“As part of the Education for a Changing World project, the NSW Department of Education has established the Education: Future Frontiers Occasional Paper Series. The series will bring together essays commissioned by the department from distinguished Australian and international authors to stimulate debate and discussion about Artificial Intelligence (AI), education and 21st century skill needs.”
The purpose of this blog post is to highlight common threads gleaned from these “occasional papers” commissioned by my employer to explore the never-resolved challenge of planning the future, not just for us “in education” – but as a society. It also feels necessary to make a few suggestions and point out what is not said by the authors and to wrap some context around it all from the point of view of a citizen of NSW, father (with children in primary and secondary school) and school-based educator.
These papers all suggest the following in some way:
- Traditional skills (updated for contemporary times) are essential for maintaining civil society. Citizens must be critically multi-literate with a strong sense of context and history. Enlightenment values are essential.
- Creativity, imagination, emotional intelligence, collaboration and communication skills will assume an importance not traditionally emphasised in edu-systems for three reasons: 1) to maintain employability; 2) to provide a citizenry with skills to shape the future; 3) to help with increased leisure-time (the ‘fruits of civilisation’?).
- The cognitive power needed for an individual to fully participate in society will require a quality education previously reserved for a small elite. Technological knowledge is essential but must be complemented by strong ethical decision-making abilities in a time of rapid social change and civic need.
- The purpose of education should be focused on creating a fair and just society.
After reading these sensible, intelligent and perceptive papers one cannot escape the thought that most of the changes mooted have been essential for some time now* and are not really made any more urgent by the coming (already here) AI or digital revolutions. They have been urgent for at least two decades and generally similar papers could have been written about the time we were connected to the World Wide Web in schools. It should noted that at this time we commenced implementing standardised testing and wrote managerial, outcomes-based syllabi rather than focusing on the genuine re-structuring of our schools where children, to paraphrase Sir Ken Robinson, are batch-processed by age. We have been shuffling digital paper, sorting out the lettering on the electronic filing cabinets and spending an inordinate amount of money getting ready for 1990 for some time now. As Yuval Noah Harari eloquently puts it, “the governmental tortoise cannot keep up with the technological hare”. It is also worth quoting Harari on school systems:
“After both factories and government ministries became accustomed to thinking in the language of numbers, schools followed suit. They started to gauge the worth of each student according to his or her average mark, whereas the worth of each teacher and principal was judged according to the school’s overall average. Once bureaucrats adopted this yardstick, reality was transformed. Originally, schools were supposed to focus on enlightening and educating students, and marks were merely a means of measuring success. But naturally enough schools soon began focusing on achieving high marks. As every child, teacher and inspector knows, the skills required to get high marks in an exam are not the same as a true understanding of literature, biology or mathematics. Every child, teacher and inspector also knows that when forced to choose between the two, most schools will go for the marks.”
All education systems are shackled to ideology. It can be no other way but there does need to be a rational approach to ensuring that more than lip-service is given to stated values. Neo-liberal policies are increasingly acknowledged as making it challenging for democracies to truly reflect values that are in favour of a “fair and just society”. This is demonstrably true in our country, the UK and USA where the already privileged have benefited from a transfer of public resources into private hands. This has been an economic process but it has also been philosophic as the traditional jobs and resources of government are outsourced. It is also relevant to mention that those “Enlightenment values” have a challenge in a society where a much larger percentage of politicians have religious affiliations than do their constituents. This is relevant when the public record so clearly shows the history of funding education in a secular state like Australia.
Citizens in a democracy could possibly think and vote their way out of any Gordian Knot if educated well in the rights and responsibilities of the individual in a civil society. All of the authors emphasise the importance of the citizenry having the cognitive skills to shape their individual and collective destinies. Of course, everything has changed since the widespread adoption of television in the 1960s and then devices connected to the Internet, more specifically the World Wide Web. Schooling has only superficially changed in this time. The critical thinking skills needed to navigate the mass media environment have never been so desperately needed in an era when propaganda is called “fake news”. This leads me back to what the occasional papers espouse. For those who are yet to read them here are some selected quotes with the occasional comment:
On Education in the 21st Century by Richard Watson (link)
“UK futurist Richard Watson is the author of Digital vs Human and Future Files. This broad ranging essay reflects on the purpose and value of education in a rapidly changing world where young people are facing accelerating technological change.”
Watson writes personably and sensibly about education more than about our education system. I found myself nodding mostly but there is lots of feel good stuff that many will consider wishful thinking. The big plus is that it is not written in management-speak and there were none of those “weasel-words” that Don Watson railed against. To paraphrase George Orwell, Richard Watson writes like a human being.
Watson says, “Never confuse movement with progress…” and these are probably the five most important words in the document. Our system has been paddling like mad but not keeping-up as the salmon whizz-by, heading upstream. Largely managerial solutions are unlikely to produce what is needed for a genuinely improved education system. In fact, many will just result in people who may be able to assist choosing alternate careers. I would agree strongly with his assertion that “Individuality and innovation are strongly linked. But innovation only truly flourishes in societies that are diverse and tolerant of other individuals, especially those with seemingly strange or non-conformist ideas.“ Schools are difficult places for most non-conformists.
“Think about how you’d do things differently if you were building the education system from scratch – a new system with no legacies or liabilities whatsoever. One in which resources, the media, the unions, politicians, parents and the business environment weren’t a factor at all. What would you do? More importantly, perhaps, what would you stop doing? Spend about a year thinking about this.”
One does wonder why a multi-skilled team is not formed and given the year Watson recommends with the brief: what would a contemporary education be like for Year 7 students entering an ‘average comprehensive school’ (ICSEA 950-1050) over six years? Create a vision that can be trialled with a Year 7 cohort in an already existing high school. This team would have to be practically innovative. Their vision needs to be doable. They may be better to write a narrative that shows parents, students, teachers, educates and politicians what it would look and feel like – as well as the challenges – rather than a paper.
“I’m a fan of Slow Education, which, like Slow Food, teaches us to take our time. Both Slow Food and Slow Education are people-centric, reflective and aim to ensure that individuals appreciate where the things they consume come from. Both emphasise the importance of local difference, craft and quality over standardised production and cheap ingredients.“
Hallelujah! Watson also sounds a warning note about PISA noting the apparently impressive results of some countries are not reflected by other measures, including high youth suicide rates, stagnant economies with a lack of creativity and imagination required to do something about this state of affairs.
“Wouldn’t it be lovely if the internet got switched off on Sundays so that we could recharge ourselves? This isn’t go to happen, but how about banning mobile phones on school premises until the age of sixteen? OMG. This won’t go down well with students, but would remove distraction and could dilute peer-pressure and online abuse. The idea would apply to teachers and parents on school premises too.”
Banning phones always gets a rousing response from teachers and parents (and some students) but the reality is having systems to manage ownership/use is much more sensible. A bad law is one that cannot be policed. Much better to address wellbeing and etiquette issues.
“Teaching needs to become one of the most desirable professions. I might be wrong, but it strikes me that paying teachers a lot more could dramatically increase the quantity and quality of teachers. If paying more directly won’t work, how about making teaching a tax-free profession? Or how about building schools with heavily subsidised or free accommodation on site for teachers?”
What odds would you give of this happening?
The AI Revolution by Toby Walsh (link)
“Toby Walsh is a leading researcher and Scientia Professor of Artificial Intelligence at Data61, University of New South Wales, and was named as one of the Knowledge Nation 100 “rock stars” of Australia’s digital revolution in 2015. This paper outlines the rapid advances in AI and robotics, the societal and political challenges that arise from them and the historical lessons to be understood. It includes reflections on how education can be a powerful tool to enable us to adapt to the changes just over the horizon.”
Walsh is very readable and paints a picture that allows one to clearly see how Australia is positioned technologically and economically. We have some advantages but must be agile to avoid serious degradation of our quality of life and strains to the social structure. He emphasises that we need to get cracking.
“Australia is one of the countries close to the front of this revolution. Australia punches above its weight in AI research. In August 2017, Australia hosts both the leading Machine Learning conference (ICML 2017) and the leading Artificial Intelligence conference (IJCAI 2017). A reflection of Australia’s standing internationally is that Australia is the first country outside North America to have hosted the IJCAI conference for a second time. In addition, there is a healthy startup community…”
“Australia has a necessity to be at the front of this revolution. We have a high wage economy, and many low wage neighbours. We can only hope to compete with the efficiencies brought about by greater automation. With commodity prices falling, automation has kept our mines competitive. Australia is also cursed by distances, both within the country and to other countries. Around 10 percent of our GDP goes into transportation costs. Autonomous vehicles could drastically reduce these transportation costs, and provide a means of reducing CO2 emissions3.”
“The impact that AI will have on society will therefore likely be felt early on in Australia compared to many other developed countries. We will not have the luxury of observing what happens in the US or elsewhere. We will need to lead the way in adapting to the changes.”
Walsh’s analysis is wide-ranging for such a brief paper and he articulates concisely what most of us have been thinking about from our reading and ‘feeds’ (or even if only reading the newspapers and watching a news bulletin every once and a while). He also emphasises ethics as an important field to strengthen. Walsh is cognisant of gender issues and also cites creativity as a fundamental driver for future wellbeing.
“It is a little surprising that there has not been greater concern within society about the impact of technology on our privacy. The Snowden revelations should have been a wake-up call to society about the potential abuses. Few technologists were surprised that our emails were being read. Email is one of the easiest forms of communication that can be monitored. Unlike other forms of communication like the telephone or post, email is already in a form that is machine readable.”
“In the Industrial Revolution, we still had a cognitive advantage over machines. It is less clear what advantages we will maintain over the machines this time.”
“At the time of the Industrial Revolution, the world took several large shocks which helped society to adapt to the change. Two World Wars and the intervening Great Depression set the stage for what economists are now starting to recognise as an unusual reversal in inequality. The introduction of the welfare state, of labour laws and unions, and of universal education began a period of immense social change. We started to educate more of the workforce, giving them jobs rather than allowing machines simply to make them unemployed. At the same time, we provided a safety net for many, giving them economic security rather than the workhouse when machines made them unemployed.”
“In fifty years time, we may look back at the next decades as a golden age for ethics. In handing over many of our decisions to machines, we will need to make explicit in computer code many of our society’s ethical choices. This will require us to have much greater clarity and consensus about what these ethical choices are.”
“A creative population will be able to keep itself employed and ahead of the machines. Even if machines can be creative, they cannot speak to the human experience: about love, death, and all the things that make us unique. A creative population will also be able to take advantage of the free time that automation may give us. It follows that creativity can and should be taught more actively. If machines take over the sweat, this could leave us with the time to create the next Renaissance.”
“The under-representation of women in AI and robotics is undesirable for many reasons. Women will, for instance, be disadvantaged in an increasingly technically focused job market. It may also result in the construction of AI systems that fail to address issues relevant to half the population, and even to systems that perpetuate sexism. More initiatives are therefore needed to get young girls interested in STEM in general, and AI and robotics in particular.”
“Data in government should be opened up so that outside parties can innovate. Education should be at the centre of this open data revolution.”
“It will take some political courage to put education data at the centre of an open government as this will, for instance, expose where the system is failing students. But there will be many benefits.”
“Education can become more evidence based. Parents and students can be more informed in their choices. Teachers can share best practice. Heads can identify areas in their schools needing improvement. Universities can target disadvantaged students who might not otherwise benefit from higher education. And high tech companies like Google and IBM, as well as startups, can produce software optimised to actual learning experiences.”
The issue of school/student data is a hot one. Walsh can see that innovation is desirable and that this data will fuel improved teaching and learning or funding being allocated where needed. Many would suggest it is more likely the data collected from students will be used in controversial or inappropriate ways, like NAPLAN data mined from the MySchool website for the benefit of real estate agencies. A key question: which private companies are trusted, ethical ones that have the common weal firmly in mind and balanced with share prices and profitability? The question also arises, how will data collected on those under 18 years of age be kept private rather that potentially being used illegally? Health, discipline issues, counsellor reports, teacher commentary on welfare trackers and reports are just some of the data collected along with learning information. The ‘choice’ that Walsh mentions is hotly (and fairly) contested. Those without economic and cultural capital tend to have little choice in the marketplace.
Where Walsh is clearly correct is when he says:
“A successful society will be one that embraces the opportunity that these technologies promise, but at the same time prepares and helps its citizens through this time of immense change.”
Educating for a Digital Future – The Challenge by Marc Tucker (link)
Marc Tucker is President of the US-based National Centre on Education and the Economy and Visiting Distinguished Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.The Challenge describes how AI, automation, robotics, natural language processing and related disciplines are evolving and the significant consequences for work, jobs and the distribution of income.
Marc Tucker writes with authority, especially if you come to his work fresh. He has been ‘around’ for longer than I have been teaching. His name is connected with the implementation of market philosophies in education, including the implementation of standards-based education throughout the USA. More recently, he has championed the common core reforms. Few of us would believe that American educational solutions are where we should be looking for answers but that is unfair, when considering this paper, which is excellent. Let’s get to the nub with a few quotes:
“The American economy is splitting in two pieces. One piece—highly educated and skilled— is benefitting hugely from the new technologies I have been describing—at least so far—and the other, undereducated and less skilled, is being put out of work by them.”
Politically, this has become obvious over the last year or so with Brexit, the growth in political extremism and the election of a reality television star and casino operator to the presidency of the most powerful nation in the world. Unless economic decisions are made that support less-educated citizens to be able to live decent lives the divide will grow, making it difficult to govern. The data about what percentage of the wealth (not just) American billionaires possess complared to other citizens is stark and very publicly available. Educating the populace to make rational decisions, when (they feel) they are being ‘screwed’ is fast-becoming the challenge as funds are directed away from public-infrastructure, including schools, and anti-Enlightenment politicians and policies are becoming a disturbing new norm. It is also clear that many citizens are not particularly interested in upgrading their skills and view education negatively. This is ultimately the greatest of challenges for a democracy which needs an educated populace to thrive.
“…led me to two conclusions. One is that the first stage of the evolution of these technologies is well advanced in its implementation and is now driving the economic divide I just mentioned. That stage has been characterised by what is becoming a vast extinction in the advanced industrial countries of the kind of jobs requiring basic literacy that the industrial model of public education was designed to prepare most graduates for. If that were the end of the story, the solution would be to redesign our education systems to prepare all of our graduates for the kind of work that our elites have been doing—professional work requiring complex thinking skills, deep knowledge in multiple domains, strong communication skills and social skills, strong values and strong character. That is an enormous task, but one that a growing number of countries are learning how to do.”
“If the human community continues on its current course, Harari’s vision of the future seems all too probable to me, a future in which a small number of humans manage to become literally immortal and to live on forever a life of immense power and wealth, a larger number may live quite well—though not forever—in the style of Renaissance artists, thinkers and craftspeople serving the ultra wealthy and the vast mass of the people thought of as surplus labor are paid out with a universal basic income. It is all too possible that will be a world, again like Renaissance Italy, in which the wealthy clans are constantly duking it out with the other clans, only this time with weapons of unimaginable destructive power. That is not a world I want for my grandchildren—that is, after all, whom we are talking about here—even if they are able to become members of one of the first two classes.”
I would highly recommend exploring Marc Tucker’s reading list at the end of his first paper. Start with Yuval Noah Harari who I quoted earlier in this piece. Tucker could have pushed much harder to emphasise one of Harari’s points about the potential impact of coming technological change for individuals:
“…in an upgraded world you will feel like a Neanderthal hunter in Wall Street. You won’t belong.”
Educating for a Digital Future – Notes on the Curriculum by Marc Tucker (link)
This second paper from Marc Tucker follows The Challenge with an exploration of the implications for what young people will need to know and be able to do to cope with this world, and the challenges that this presents to education systems worldwide.
“As I envision this system, it will be crucially important for students to understand and embrace the core values of the Enlightenment, upon which all the progress humanity has made since has been based, especially reasoning from evidence. This applies to physics and history, mathematics and the electronics lab. It is not so because you saw it on the internet or it is here in your textbook. How do you know this is true? Where is the evidence? How can we judge the merits of two policy proposals? Two views of the same historical event? Two proposed treatments for the symptoms this patient is showing? Two interpretations of this novel?”
“The kind of history I have in mind is history that enables the students to understand how power has been acquired over the years and how it has been used; why, through most of history, government has been run by autocrats to benefit the few, not the many; how the march of science and evidence-based inquiry that has provided the incredible improvements in the human condition that have marked the last few hundred years of history have gone hand in hand with democracy and freely-elected government and what could happen if that light were extinguished.”
There is a great deal of evidence that American education systems are failing dismally to prevent the kind of world that Tucker fears. ABC Political Editor Chris Uhlmann’s recent analysis of the G 20 summit in Hamburg posited that:
“Donald Trump has pressed ‘fast forward’ on the decline of the United States as a global leader. He managed to isolate his nation, to confuse and alienate his allies and to diminish America.”
The failure of American schools to educate the citizenry in civics and citizenship must bear some of the responsibility for the election of such a leader so ill-versed in democratic traditions and values. There’s much more that can (and has) been said about Trump’s career trajectory and how it represents the twin-demons of demagogic politics and manufactured celebrity using the mass media.
Not just schools
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way it treats its children.” Nelson Mandela, 1995
These occasional papers are not just relevant to those thinking about schools and education in NSW. A few thoughts:
- Government-wide, inter-departmental planning is essential as “education” is not a solution in itself. There needs to be much more co-operation on Big Picture directions, ethics and the values that inform cohesive decision-making. The environment, employment, housing, health and wellbeing are key areas for collaboration. There’s lots to be re-thought and it won’t happen without increased and de-politicised collaboration.
- Invest in 0-7 year olds as the 2003 Australian of the Year, Professor Fiona Stanley has implored us to do for most of her career. We need to think longer term as a society. It makes complete sense to focus on our youngest Australians to prepare them for life, work and citizenship in what will soon be the 22nd century. Another 5000 words could be written on this but I restrict myself to saying this focus would do more to improve lives and our society than any other.
- Euthanasia. Yes, that’s right, it is currently being debated in the NSW parliament. Unless we look ethically at how money and resources are invested we cannot possibly fund education for our youngest citizens appropriately. It is well-documented that costs in the last month of a person’s life are very expensive. Often these people wish to choose the time of their death but our current law prohibits this from happening legally. Back in March I attended the Brain Science Roundtable at the office of the The Advocate for Children and Young People* and listened to a range of eminent thinkers clearly advocating for governments to shift focus and act on what is needed to improve societal outcomes by focusing on the beginning of life rather than the last days. We need to resource the first years of life and it makes economic and ethical sense to look at how this can be done.
In closing, it seems pertinent to mention that last week the ICT in schools for teaching and learning audit assessed how well New South Wales public schools are using ICT to improve teaching and learning. It focussed on planning and teacher and student use of ICT. It examined whether:
- the Department identifies key strategic opportunities to enhance the use of ICT platforms and technologies in schools
- teachers are integrating ICT into classroom practice
- the Department monitors the impact of ICT on student learning.
The key findings ask by July 2018, the Department of Education:
1. Review the Technology for Learning program and school ICT support resourcing to determine whether resourcing is adequate for modern school requirements.
2. Develop a program to improve wireless networks in all NSW schools, for instance by expanding the Connecting Country Schools Program to all NSW schools.
3. Implement an assessment of school ‘ICT maturity’, and use this to target assistance to those schools requiring support with forward planning for ICT.
4. Improve the use of evidence to inform plans and strategies, including:
- more detailed monitoring of teacher and student access to and use of ICT
- evaluating the impact of teacher professional learning on student outcomes
- further examining the links between ICT and student outcomes.
Technology and how we employ technology needs much more focus in schools. This has been the case for some time now.
* Some thinking from the 1990s is particularly prescient:
“I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness…
The dumbing down of American is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.”
Carl Sagan, (1995)
- The primary political and philosophical issue of the next century will be the definition of who we are.
- Once a computer achieves human intelligence it will necessarily roar past it.
- It is in the nature of exponential growth that events develop extremely slowly for extremely long periods of time, but as one glides through the knee of the curve, events erupt at an increasingly furious pace. And that is what we will experience as we enter the twenty-first century.
- The speed and density of computation have been doubling every three years (at the beginning of the twentieth century) to one year (at the end of the twentieth century), regardless of the type of hardware used. …Despite many decades of progress since the first calculating equipment was used in the 1890 census, it was not until the mid-1960s that this phenomenon was even noticed (although Alan Turing had an inkling of it in 1950).
- The Law of Accelerating Returns: As order exponentially increases, time exponentially speeds up (that is, the time interval between salient events grows shorter as time passes). The Law… applies specifically to evolutionary processes.
- Order… is information that fits a purpose.
- Sometimes, a deeper order—a better fit to a purpose—is achieved through simplification rather than further increases in complexity.
- A primary reason that evolution—of life-forms or technology—speeds up is that it builds on its own increasing order.
Featured image: Screenshot from Education: Future Frontiers Occasional Paper Series