Friday afternoon I had the good fortune to speak to my middle brother Brad for over an hour and a half after school. He is a busy world traveler who works as a high level executive for one of the world’s major technology companies. He and I are alike in many ways, although our professional lives diverged when it came to what we chose to do.
But he is deeply committed to education, whether providing one for his own children, sharing his knowledge and expertise with the people on his team, or constantly learning himself, he thinks a great deal about what education is and what it will become in the future.
Our conversation largely revolved around what will happen to education when machine learning/artificial intelligence can supersede our own cognitive abilities. What will we “teach” our students then? Brad then sent me this short two-minute clip of Jack Ma, the founder and CEO of Alibaba, sharing his vision of education in the future.
Yesterday morning, I ranted a bit about this on my personal Facebook page, and here are a few key passages:
Every teacher I know laments what public education has become: a non-stop testing regime that has largely sucked the life and joy out of education. People my age and older had the good fortune to “learn how to learn” for lack of a better phrase. With tests and “data-driven instruction” being the hallmark of today’s education—all in an effort to demonstrate what a student “knows” (or perhaps how well a student “tests”)—we’ve created a rather inhumane system in which teachers and students are the central components of a commodified, monetized education machine.
What happens, however, when machine learning and AI become more advanced than us? What will education look like when computers can “know” anything instantaneously, make calculations faster than any human, or anything else that machines can (and will continue to) do better than the most intelligent, most capable of us?
Jack Ma, the founder and CEO of Alibaba (China’s Amazon, basically), believes that we need to educate our children about what makes us human—to be creative, to think critically, to empathize with others, to work collaboratively—and get away from teaching “knowledge” for which machines will inevitably have far more computational power than any of us.
While I might not see this radical shift during my tenure/career as an educator, I think I’ve been doing some of this in my own classroom for the last 7 years at least: focusing on the human experience; trying my best to exemplify love, compassion, gratitude, generosity, and patience; genuinely caring for each and every student who becomes a part of my life; inspiring kids to love learning intrinsically/for its own sake; using mindfulness techniques to manage stress while being in tune with one’s own mind…the list goes on and on, but it is these soft-skills that are far more important than the “facts” they can look up on Google at any given moment by consulting their smartphones.
Having slept on it and thought about this challenge all day yesterday–and as much as I love the ideas put forth by Jack Ma–I don’t think he’s completely right (or at least his comments don’t provide enough nuance for the entire educational experience). While I would concur that education fundamentally needs to be about teaching kids how to learn, adapt to and thrive with change, as well as focus on what makes us inherently human, there is still a place for some fact-based knowledge.
Here’s Ken Jennings of Jeopardy! fame to share why (it’s cued up to start at 7:16, but the whole talk is worth watching):
As a teacher of the capstone course for the International Baccalaureate program, Theory of Knowledge, I am fortunate enough to teach the kind of class that Jack Ma talks about: one that instills the value of conceptual and critical thinking while constantly asking “how do we know?”
Knowledge is tricky and complex. It is dynamic and we can never know anything with absolute certainty. And while Jack Ma has a clear / important point about fact-based knowledge being important in our world for the last 200 years since we started compulsory public education in the West, I agree with Ken Jenning’s point that the bits and pieces we carry around in our heads (in TOK we call this “personal knowledge”) is critical for our own self-identity and our shared cultural heritage.
Hopefully the future of education falls somewhere between these two views. Either way, the future of education is perhaps a return to the past: a time when we didn’t incessantly test our children in the name of accountability and to make a quick buck; a time when we focused on educating the child how to be human rather than a machine that simply produces particular outputs based on the bubble sheet in front of him or her.
What do you think the future of education has in store for us? Share your thoughts below or comment on the Teacher Voice Facebook page.