There’s a new attempt to solve education sweeping in from the West. Perhaps you read about the $100 million round of venture capital money that was announced for ALT-Schools last week. We’re going to see a few of these, perhaps many, over the next few years as technology firms and startups attempt to apply methods from Silicon Valley, such as The Lean Startup or Agile development, to teaching and learning. I am sharply reminded of my own arrogance when I entered the field of education from the dot com industry over a dozen years ago. What I failed to appreciate then, and see missing in these new approaches, is an authentic understanding of what education is for; what it promises and what its failure would mean.
School is actually a conservative enterprise. It is the passing on of what’s best in humanity’s pursuit to understand and control nature and ourselves. Old-sounding values like sportsmanship, integrity, and empathy can’t be easily replaced by new ones like problem seeking and problem solving; the former represent the hard-won wisdom of humans trying to live in an ever-changing world, where simple solutions are only simple in appearance, and complex situations aren’t reducible to lesser ones that can be easily answered. We pass on values like integrity and loyalty because we know through millennia of experience that inculcating these values in our young people provides ballast to their lives and fixed stars by which to guide their choices.
[The postmodernist in me shudders a bit at the fixed stars point. No star is permanently fixed, of course, nor are values necessarily fixed, but I'll take it because I love the ballast line that precedes it. -dls]
The Economist this week warns of the coming of deep learning, strong AI (artificial intelligence). The British paper is not alone, but is joined by leading technologists such as Gates, Musk, and others, all telling us that we should worry for middle class jobs, and that professional fields such as law and medicine will no longer be pathways to financial security. I think they are probably correct in the long term, but am not clear on the timing. Let’s assume they are close and that human intelligence will be surpassed by a machine before our kindergarten students graduate college, and that before today’s youngest students are 30, there won’t be a job they can do that a machine won’t do better. What should we do? [Technofuturists are chronically wrong about stuff like this, but it's a thought experiment, so I'll give it to you -dls]
Should we still teach foreign languages when Skype calls will be interpreted in real-time better than a professional translator? Should we teach music skills when there are already player pianos that surpass the concert pianist? Should we teach finance, literature, political science, psychology, biology, engineering, pottery, web development, history, game design, agriculture, architecture, etc. when an artificially intelligent system surpasses humans in each domain? What will be left for humans to do once we’ve been surpassed by machines in our ability to critique, synthesize, analyze, or create?
I don’t know.
I do think that the work of being a young person will remain relatively the same: to understand their world, to know themselves, to know who we are as a people and how we came to this point, and to have the character, curiosity, and compassion to explore the possible prudently but courageously.
[Now if you look at the above list of fields and compare them to the list of things that will be relatively the same, some things on the list of fields, like web development and finance, are not like other things, like history or biology. Just sayin'. -dls]
What should schools do? We should continue to teach, to mentor, and to help young people find their bearings in the world, make sense of the data, separate the signal from the noise; we should inspire them to read and think, to question and dream. We should try things, but remain rooted firmly in the things that matter most to a life well lived.
[Okay we are veering dangerously close to Delores Umbridge territory here, this vein of conservatism could be used to challenge ethnic studies and other of the "new" interdisciplinary fields. I think they are going to pass the "read and think, question and dream" test, but you can bet that I'll be carefully laying the groundwork for that going forward. Also, I'll be using "read and think, question and dream" a lot in the coming months and years.]
As much as we all love to bitch about administrators, my boss wrote the above in a letter to parents this past week. It's good to know somebody has my back. Who is a lucky guy? This guy!