Can Our Kids Handle a Rapidly Changing World?

I was moved to write my book by the speed at which changes occur in our society.  The combination of instant communications, artificial intelligence, and climate disruption will keep our routines of life for the foreseeable future. Our children must prepare for this rapidly changing world. Click on title above to see more.

Our schools, though, still largely reflect an earlier time when childhood was the preparation for life and where almost all of formal education occurred before people entered the work world. Schools also have a “hidden curriculum” of teaching kids to show up on time, accept authority, follow directions, and not deviate very far from what they are told explicitly to do by someone in charge – of their workplace, of a government office, or of a community entity like a church. Today, though, machines are especially good at blindly following orders, and what’s left for humans requires more judgement.

In addition, machines continue to take over whole jobs and parts of other jobs, and that will continue, since we are just at the beginning of an age of artificial intelligence that builds on several decades of research that is now yielding practical results that grow as computers get faster. This means that many, perhaps almost all, of today’s schoolkids will lose their jobs periodically and have to be retrained to do something different.  Many jobs will not be replaced completely, but machines will do enough that some humans will lose jobs and others will need to be especially good at the parts of the job that machines can’t do if they are to stay employed.

Consider a simple example, a bank employee making a credit decision. When I first entered the work world, in order to get a loan, I had to have certain information about myself reviewed by a bank officer who determined whether I was creditworthy.  That process likely took a few days between getting the right documentation and getting some time in the officer’s schedule.  Even a little later, if I tried to use a credit card while traveling in India, I needed to wait for several minutes while a human decided if the charge was legitimate.  Today, smart machines make such decisions instantly, and the machines have a better track record of making the right decisions than humans ever did.  Now, that does not mean that there are no jobs left for humans in making certain kinds of creditworthiness decisions.  However, there are far fewer jobs than there used to be, and the requirements for the jobs that still exist are much stiffer, since humans tend to decide only extremely complex or unusual cases. When it’s just a matter of applying rules already set – or even of “data mining” a company’s experience to tune those rules, machines have replaced people.

So, what are the implications of this for education?  Most important, if people are periodically going to lose their jobs to machines, they need to be good at learning new competences quickly. If they have to pay for their own retraining, being slow at learning means having to pay more.  If government pays, they had better be able to learn in the small amount of training that government can afford.  If companies pay, they too will focus on speedy learners. Learning quickly is a skill.  It can be practiced and people can get better at it. What’s needed are many opportunities to confront major new learning tasks, including both conceptual learning and learning to do new and complex things.

Beyond being able to learn quickly, in order to handle the periodic loss of a job, a person needs to be in good mental and physical health, since job loss is a very traumatic event for most people.  Also, because losing a job means losing a steady income stream, in order to be prepared for the possibility of a job disappearing, one needs a higher level of financial literacy than schools have ever considered to be part of the curriculum.

Since we know that computers are taking over the easy and the routine, part of schooling needs to be preparation for what people still do better than machines.  That includes both the range of skills needed to work on a collaborative team that is attacking a novel task that involves multiple bodies of knowledge spread across different people and some socioemotional skills that support taking on the roles humans fill better than cold machines – taking care of the elderly, helping people heal, providing companionship, etc.

Beyond being ready to learn new human roles, though, there’s yet another set of capabilities that is needed in tough and changing times.  When people’s lives are disrupted, they struggle with understanding why this has happened. It is not an accident that the rise of nationalist regimes and hate groups occurs when the world of work is disrupted. This has happened in each period of industrial revolution, whether the disruptions came from the steam engine, the distribution of electricity, the rise of information connectivity, the rise of computers, or the age of artificial intelligence. This time, though, the effects of hate can spread much more quickly, through social media. False information, as well as unsupported claims that other information is false, move with the speed of light.  Repeatedly, we see our public discussions dominated, at least for a while, by small groups holding extreme views, even though the majority feeling often is much more moderate.

To deal with all of this and to participate in protecting our society from the worst of it, our children need to learn how to evaluate claims that spread through the Internet. Whether it is claims about who will benefit from tax law changes, or about the safety of vaccination, or about which residents of our country pose a danger to others, the preservation of a civil and democratic society requires a citizenry that can evaluate claims.  This may always have been true, but the old strategy of believing anything that many people are saying is no longer a good one in a large-scale society that can instantly share and “retweet” information.  Along with the ability to evaluate claims, in the age of smart machines, readiness and skill for civic participation also is critical.  Maintaining a world that we can enjoy inhabiting is only possible if we each are able to do our part.

So, overall, a big piece of what school needs to be about in the age of smart machines are eight competences:

  • the ability to learn efficiently and quickly,
  • socioemotional skills,
  • skills of civic participation,
  • ability to evaluate information,
  • facility in collaborative activity, including the 4 C’s (dealing with complexity, communication, collaboration, and creativity),
  • management of personal finances and some basic economics,
  • confidence, and
  • physical and mental fitness

How to assure that schools teach these competences is what my book is about. See Amazon or Routledge for details.

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