to nurture creative young people. That isn’t happening right now, he says.

EDUCATORS CAN HELP

Most political leaders and education experts agree that the education system needs to adapt to the technological realities of the age and work to produce more creative thinkers. “The whole culture is coming out with support for more and greater creativity in students,” said R. Keith Sawyer, professor of education and psychology studying creativity and learning at Washington University in St. Louis, at the same conference.

Sawyer says fostering creativity starts by recognizing that it’s a collaborative process, not one big idea from a genius. Rather, it’s more like improvisational theater. “Each person contributes a small idea or contribution and the next person picks it up and takes it somewhere,” Sawyer said. “It’s unpredictable and unplanned but something wonderful emerges.”

“In the ideal world, every teacher is contributing these small ideas, engaging in mutual tinkering. But we have to share with others, we can’t keep it in the classroom.”

Recognizing that much of the creative work generated comes out of collaborative group work, teachers can think about their classrooms as places for improvisational flow, where teachers and students are building knowledge together. Structure is needed, but some flexibility as well.

“The role of the educator is to channel and guide what is fundamentally an improvisational process,” Sawyer said. “Students learn what they need to learn but in a way that allows them to be creative.”

To arrive at an improvisational classroom, educators can move away from an instructional model for the classroom. The traditional model clings to the notion that children need to learn particular facts and it’s the teacher’s job to impart that information to students. Facts and information build incrementally and turn into more complex ideas, and learning is measured by testing knowledge of facts.

But many argue that this model results in superficial knowledge and low retention, weak transfer to new situations, inability to integrate facts and apply to other situations, Sawyer said.

Sawyer proposes that schooling should be constructionist, focusing on a deeper, conceptual understanding of topics with the ability to build new knowledge in new situations. To do this, students need to take facts, skills, and concepts and apply them to real-word problems. Learning should start with a driving question. This way, students can explore the topic through inquiry and discussion, working in teams, just as they would in the workplace or other life situations. Students create a tangible product that addresses the issue at hand, and along the way an instructor guides the process.

Sawyer is not naïve about the challenges to this model. It’s hard to develop a good design question. “The really good problems are not too hard, not too easy and they result in the acquisition of required content,” Sawyer said. But even after coming up with a perfect problem, it’s difficult to get students to actively engage and to collaborate effectively. It’s hard to assess learning this way and to effectively critique in a way that doesn’t stunt ideas, but helps guide the process.

It may seem daunting to change the current system into something that resembles the constructionist model Sawyer and others champion. But Sawyer said it’s happening in schools across the country, and educators are passing along these ideas to each other.

[RELATED READING: Fostering Creativity Is Not An Option]

“Every teacher is a creative professional,” Sawyer said. “And in the ideal world, every teacher is contributing these small ideas, engaging in mutual tinkering. But we have to share with others, we can’t keep it in the classroom.” The creative act of teaching needs to be a collaborative one, like a startup team working on the next innovative product. If each teacher continues to tinker and offer ideas to the larger group, a creative breakthrough will emerge.

“It’s going to be every one of us that contributes ideas along the way,” Sawyer said. And in doing so, teachers everywhere can create the institutional change that stands between them and implementing the ideas that to many are obvious and instinctual.

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  • Karla Valenti

    Children growing up in a digital world face completely unique challenges to what we have faced as their parents and educators (even taking into account generational changes that are natural between parents and their offspring). What makes this era unique is the rapid growth of technology and how it has drastically changed the way we interact with each other. Modern technology has forged a whole new landscape of unprecedented experiences for our children, experiences that bring with them many new wonders as well as new challenges. Unfortunately, these are challenges that we can hardly understand (both because of their novelty, but also because we cannot possibly grasp their future implications). That means that as parents and educators, we are truly ill-equipped to prepare our children for what lies ahead.

    That said, we’re not entirely at a loss. We do know a few key things (many of which are set forth in this article). In this new era, our children will need to: adapt to a rapidly changing environment; rely on technology for much of the future innovation and problem-solving; connect and collaborate with people who are different, who come from different cultures and speak different languages; leverage multiple intelligences to better understand themselves and their surroundings; and learn how to inspire and create in entirely novel ways.

    Fortunately, there are key competencies that children can learn to help them acquire these new skills (e.g. http://bit.ly/Tuumtz). What these competencies have in common (and what makes them so significant) is that they help children learn how to learn. Thus, while a child may not have a specific skill, he will nevertheless be able to learn what he needs to know in order to succeed.

    This is a “brave new world” indeed.

    • Bruce_William_Smith

      This situation is not that new; my own teachers said much the same to me 40 years ago, although the rate of change has increased since then. And while preparation for life (continuously redefined) is one of the eternal aims of education, it is not necessarily the highest or best; so while an increased attention to innovation is likely to figure into our redesigned schools for the future, it hardly constitutes the whole solution for what we seek, or even the majority of that solution.

      • Karla Valenti

        Bruce – I understand where you’re coming from, but I do think this is a relatively new situation. Yes, there will always be changes between generations and the younger ones will always have new challenges to face. However, I think your point about the rate of change is an important one. The fact is, the rate of change has increased massively between our and our children’s generation and it doesn’t look like it will slow down at anytime soon. That means that it is nearly impossible for us to predict the social/intellectual/emotional landscape that our children will be facing in 10, 20, 30 years.

        With that in mind, I think preparation is (and should be) a key role in education. To be clear, the most effective form of preparation is teaching children how to learn (as opposed to preparing them with a specific skill set that may well be obsolete by the time they actually need to use it).

        I also think innovation should feature prominently in schools now and in the future. The world is and will always be faced with varied and novel problems. Innovation is the only way we overcome and grow from them. I fundamentally believe that teaching our children to identify and gather relevant information (especially in an era where information is so readily available and at such a mass scale) and use it to create meaningful solutions is fundamental to empowering our children for future success. That is the crux of innovation.

        • Bruce_William_Smith

          I agree that using gathered information to solve problems is consistent with the education of innovators (Tony Wagner goes into considerable depth in this regard in his book “Creating Innovators”), and wrote two posts on this theme over the weekend: you can check them out at http://principalfoundations.blogspot.com/, if you like.

          • Karla Valenti

            Hi Bruce – I completely agree with your OWLs profile and think that you are absolutely on target with these skills.

            Also, I am not familiar with Tony Wagner but will certainly look into him. As for Howard Gardner, it is no small thing to say that he changed my entire approach to education and learning in general (in fact, my blog – http://www.totthoughts.com – focuses precisely on helping parents devise strategies to develop children’s multiple intelligences).

          • Bruce_William_Smith

            Karla, Professor Gardner (who was so kind, as was Professor Wagner, to reply to my messages yesterday) would be my education psychology guru, if I had one. I salute your devotion to developing multiple intelligences, and believe that schools that can develop these will be far more effective in recruiting students than mechanical factories preparing for meaningless tests, which our state schools have increasingly become.

    • http://twitter.com/bisasi Barbara Isasi-Brown

      Learning HOW to learn is perhaps the most important skill we can impart to our students. Yes, students need a base from which to build, however, if we don’t teach to seek, explore, and take risks, we will not be able to foster creative thinkers. students and teachers Ali me need to continually collaborate and grow to improve the world.

      • Karla Valenti

        Barbara – learning to learn is perhaps the only way we can ensure our children’s success. A child may not know a specific thing at a given moment in time, but if they know how to find the answers and create solutions, they will be able to overcome most any challenge! PS – I write a lot about this on my blog: Tot Thoughts (www.totthoughts.com). I’d love for you to check it out!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jonathan.lovelace3 Jonathan Lovelace

    It’s difficult to think creatively about something you don’t understand.

  • OutOFBOX

    GOOGLE and APPLICATION!

  • crazyfrog

    It’s amazing how so many commentators (including Thomas Friedman) suggest that we need to think creatively and synthetically but we don’t need to study facts and know things. It doesn’t make sense and it’s dangerous. Psychological studies of experts show that experts are so “smart” and good at thinking creatively and synthetically because they have a readily accessible storehouse of information in their heads. So yes, foster creativity but recognize that learning some basic things is still essential.

    • jcpj

      You are exactly right. I read Ken Robinson’s book to see how he supports his idea that we need a different way to teach creativity in school. What has he? Anecdotes. Nothing else. The book was written with an utter disregard for what cognitive research has to say about fostering intelligence and creativity. In order to be creative, you have to know something.

    • CMaika

      My thoughts exactly while reading through the article. The author says, “Why teach content when everything is searchable?” True, there is tons of information readily available to us. However, if you don’t already have a base of information to go off of, then your search will be inefficient because you won’t know what to search, and once you do you’ll have no idea weather the information obtained is relevant to your question. Furthermore, what you get from it will be extremely superficial.

  • Slap_Dash

    I find it continually interesting how people always talk of “fostering creativity” yet when you look at the jobs market it is typically creative jobs that pay the least in our society. If we want to foster creativity we need to make it a more acceptable career path–or find better avenues for those who happen to be extrarodiarily creative.

  • John W. Garrett

    Students should learn that fossil fuels make it all possible and that the great Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming conjecture isn’t anything close to “settled science.”

  • Lou

    I see a world of education having a love affair with technology and testing. Meanwhile, there’s no focus on learning. This article is a bright spot and I hope it takes hold with educators. As a society we must examine our obsession with competition. From a very young age, we’re teaching students to be the best, which means being better than other people. Me, me, me, me, me — one way to do that is to trounce the other students. In the workplace, this obession moves to the board room where co-workers attempt to one-up each other. I support what is being said about collabortive work but I wonder how much of this has a chance in a facebook society where individuals are urged to strive for their own cult of personality.

    • CrankyFranky

      ‘no focus on learning’ – yesterday I gave my students a simple challenge exercise then asked them to consider what problem solving techniques they used – most could not tell me anything – I’ll guess I was similar at 18yo – and my challenge as a much older teacher is to avoid judging their lack of critical thinking which seems so obvious to me but they have probably not yet learned

      if experience is the name we give to our mistakes, young folk have not had so much experience of consquences of mistakes – I ask them to describe problems they’ve had with computers – most look blank – ‘I’ve never had a problem’ – so I dig – ‘have you ever spent 3 hours installing software and getting it to work?’ – oh – yeah … but they promptly forgot about that

      with time and experience they will build layers of experience – of a whole world that hasn’t been invented yet

  • Nicole

    While I agree with educational reform and believe that children should construct meaning,I believe in these concepts because it allows and fosters natural human curiosity by engaging minds to think. A friend lamented to me that her son didn’t know his basic facts in grade 1. She showed me his test results of 1 out of 36 as proof. Then she stated off handedly that he probably wasn’t thinking. That is it. The child was most likely overwhelmed. There are far more affective and engaging methods that help children understand and therefore recall basic math facts than rote memorization. I share this example because educators need to think about the purpose of the activities we teach. Yes all the information is readily available. No one has a crystal ball to predict what jobs will exist in 30 years. Just as 30 years ago no one predicted the jobs in IT that exist today. Keep students thinking and minds engaged and creativity will follow.

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